“Closure” is a term I have heard bandied about by many of my friends over the years, but I have always wondered what it really means. For example, after my friend Daphne’s long-distance boyfriend broke up with her over the phone, she told me she needed to fly from NYC to London to see him in person to “get closure.” Even after she saw him in person, she still didn’t feel like things were really over. The meaning of closure is something I have grappled with when trying to make sense of one of my own past relationships. I spent the better part of 10 years trying to get closure with The Question Mark so that I could move on, trying everything from writing him long treatises on why our relationship could never work, to hashing things out in person in order to finally say “goodbye.”
Because none of my techniques worked, I tried to find some psychological research to get a better grasp on what closure means and was sadly disappointed to learn that there isn’t a lot of research out there on the topic. One reason for this is that closure has never really been defined.1 I was able to find a dissertation study involving interviews with a small number of women coping with relationship loss; the doctoral student investigator found that when women described “closure,” it was associated with knowing why the relationship ended and no longer feeling attachment or pain.1 While this definition is also typically what I think about when I use the word, my continued confusion is related to whether knowing why a relationship has ended is necessary in order to have less pain or attachment to the lost partner.
I turned to social psychological theory to see what answers it could provide. Attachment theorists would argue that closure occurs when we eliminate ambiguous feelings we have toward a person who we feel emotionally connected to.2 When relationships end, people first protest, then despair (e.g., be sad), and then “reorganize,”3 meaning that their self-concepts need to change in order to no longer include the loved one. SofR’s very own Dr. Gary Lewandowski has researched what happens to our “self” when we experience relationship loss. He found that the more we self-expand in our relationships—meaning, the more our self-concept grows as a result of being involved with our partners—the greater the loss of self we experience when the relationship ends.4 From an attachment perspective, then, closure would mean eliminating or fully distancing oneself from an entire aspect of the self that developed while with another person. For example, while I dated The Question Mark, he and I both loved to listen to Coldplay albums together. The band’s music was pretty much a soundtrack for our relationship. After we broke up, it was always too painful to listen to any of the band’s songs without feeling the loss of the relationship. I could either avoid the music, or listen to it and think of him. Either way, these tactics did not really seem like true closure.
Need for Closure5 is another theory borrowed from basic perception research—the extension to social relationships is that people get closure in order to see the world in a more simplistic way. In other words, individuals who have a need for closure desire clear-cut and definitive answers about life and relationships (e.g., I need to know exactly why the relationship ended). While some people need more closure than others, some are better able to make swift, decisive decisions about ending things.6 Researchers have found that when people feel like they need closure but are not able to cognitively, they have poor mental health outcomes (e.g., depression).7 I guess this may explain why it was so frustrating for me the last few years to want to be “over” The Question Mark but not be able to let it go, and why my friend Daphne did not feel closure after traveling across the globe to get it. Even considering this theory, I was still left wondering whether it is really possible or even healthy to completely “close off” our thoughts and feelings about meaningful past relationships in order to experience closure.
Some therapists have gone so far to state that true closure is a “myth” and impossible to achieve. Indeed, many individuals experience unending loss that is ambiguous and open-ended. Therapists argue that instead of trying to find closure, which may never be possible, it is best to find meaning, even if there is no final “end.”8 The take-home message is to be OK with not knowing “why” things ended. Being OK with not having all the answers can then lead to deeper personal growth because it bolsters our ability to tolerate anxiety associated with ambiguity or uncertainty in our lives.9 In other words, we can never know all the reasons that some of our relationships end. Accepting this (even when it is uncomfortable to do so) makes dealing with other uncertainties in life easier.
So, if there is no such thing as true closure, then it may be best to adjust expectations about what grief and loss really are. This means coming to terms with what the lost relationship means, acknowledging its significance, and then continuing on to find growth and meaning in other areas of life and relationships. Once I finally started moving on with my life and let The Consultant into my heart, my need to “get closure” with The Question Mark has diminished to the point of almost nonexistence. Do I still love him? Sure, he was an important part of my life for a long period of time. Do I love The Consultant and want to invest my time, love, and energy with him today? Absolutely. Every day. I think that is what closure means (for me, at least!).