“Need for closure” first coined by the social psychologist Arie Kurglanski in the 1990s refers to a framework for decision-making that allows us to resolve ambiguity, obtain clarity and achieve serenity. Obtaining closure means knowing why something ended, and no longer feeling any emotional distress associated with the event. This is oftentimes not something that can be easily achieved during a relationship break-down. Within the period of that phone call, dreaded conversation or the split-second of reading a sent text (or even being ghosted!), your world could metaphorically fall apart, and your mind begins searching for reasons as to why and how this even happened.
The need for closure can be explained by several cognitive phenomena. Firstly, a relationship breakdown results in cognitive dissonance – that is, the sharp contrast between what you thought you knew (e.g., loving relationship, being a ‘significant other’) to the sudden reality of your new single status. The disparity between both realities is oftentimes very jarring which leads to the search for answers and meaning. Our tolerance or intolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity is a second cognitive factor at play as we try to make sense of what has just happen, why did the relationship end, and there is the need to understand if the relationship was truly significant or special, and for ourselves to be validated. Individuals who report a greater need for order and predictability usually report more emotional distress than those more comfortable with ambiguity and the sense of not-knowing.
Relationship dissolution results in a chasm where our lives as we knew it once stood, and we often feel bereft. Yet this makes perfect sense when we think of how much of our lives were previously entwined with that of a significant loved one – your sense of self, your friendship groups, maybe you were close to each other’s family, or were perhaps cohabiting or planning the rest of your lives together when that relationship bombshell goes off. Our self-concept takes a real hit when the relationship ends, especially if there had been self-expansion or a sense of growth as the result of being in a relationship with someone else. The loss of sense of self can result in a sense of loss of control, and achieving that closure becomes the way to feel more in control.
In trying to achieve closure, it can be useful to ask ourselves:
What did this relationship mean to me, and therefore what does the end of the relationship signify, and to grieve for that.
The dissolution of any relationship, no matter how welcomed, is tinged with sadness due to the loss of an attachment relationship. Giving yourself time to grieve and not judging yourself for that is important for recovering from a relationship break-up. Take your time to heal from those losses.
Acknowledging that the dissolution of a relationship is never one party’s fault – rather it is a combination of you, me, and the dynamics that take place between us and with our environments.
Research has shown that negative beliefs about the self and cognitions reflecting self-blame were the strongest correlates of break-up related emotional distress. Recognising that it is not “all my fault” allows us to begin to repair that self-narrative and rebuild our self-identity, even though it can be hard especially when it was the other party who broke it off first.
Look for patterns in my relationship history and reflect if these patterns might be getting in the way of finding sustainable love, and learn from those experiences
Oftentimes the lack of closure results in us wanting to make things different, to figure out why the relationship ended, and blaming ourselves paradoxically gives us that. Looking for these patterns in a more wholistic manner can be an alternative for repairing that cognitive dissonance and can help us not only begin to make sense of the relationship dissolution, but also to begin to feel more in control, and therefore in a position wherein we can begin to make a difference for ourselves and to plan our lives, rather than to figure out what it was that we may have done.
Finally, find purpose in the pain.
Research has indicated that when people adopt ‘redemptive appraisals’ or positive appraisals to negative situations, they reported reduced emotional distress. However, this effect was cumulative and occurs over time. Hence, while it is essential to give ourselves time, it is just as important that we reappraise the situations and reappraise ourselves, and to make meaning of what happened in the way that makes sense and allows us to begin to see that silver lining.
Fortunately, research has also shown that we get better at choosing partners with age.
Boelen, P., & Reijntjes, A. H. A. (2013). Negative cognitions in emotional problems following romantic relationship break-ups. Stress and Health, 25(1), 11-19. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.1219
Harman, J. J. (2013, October 21). “I need closure!” Why it is not possible to get it. Luvze. https://www.luvze.com/i-need-closure-why-it-is-not-possible-to-get-it/
Lewandowski, G. W. Jr., Aron, A., Bassis, S., & Kunak, J. (2006). Losing a self-expanding relationship: Implications for the self-concept. Personal Relationships, 13, 317-331.
Ramsden, P. (2018, October 9). The psychology of closure – and why some need it more than others. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-psychology-of-closure-and-why-some-need-it-more-than-others-104159
Slotter, E. B., & Ward, D. E. (2014). Finding the silver lining: The relative roles of cognitive appraisals in individuals’ emotional distress after the end of a romantic relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,32(6), 737-756. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407514546978