What Is Closure, & Can We Ever Really Get It?

Dec 28, 2017 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Image: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

Everyone has at least one relationship that ended under unsatisfying circumstances. It doesn't necessarily have to be romantic, either — this could happen with a friend, colleague or family member too. And if it was romantic, this is more than mere "ghosting" after a few dates. After situations like this, you may be seeking closure.

But what is closure? It's a term thrown around a lot, sometimes to legitimize why it takes us so long to get over someone — some sort of magical moment or connection or revelation from the person who hurt you that will make you feel better about the way things ended.

A few months ago, I met someone I hadn't seen in almost seven years in the name of "closure." It was someone I never really got over, someone who hurt me in a way that has stuck with me all this time. Years of hatred toward him mellowed into intense dislike and relegating him to the back of my mind.

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Of course, that's when he got in touch out of nowhere, saying he was going to be in New York and asking if I wanted to meet up. At first, I ignored his message, adamant about not opening that can of worms again. But as I thought more about it (and discussed it in therapy), I realized I might have the opportunity for something few people get: the ever-elusive closure. After all, he was the one who wanted to see me; I was in control of the situation. I could let him know how I felt, see if I got an explanation and at any point, if I wasn't satisfied with the interaction, I could leave — ideally, no worse off than before we met.

Aside from my therapist, anyone else I mentioned this plan to was less than enthusiastic. They asked me serious questions about what I was hoping to get out of meeting him and how I'd handle it if things didn't go the way I wanted them to. I know they were concerned about my well-being, and I absolutely saw their point, but I also knew I probably wouldn't have this opportunity again.

Seriously, what is closure?

To get a better grasp on the whole concept of closure, I spoke with Dr. Adam Fried, a clinical psychologist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He does think closure exists, but depends on how you define it and how you think it can be achieved.

"To me, it's not an all-or-nothing concept," Fried says. "I think of closure as achieving a psychological acceptance or sense of resolution of a situation or experience. In relationships, many believe achieving such a resolution requires a 'final' conversation (or confrontation) with a former romantic partner, but in my experience, this requires careful consideration of whether the person is psychologically ready, their expectations for the conversation and weighing of possible risks and benefits."

For example, I could meet this person, and rather than being able to make up for not having a satisfying conclusion, something could happen that makes me feel even worse than I did before. Clearly, I did not want this outcome.

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Closure for many means understanding the reasons why a relationship ended and resolving the feelings associated with this termination, Fried explains.

"In my work, I emphasize that closure often starts with examining your own feelings about the situation and evaluating the emotional impact of a relationship ending," he says.

Feelings about a breakup can be affected by a host of factors, Fried explains. Some of these may be personal, like how you respond to change, why this relationship was particularly meaningful, what it means to you to be in a relationship (and alone) and your expectations and hopes for the future. Other important components have to do with the actual relationship, including the duration and intensity of the relationship, whether there were children or there was a formal commitment (like marriage or living together) and negotiating intertwined lives (such as shared friends, activities or even workplaces).

What's also interesting is that the extent to which you feel you must have closure can also have to do with your personality. According to Fried, researchers have been studying a concept called “need for closure," and while this isn’t exclusive to romantic relationships, it has to do with the person’s tolerance for ambiguity and the extent to which they tend to try to reduce uncertainty through quick and definite judgments.

"Many who express a strong need for closure in a relationship may feel a need to resolve any confusion about why a relationship ended and seek to understand the reasons for the breakup, especially if they suspect it was precipitated by something they did," Fried adds. "Others may seek closure because they feel it’s extremely important for the other person to understand why their actions were hurtful."

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Tips for getting closure

When people want to seek closure through a conversation with a former partner, Fried encourages them to consider the following:

  • Think about the reasons you want to have a closure conversation and your goals. Do you want to make sure the person understands your position, or are you hoping to gain clarity about the reasons for the breakup? It’s also important to consider whether you’re hoping (consciously or not) a subsequent meeting will result in reconciliation. This requires an honest conversation with yourself about your feelings and goals.
  • What do you expect to happen after this conversation and are these expectations reasonable? Do you believe this conversation will result in the other person being convinced by your arguments and expressing regret for past actions? "I encourage clients to consider what it would mean to them if the former partner agreed with them or expressed regret or, conversely, if they disagreed and maintained their position." says Fried.
  • If the risks outweigh the possible benefits, can your goals for closure be met without actually having a conversation? For example, goals of psychological acceptance and resolution can be achieved through other methods, such as writing open letters (letters that are not necessarily sent), role-plays or processing emotions related to the relationship loss by reexamining thoughts, feelings, expectations and beliefs about relationships and the romantic partner with a therapist.

If you're curious, I did meet with the person described above, and do feel like I got closure. I didn't hold back talking about why I was disappointed with how things ended before (a few cocktails helped with this), and got answers and an apology — essentially, it was the best case scenario. I'm also aware it could have gone horribly wrong and am thankful it didn't. But overall, the experience helped me move on.

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