“My partner broke up with me, and I don’t know why. How do I get closure?”
When I was asked this question recently - as all great questions do - it got me thinking.
In particular, this question got me thinking about my own past relationships, a few which ended “badly,” and how I felt when they ended.
Often, the experience was harsh, with my emotions at full intensity, and in the most painful moments I’ve asked myself this question more than once...
“How can I move on from this?”
Behind this question was a tidal wave of other questions that I was desperate to answer...
- “What happened?! How did my relationship fail?”
- “Do I even want to know what happened?”
- “Did I do something wrong?”
- “Is there someone else?”
- “What should I have done? Is there anything I still can do?”
- “What is she not telling me?”
- “Why does this hurt so much?"
- "Will I repeat the same mistakes again?"
- "Can I ever really trust someone?"
- "Is love real, and am I lovable?"
- "Am I doomed to be alone?"
I suddenly felt thrown about by a stormy ocean of emotions that frankly overwhelmed me...
It absolutely felt like I was drowning.
But ultimately, through those experiences... I learned to swim.
Why so much Emotion?
Where are all these emotions coming from, and why are they so INTENSE?
Relationships are important to us because we are mammals. We are designed to seek, value, and protect our relationships - and when a relationship “fails” that we feel attached to, the emotions are intense.
Relationships are a central part of our evolutionary survival strategy, because there is strength in numbers. We’re more likely to survive when someone is watching our back. We’re better able to gather and protect resources. We’re looked after and protected when we’re sick, injured, young or old. We even have better mating opportunities, because we live in groups.
All of these are big wins. These advantages allowed mammals to succeed far better than reptiles, and to evolve far more quickly.
Our relationships exist because they improve our odds of survival, and the survival of our species too.
When our key relationships are threatened, our survival feels threatened too.
Think of all the emotions you’ve ever felt that are tied to relationships... attraction, love, hate, jealousy, envy, loneliness, acceptance, rejection, conflict, loss... there are a ton of them.
We even value relationships more than our own survival
Our relationship emotions are so intense that they can even surpass our own personal survival instincts.
Look at the dad who will put himself between his family and a pack of wolves- or the mom who sees her child trapped beneath a car- and, her adrenaline pumping- lifts it like a piece of paper.
That some intense emotion going on right there.
When you feel emotion about your relationships, simply understand that you’re designed that way, and that this design is why you, and your parents, and your grandparents, and your friends... are all here to begin with,
Without those emotions, your chances of survival, or even being born, are pretty slim.
Those emotions- and their level of intensity- all exist for good reason.
But you’re also more than a mammal, which means that your emotions don’t need to control you.
And that's what this article is about.
What is “Closure” Anyway?
When mammals experience a relationship loss, in general, they can move on and continue with their lives.
Among the most intelligent mammals, this becomes more of a problem. We’ve all seen the dog who mourned the loss of his owner, or who spent years trying to find them again. We’ve seen dogs travel across a continent to find their family.
As humans, we often take this attachment to the absolute extreme.
The reason is that our brains are designed with two features that are heavily engaged in our relationship world.
- Memory & Understanding, which includes accepting and understanding the past
- Imagination & Prediction, which includes planning for the future
Animals tend to be much more present-minded in their view of the world. Humans tend to use our ability to predict the future, and to learn from the past, to great advantage.
Except... when we overdo it.
In a sudden relationship end...
- Our future is suddenly not-going-to-plan. It becomes unclear, and unpredictable.
This creates anxiety.
- Our past is confused, full of pain. and understanding eludes us.
This creates depression.
- And in many cases, even our present is reduced to shambles. Where will I live? Do I need to get a job? What about the kids? Our friends? Our stuff?
This creates stress.
Closure is about dealing with all 3 of these.
In my experience, the best approach is to deal with the present first, and then the future, and then the past, in that order.
Dealing with the Present
Sort out your immediate needs first.
- What's your situation? Are you safe and secure?
- How's your money? Do you need a job? Can you support yourself?
- Who are your friends, the ones who are there for you and un-conflicted about "taking sides" in the breakup?
- Where can you go, if you need to move?
- Is there anything that you need in order to be OK right now?
Sort that out, it's priority one.
Sometimes a relationship is in an in-between state, where you're not certain whether to let go, or to hold on and try harder.
But the reality is that you can do both.
As long as you are safe and secure and reasonably in control of your present situation, you can temporarily put the future on hold, and let it be uncertain while you figure things out.
But don't neglect your ability to be independent, self-sufficient, and free to make important choices about your relationship. Build a strong support network, and create security for yourself.
Once the relationship direction is clear - whether it's to try harder together, or to move on in life separately - you can move to the next step.
Dealing with the Future
With a secure foundation, you can begin making plans for the future.
- What's next?
- What do you want?
- What are your options in life at this point?
- What's been missing from your life, and how can you create that?
- Is your life balanced- health, fitness, relationships, and career? Are your goals for your life clear? Are you giving yourself "me" time to think and reflect on your life and recent events?
- Have there been hobbies that you've been neglecting, or that you've been curious about but never tried? Places you wanted to visit? People you wanted to meet? Things you wanted to learn?
