I tried to find closure in Scotland.
My study abroad experience began as a whim, a nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach that grew as my junior year summer concluded and I realized what senior year held in store: An awkward nine months in close proximity to my ex and a campus devoid of my close friends, who had all graduated.
No way. I emailed the study abroad office and headed for Scotland.
I knew closure would come. It had to, whether internal — a new era of me! — or external, through validation from others or via Skyping with my ex, where all of my questions would finally be answered with 3,000 miles between us.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, because by the time I came back, I had fallen into a deep depression.
It’s Rachel Green’s fault I was looking for closure in the first place. In the Season Two episode of Friends, “The One Where Ross Finds Out”, she interrupts a mediocre blind date to leave a drunk voicemail on Ross’s answering machine — “I’m really happy for you and your cat,” she snarls. “Obviously, I am over you. And that, my friend, is what they call closure.”
Really, Rachel? Is it? Or was it temporary catharsis? She and Ross continued their on-and-off-again relationship for eight more seasons. Nothing closed about that.
“The concept of closure has become this huge idea that everyone thinks is real,” says Dr. Nancy Berns, a sociologist and author of the book Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us. “Really, it’s just a made-up concept. It’s not something you can find, and you don’t need it.”
Drs. Arie Kruglanski and Donna Webster describe closure as “desire for definite knowledge on some issue” in a 1996 paper. Their research led to them developing the Need for Closure scale, a 42-point questionnaire that tells you one thing: Are you the kind of person who wants closure?
In high school, closure was ever-present: At post-breakup sleepovers, demand grew to a fever pitch, with my friends lauding the calming values of closure. “You have to get closure,” they’d whisper after class as we walked down the hall a few steps behind an ex-boyfriend. One girl cornered her ex after biology class, pulling him into an alcove and insisting, in tears, that he tell her all the reasons he broke up with her. That would be her closure.
“When people are talking about closure, they want to forget about the past. They’re trying to burn everything, get everything out of their head,” says Berns. “That’s what they call closure — forgetting.”
Forgetting is tricky when your mind is full of questions. Really, “closure” is a desire for a quick end to ruminating — spending all day turning over the whys and why-nots that mark the end of a relationship. “People define it as, ‘I’m never going to think about this person again. I want all my questions answered, and then I can forget,’” Berns says.
We humans are anxious creatures. Living with the ambiguity and uncertainty that comes after a loss can be a tall order — and when there’s a living, breathing human who can resolve your uncertainty, it seems unfair to exist in a world in which only you don’t know the answers.
There’s very little we can’t have answered these days. Looking to find out the depth of the Mariana Trench or what inspired the lyrics to “Imagine”? Google’s got your back. But you can’t Google your past relationships. I tried Facebooking them, but that only led deep into the world’s worst rabbit hole: Who is he dating? Who is this stupid girl commenting on all of his profile pictures?
Unfortunately, anxious people on the hunt for closure are more likely to become depressed, says Dr. Jennifer Jill Harman, a psychologist at Colorado State University who researches and writes about relationships. “They take it as an attack on their self-esteem when their relationship ends,” she says, which can lead to mental problems like depression.
What answers did I expect to receive in Scotland — and would I even want them once they arrived? Sure, a precise ofay-by-play pf the relationship’s demise might be interesting and mildly helpful, but it wasn’t a palliative cure-all for my break-up anxieties.
Harman tells a similar cautionary tale: In graduate school, her boyfriend moved to London. With the relationship in limbo, she flew herself to him in search of answers.
“It was the dumbest thing I ever did,” she says. “I went there and we hung out and no answers were given. He was with other girls. As much as you want to try to talk to someone and get the sense of ‘why,’ when a relationship ends, that other person isn’t going to be able to tell you much.”
There’s no closure in answers.
I pulled friends closer and fell hard for jerks. I sought closure in others, thinking they might hold the key to what was wrong with me — to what was wrong with my relationship. I thought I could make them love me and in return, make myself feel worthy. To close the chapter of my life occupied by my ex with a bang.
My search for answers smothered them and in their rejection I spiraled deep into the depression of loss.
“People think they need closure. They think they need to feel it,” says Berns. “When they don’t have it, they think ‘What’s wrong with me?’ rather than doing the work of trying to heal.”
It took me years before I started asking the real questions: What did I learn from the relationship? How did I change? What did I receive of value? No one else could answer that but me, and doing so finally gave me relief.
“Think about what it’s gonna take to heal yourself,” Berns says. With some self-reflection, these are answerable questions, but soul-searching is rarely fun.
Still, it’s far more valuable than a fruitless quest for closure.
“Part of your identity is formed in relationships. It’s where you get to know who you are,” says Herman. “Just because the relationship ends doesn’t mean that piece of who you are that grew inside it is gone.” Our monogamist culture tends towards the cut and run: Forgetting about other people you’ve been with the second they’ve moved on. That’s a ridiculous expectation, Herman says. “That’s not how we operate. Real closure is coming to accept the reality of what it was and what it meant to you.”
What does closure mean to you? To me, it meant getting on with it, even if it took a while to figure that out. Learning to live with the unanswered, to treasure what I gained in the relationship, and to mourn the things I lost. Maybe next time you’re looking for closure, start looking for acceptance instead.
“Closure sounds so appealing, but you can learn to live with ambiguity. A lot of people do it,” Berns says. “Understand that this is a part of who you are, and learn to carry that with you. Learn to forgive, say goodbye and move on.”