“I need closure” is the justification for heaven knows how many terrible post-breakup decisions. Plenty of people claim they need “closure” and then sleep with their ex, call their ex, meet with their ex or pick a fight with their ex “just one more time.” Rather than solving the problem, someone gets hurt when their ex does not leap back into their arms or magically disclose everything that the person seeking closure ever wondered about. 

Some people also use their lack of “closure” to excuse plenty of awful mistakes that they make after their bad breakup that don’t involve contacting their ex. They might end up in either a bad “rebound” relationship or end up using someone who would like a normal relationship to get revenge on their ex. They might Facebook stalk their ex, destroy their ex’s things or threaten their ex’s new significant other. 

None of these are a good situation for anyone involved, but all of them appear to have the same motivation: a lack of closure. The solution, seems like it would be to make sure everyone gets closure after a relationship ends. So, what is closure? Can a person ever really achieve it?

According to “Psychology Today,” closure is defined as “knowing the reason a romantic relationship was terminated and no longer feeling emotional attachment or pain, thereby allowing for the establishment of new and healthy relationships.”  A lack of closure, then, is a lack of understanding. The human brain hates an unsolved problem or uncompleted task. The brain takes a long time to let go of an unsolved problem and will continue to work on solving the problem even after a person’s conscious thoughts have turned to something new. This phenomenon is why students remember the answer to a test question hours after school has ended and why people find themselves suddenly wide awake at three in the morning having formulated the perfect answer to the question their manager asked them the previous afternoon. 

This same subconscious obsession with an unsolved problem only gets worse when it meets the uncontrollable emotions born out of a bad breakup. Without closure, people are left constantly rehashing their relationship and playing an agonizing game of “what if.” “What if I had done this differently?” “What if I had told her I loved her sooner?” “What if I had been more patient with him?” People also question themselves and wonder what they could have done to have salvaged the relationship.

An answer to the question of “why did you leave me” would let the person needing closure lay their doubts to rest, or, at a minimum, have a framework to begin moving forward. Unfortunately, many people who claim to “need closure” want a very specific answer to their questions. They do not want the truth. They want an explanation that relieves them of all guilt or culpability for the ending of the relationship.

For a person to really gain closure, they need to be honest with themselves and own up to their role in the death of the relationship. They also need to acknowledge the reason they want closure. If the person  needing closure is hoping to be told that they were a perfect angel and had nothing at all to do with the end of the relationship, they are waiting for something that will never happen. Instead, they need to think realistically about what they want and do a bit of self-reflection. Why are they holding on to the past? Why are they afraid of letting it go? Are they really holding on to their ex as a person or the sense of companionship the relationship gave them? 

During these moments of self-reflection, the person seeking closure should also think very honestly about their ex. It is easy to either vilify a recent ex or to romanticize a past relationship. Both these things, however, can lead to a person needing closure. They never really understand why the relationship ended because they are not thinking about the actual relationship. They are only seeing it through either rose- or revenge-colored glasses

Some time is necessary to grieve what could have been or what was. There is no set time for grieving a relationship, but it should not last for years. Avoid listening non-stop to sad breakup songs which will only prolong the grief. Instead, a person could write a letter to their ex about their hurtful actions, but don’t send this letter. That will only pick a new fight.

After a bit of time has passed, begin looking at the break up through a redemptive lens, and focus on the good things that might come out of the relationship ending. Because a bad breakup can also affect a person’s own self-esteem, they should concentrate on the good in themselves as well. They could make a list of their gifts and talents, and surround themselves with supportive people. They should also renew their attention on what they need or want in life, and make a plan for the immediate future.

Finally, a ritual is a powerful symbolic moment to help a person gain closure. Since rituals are based on intention and action, they can do more for the healing process than just talking with friends. One thing a person can do is to make a “breakup bonfire” and burn old love notes, pictures or mementoes. This, however, should not take place right away. A person who is still angry or grieving might well throw away something that they will later wish they had kept. 

Taking such steps will help a person find closure, but there may always be questions in the back of their mind. The unfortunate reality is that few people every completely understand the reasons behind a breakup. What most people do successfully find is the ability to leave their overwhelming emotional attachment to their ex behind them, and move forward. The pain of the breakup dulls, and the person replaces bitterness with optimism. They may not know why their ex was so cruel to them, but they do know what they want moving forward. They may not have every answer to their questions, but they are able to leave their confusion in the past and focus on the future instead.
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