If these questions are big for you, I highly recommend you do a bit of traveling. Go to a place you like, even just a weekend trip to a nearby city- it makes a huge difference in your ability to get perspective and see clearly.
You don't need to answer all the questions, just to have an idea of what you'll be doing, that's good for You, for the next 3 to 6 months. Don't try to plan out your whole life, because your priorities, interests, and situation will change as you grow.
Dealing with the Past
Now that you are safe, and secure, and have a plan for what's next- you can begin digging into the lessons from your last relationship.
As humans, we feel the emotions, and then we try to understand them. We try to use them to predict our future experiences, and to avoid future pain. We think about every possible aspect of what we’re feeling, and we dig and dig with ever more persistent questioning.
In the best case situation, you're still on speaking terms with your partner, and you have the ability to discuss "what went wrong" with them.
The key here is to ask questions that you can answer, and that can improve your future.
You do not want to ask questions out of spite, or to provoke pain, or the discussion will just become an argument. Remember, no matter the situation, they are suffering too, in some way.
Here are some questions I recommend- add your own.
RATHER THAN - "Was it me or was it them?", ask...
- What was my part in our relationship problems?
- What was my partner's part in our relationship problems?
RATHER THAN - "Will I repeat the same mistakes again?", ask...
- How can I choose a partner better next time?
- How can I be a better partner next time?
- Where could we have communicated better?
- How could I/we have set boundaries and expectations better?
RATHER THAN - "Can I ever really trust someone?", ask...
- How can I be more resilient in life, so that the things outside of my control - like other people - doesn't affect me so harshly?
- What core values have I discovered in myself, that are essential to me in my partner as well?
RATHER THAN - "Is love real, and am I lovable?", ask...
- What exactly are my expectations in a relationship?
- Which expectations are reasonable, and which are fantasy?
- Which expectations are important, and which are flexible?
- How do I find a partner whose personality, values, and goals match mine better in life, so that we will have more success facing life together?
RATHER THAN - "Am I doomed to be alone?", ask...
- Why do I feel like I need someone?
- What exactly does a partner give me, that friends, and lovers, cannot?
- How can I make my own life happier and more fulfilling, without feeling dependent on someone else to create that life for me?
- Where can I meet people- friends or even more- who are like me?
Answer these questions as fully as you can, and write down the answers.
When you do this, you'll notice stress and confusion release as things become more clear. Where you still feel stress and confusion, go towards those thoughts, asking questions, until they melt away.
When it’s possible to answer these questions accurately, there is likely to be at least some benefit in understanding ourselves, our partners, and our relationships better. We might learn to adjust our expectations, or how we can be a better partner, or how we can choose a better partner.
What if I cannot get closure?
Sometimes... closure is not available to us. We get blocked, ghosted, or come home to find the closets empty.
And that’s just life.
This is an emotionally difficult situation, but it’s the reality of an emotionally immature modern society. People who don’t know how to deal with their emotions simply avoid them- and this includes the person who ended the relationship just as much as the person who is left feeling “dumped.”
Honestly, you’ll be just fine.
Answer the above questions as honestly and accurately as you can, all on your own.
For the questions you cannot answer... LET GO.
Letting go is absolutely essential, and is a key point that many people miss.
We hold on tightly because we believe that these questions are gold bars. They are all we have left from the relationship, and we imagine that if we keep a hold of them, and answer them properly, that our future will be awesome.
The problem is that those questions are rocks that keep pulling you down. We hold onto them for dear life, even though they are the very thing that's drowning us.
Chances are you will never really understand why your relationship didn't work out. Chances are, your ex doesn't really understand either.
And that's OK. It's part of living life, and learning how our thoughts and emotions work.
In the end, closure is about letting go of those rocks, so that you can breathe again, and learn to swim. It really doesn't matter whether those questions were answered, or not.
Just let them go.
Once you release them, you are free to move forward with your life and create new beautiful relationships that suit you far, far better.
It's very important not to neglect this work.
It may be easy to bury yourself in your career, distract yourself with hobbies, or "rebound" relationships.
But if you’re staying busy as a form of distraction, you are not doing yourself any favors. It may numb you, since you simply have less time to process your emotions- but distracting yourself will simply stretch out the recovery process.
Imagine you’re a farmer in the 1800s, and your house burns down. If you sit there and feel %^#@% about it, just staring at it, remembering the good times and the memories, you will feel sad for a very long time.
But if you start rebuilding it, then very quickly you feel great. You’re doing something productive and building your life better than it ever was.
“You know, I always thought the kitchen should face the pond…”
Closure is something you create.
On top of making you far happier, it makes your past relationships immensely valuable, in that they become the foundational wisdom of your future life.
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#1 - Letting go of expectations that you’ve built up
Often people imagine that the relationship should go on forever, progress towards marriage, etc. So they feel disappointment, frustration, even anger and resentment when it doesn’t. But if those things were part of your future expectations, why did you think that? Was your partner promising these things?
It’s important to evaluate the story that you told yourself, before you ask someone else to explain it to you. What you wanted, and what you expected, are part of your own story. They had a different story. The better you understand your own story, the better you understand how to make it real.