How to Get Closure After a Breakup

This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “How to Get Closure After a Breakup.” To listen to this episode, click here.


Welcome back to the blog! This article and the next will be focused on breakups. A few years ago, I was talking to one of my students in Marriage 101 about what made her decide to sign up for the class, and her response really took me aback: she shared with me that she wanted to take my class so she would be ready for her next breakup. One part of me felt sad that as she thought about the trajectory of her love life, she was thinking about endings. It seemed sort of cynical or fatalistic. Another part of me felt so impressed. She was being a realist. Not very many of us marry the first person we date, so learning how to end things well is a necessary skill. Her motivation for the class therefore was so empowering.

I think our cultural highly romanticized notions of love keep us in a kind of denial—we don’t want to talk about breakups. In some ways it parallels our cultural phobia of talking about death. We avoid that which feels scary and unknown. I think we worry that talking about breakups will increase our chances of experiencing a breakup. I think we worry that focusing on the so-called negative aspects of dating and relationships will leave us feeling negative/jaded/cynical. But we can do both—believe in the potential of long-term love and learn how to end with skill, grace, and awareness. So, we will do just that! Today, we are talking about how to get closure after a breakup, and in the next article we will talk about how to deal with Breakup Regret.

First, I want to clarify the terms I will use in both articles. At least in English, we don’t have a word for “the person who initiated the breakup” or a word for “the person who was broken up with.” When I am teaching about breakups, to keep it simple, I use the word “LEAD” for the person who initiated the breakup and “FOLLOW” for the person who was broken up with. And those are the terms I’ll use here as well. I use those words knowing full well:

  • That breakups are inherently messy and the person who makes the final call on ending may not be the person who began the conversation about potentially ending.
  • That many of the themes we will cover apply to BOTH sides of the breakup experience.

Second, I want to name that breakups are highly idiosyncratic; there are as many breakup stories as there are people going through a breakup. My goal with these blog articles is to address common themes—some elements may fit squarely with your situation, some elements may not feel helpful at all. As always with my work, take what serves you and leave the rest.

WHAT WE GET WRONG ABOUT CLOSURE

Let’s start with the really harsh reality: Breakups hurt. We are profoundly relational, so the loss of someone we were in an intimate relationship with hurts. You hurt because you are human and because you loved and risked and stretched and cared and shared experiences, not because you are weak/silly/broken/damaged. A broken heart feels like a call to action—sitting with pain is very uncomfortable. Intense emotions can trigger fearful thoughts: What if I become depressed? What if I don’t recover? What if I never love again? What if this means I am unlovable? We want to do something with all of that stir. The finality of a breakup makes us feel confused about what we can do; seeking closure ends up feeling like something we can do.

We have a vision of closure. People commonly think about closure as something you gain through conversations with your ex. You may envision sitting down with them and getting answers to your burning questions, the questions that wake you up at night or distract you when you are trying to work. Questions like:

  •  How long did you know you wanted to end this relationship?
  • Did you ever really love me?
  • What did this relationship mean to you?
  • Is there someone else?
  • Why didn’t you take my concerns seriously?
  • Why didn’t you tell me about your concerns?

You may also envision that in this conversation you have a chance to talk about your experiences; a chance to be witnessed; to explain yourself; to have your pain seen, heard, and understood by your ex. Perhaps you move back and forth between a desire to prove how you’ve been wronged and a desire to prove to them that they are making a mistake.

I want to validate the heck out of your desire for both answers and witnessing—these are wholly reasonable responses to pain. It makes sense that in the wake of so much pain, you would want clarification and validation. And in an ideal world, couples who are breaking up would have a process for ending well.

Here’s an irony: it is precisely the chaos of a breakup that creates the need for answers and witnessing. And it is precisely the chaos of a breakup that usually keeps people from being able to create a process for answers and witnessing. I suspect you want this kind of closure so that your pain will lessen; so that you can begin to put this painful chapter in the rearview mirror and begin to move ahead. The desire for closure then is a desire to be done with the questions and the emotions.

I want to invite you to reimagine closure. Rather than thinking about closure as doneness, I want you to think about closure as wholeness. In breaking up with you, your ex takes nothing from you. You were whole before you met them. You were whole during every moment of the relationship. You are whole in the wake of the ending. Nothing has been taken from you. You are hurting and you are whole. You are confused and you are whole. You are unsteady and you are whole. Your worthiness is not on the line—it is inherent; asked and answered; not up for debate. You are worthy as you are. Right now. Period. Therefore, if closure is wholeness, not doneness, then:

  • Closure is a process that belongs to you.
  • Closure is a process that begins and ends with you.
  • Closure is your journey away from whatever your blend of painful emotions is (shame, anger, sadness, fear) and toward ease, calm, and clarity.

DO NOT WAIT FOR YOUR EX TO GIVE YOU CLOSURE

I do not want you to wait around for your ex to give you the closure you are craving. Why not? Three reasons:

  1. Because seeking closure from your ex is going to create feelings of powerlessness inside of you which are going to keep you emotionally stuck. As the follow, you have already had your sense of agency challenged. You are dealing with something you did not choose; something has been done TO you. