What is Closure, And Why Does it Hurt?

Lisa Martens


Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

I used to be obsessed with the idea of closure, particularly when it came to relationships. I couldn’t let go of why certain things happened…usually, when things didn’t go the way I wanted.

Why was this? Usually, it was because I felt like I put effort into a situation, and I didn’t feel like the same effort was given back to me. And so, to just walk away from the relationship felt wrong. It felt incomplete.

This could be a number of things…I didn’t have as much fun in bed, I didn’t get to do what I wanted, or maybe I invested more into that person’s career and dreams than they did in mine. Regardless of the why, I felt a sense of incompleteness that “had” to be resolved.

The issue of closure rears its ugly head in a number of situations—relationships, mortality, careers, etc. One can spend years writing a book to only lukewarm reviews, and little fanfare. However, the act of writing a book is still impressively difficult. One can feel like they need to know why someone did something, or why someone passed away, only to still be unsatisfied with the answer.

So what is closure? Is it helpful, or not?

Gestalt Laws

Perfect circles and triangles rarely exist in our world. How often have you been struggling to read someone's handwriting, and your mind fills in the gaps to decipher someone's cursive?

Human minds like to autocomplete basic shapes and forms. The Gestalt psychologists named this principle The Law of Closure.

While this has a practical use...it is important we recognize imperfect stairs and doors as stairs and doors, for example, instead of always refusing to use something that is not perfect. We are constantly autocompleting imperfect signs, objects, and situations, often without realizing.

What does this have to do with emotional closure?

Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski started using the term "need for closure" in the more colloquial, emotional sense in the 90s.

People struggle more with the idea of closure when they prefer order and predictability. This makes sense—If you are the kind of person who needs to know how things will finish, and needs to be able to accurately predict outcomes, then those incomplete triangles and imperfect circles feel particularly painful.

On the other hand, people who dislike being criticized might avoid closure, because vague answers are not actionable, and are easier to hide behind.

However, unlike basic shapes, lacking closure about something significant...like a break up, perhaps...can have long-lasting negative effects. This is because human beings build narratives around events, and our identities change and can be based on those narratives. We like to make stories about our lives after the fact, essentially.

When we experience a failed relationship, we tell ourselves a story about how we met, how we got along, and why we ended. If we leave a situation feeling like we don't know why the situation ended, it can result in feelngs of confusion and guilt. That can't be the end of that story! It's so...incomplete.

If someone moves, finds someone else, etc., we might be hurt at this fact, but it's an answer we can give ourselves.

We can finish the triangle, and then move on.

You don't need to wait for permission to have closure.

There are times where it is not possible to have closure. Someone can get sick and pass away, despite making healthy decisions and being a good person. Sometimes, people can ghost us for reasons unclear. We might be left feeling like we don't have the answers we need, and sometimes those answers literally do not exist.

So what helps, when the shape is incomplete and incomprehensible?

1. Accepting what happened was unfair.

Usually, a well-intentioned person will try to rush us through this step. If we are hurting, they will tell us that life is unfair, and that we need to move on.

It's important to really feel this step. It's okay to think about how you were robbed of answers, and how unfair that is. It's important to let that anger out. Keeping it inside will only continue to hurt.

This is difficult to face. Beginning to face this means accepting that what happened might not change. It means accepting you might not get a message or an answer. It means that maybe you won't be proven right or just in the end.

What happened might be just that—unfair.

People might be uncomfortable with your pain and anger, and that's okay. Just let it out. Maybe find other friends as to not weigh down your besties. But definitely feel all the unfairness—It's the only way to get over it.

2. Building a narrative that does not rely on others.

I was almost adopted. I was put up for adoption, and I was in foster care, and by the time I requested the records to learn about my foster family, it was too late. The record is expunged after a certain amount of time.

I was upset. I felt like I needed the information to complete a story of my childhood...a story of myself.

I had a choice. I could decide that this missing piece meant a lot...and center my identity around this missing piece. Or, I could decide that this missing sliver did not make up all of who I was.

It sounds strange, but we can shape our narratives and our identities in this way. There are healthy and unhealthy narratives. The idea that this missing piece was the important part—That is an unhealthy narrative. It does not help me to move on.

But instead, thinking about what I did have, about the memories I have of my childhood, and of my parents—That helped me build a better narrative. Sure, I was in foster care, but then I was returned to my biological parents, who stayed together and raised me. Then, I chose to go to college and become a writer.

If I put all of my identity into the missing piece, then I will never be whole. I can complete the shape of my mind, body, and soul without it.

3. Framing the situation in a way that helps you move on.

In a breakup, if we do not have a clear answer, we might blame ourselves. But if someone never tells you, then you cannot spend all your time guessing. And you shouldn't!

Similarly, with a tragedy, you might be trying to draw the wrong shape, so to speak. You might be trying to make a triangle out of something that is a circle.

What does that mean? Well, it could mean that something you believe...is inherently incorrect.

We have a lot of beliefs that might not actually mesh with the real world—that good people should always live longer, that everyone has a happy ending, or that everyone gets to live a long life. Of course, we always strive for these things. We always keep the hope that we will have all the love, happiness, and life that we desire.

Unfortunately, these things do not always happen, and if we create a world where tragedy is not allowed to happen, it is harder to accept when it does.

Instead, if we can think about creating something good, and also being able to pivot and move on when it doesn't happen how we want, then we will be more flexible and resilient.

I experienced trauma in my life that left me feeling permanently damaged. It was difficult for me to think life fould ever get better. Similarly, many people feel like once something bad happens, they can never move on. Somehow, they are damaged, or moving on is a disservice to the tragedy.

This is an inflexible view of life that does not allow for closure.

What can we learn from closure?

Closure is an idea that is either helpful or hurtful, depending on how we use it. We can cling to closure as a reason to never move on...but we can also use closure to let go of anger, pain, and fear, and we can use closure to build a narrative that helps us heal.

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