I’ve never liked the word “closure.” I know what people think they mean when they say it—this relic word from a self-help era gone by. The concept of closure seems almost darling, with its naiveté, it’s aspirational quality. In my experience, if you are employing this term, it is in the context of searching for answers and resolution to the wholly chaotic and mysterious. Human relating is sloppy and the sad fact is that much of it never ultimately makes sense. Whether relationships are historic or enduring; whether they are romantic, familial or with friends. . . chances are you might never totally get what they were as you look back or how to operate successfully within them moving forward. And this is actually good news.
At the beginning of the end of one of my young relationships, I was confronted with the fallacy of seeking tidy understanding when it comes to other humans. I sat in a therapist’s office, where I had come week after week, unpacking stories of conflict and misery. I was living with a man (a boy, really) who didn’t know himself and didn’t appear to even particularly like me most of the time. I spent countless hours and too large a ratio of a non-profit salary on parsing this mess. I’m not sure whether my therapist had just had it with me or whether she saw that I was ready to be nudged along, but when I said something about needing “closure” in order to walk away, she simply said, ”Why?” (a question, I later learned in my own clinical training, you almost never ask a client).
I had taken for granted that this is what adults did in relationships. I assumed the idea was to make a careful, rational selection of a partner, ride the arc of the relationship to some logical conclusion and then part ways with a mutual understanding of the facts. It goes without saying that I never made any kind of clear-eyed choice when it came to being with this man and virtually every moment with him was one baffling disconnect after another. So, damned if I wasn’t going to try and exert some control over its’ ending.
What I learned from her “Why?” and the succession of “Whys” that followed—pursuing my train of thought until I ran out of answers (“Why do you need to make sense of it?” “Why does it matter what people will think?” ad infinitum.)—was that most of the need for closure was about him or other people. I was completely engrossed in his behavior, what it all meant, whether or not he was capable of change, what it said about me (to whom?) if I just gave up on this person I had claimed to love. It was also a way to remain perpetually engaged in a relationship that I felt terrified of ending. What a brilliant excuse for staying stuck if you just continue to hang in there until you make your way out of the labyrinth! Except that almost nobody emerges to see the light of day when they are entangled like this with another person.
Like for most people, true lightning bolt moments are incredibly rare in my consciousness. This happened to be one of them. I felt the gears shift in my brain and a single thought shoved all others aside—“There is no reason why.” There was no explanation THERE WOULD NEVER BE AN EXPLANATION for why he acted the way he did or why I felt the need to spend many foundational years working on the calculus proof of this person. The very instant I accepted that closure wasn’t necessary, wasn’t even possible, I had no other choice but to leave him for good.
It was fucking beautiful. I don’t say this so much as an endictment of that particular relationship as much as acknowledging the liberating psychic gift it was. Once you realize that full and true understanding of others, especially when you are embroiled in love, isn’t critical or all that promising, you are much more free to go. Paradoxically, this also gives you the best chance at making it work.
Today I have a few friends mired in relationships or wrestling with ghosts of relationships with the aim of achieving this emotional state of closure. I want so much to release them from the bondage of this notion. Days, months, years pass with large swaths of their emotional lives occupied by this thing that will never happen. The fantasy of closure is that you will be somehow elevated to more sophisticated relating in the future, if you can just get some perspective on the thing that came before. The bottom line is that when you are engaged with an appropriate partner, you evolve together and tackle things along the way and could therefore never be left holding a heavy bag of unanswerable questions at the end. The trick, then, is to choose well at the outset or recognize that you are barreling toward a dead end.