Why It Is Not Always Possible To Get Closure

Gone for Good.Dr.  Jennifer Harman

(partially abridged and reposted from ScienceofRelationships.com)

Attachment theorists would argue that closure occurs when we eliminate ambiguous feelings we have toward a person who we feel emotionally connected.2 … Dr. Gary Lewandowski has researched what happens to our “self” when we experience relationship loss. He found that the more we self-expand in our relationships—meaning, the more our self-concept grows as a result of being involved with our partners—the greater the loss of self we experience when the relationship ends.4 From an attachment perspective, then, closure would mean eliminating or fully distancing oneself from an entire aspect of the self that developed while with another person…

Need for Closure5 is another theory borrowed from basic perception research—the extension to social relationships is that people get closure in order to see the world in a more simplistic way. In other words, individuals who have a need for closure desire clear-cut and definitive answers about life and relationships (e.g., I need to know exactly why the relationship ended). While some people need more closure than others, some are better able to make swift, decisive decisions about ending things.6 Researchers have found that when people feel like they need closure but are not able to cognitively, they have poor mental health outcomes (e.g., depression).7 … Even considering this theory, I was still left wondering whether it is really possible or even healthy to completely “close off” our thoughts and feelings about meaningful past relationships in order to experience closure.

Some therapists have gone so far as to state that true closure is a “myth” and impossible to achieve. Indeed, many individuals experience unending loss that is ambiguous and open-ended. Therapists argue that instead of trying to find closure, which may never be possible, it is best to find meaning, even if there is no final “end.”8 The take-home message is to be OK with not knowing “why” things ended. Being OK with not having all the answers can then lead to deeper personal growth because it bolsters our ability to tolerate anxiety associated with ambiguity or uncertainty in our lives.9 In other words, we can never know all the reasons that some of our relationships end. Accepting this (even when it is uncomfortable to do so) makes dealing with other uncertainties in life easier.

1Wilson, T. A. (2009). The experience of closure defined by women after the loss of a romantic relationship. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 69, pp. 7156.

2Mikulincer, M. (1997). Adult attachment style and information processing: Individual differences in curiosity and cognitive closure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 1217-1230.

3Bowlby, J., & Parkes, C. M. (1970). Separation and loss within the family. In E. J. Anthony (Ed.), The child in his family (pp. 197–216). New York: Wiley.

4Lewandowski, 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.

5Webster, D. M., & Kruglanski, A. W. (1994). Individual differences in need for cognitive closure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 1049-1062.

6Roets, A., & Van Hiel, A. (2008). Why some hate to dillydally and others do not: The arousal-invoking capacity of decision-making for low and high-scoring need for closure individuals. Social Cognition, 26, 333–346.

7Roets, A., & Soetens, B. (2010). Need and ability to achieve closure: Relationships with symptoms of psychopathology. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 155-160.

8Boss, P., & Carnes, D. (2012). The myth of closure. Family Process, 51, 456-469.

9Melnick, J., & Roos, S. (2007). The myth of closure. Gestalt Review, 11, 90-107.


Dr.  Jennifer Harman – Adventures in Dating… | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.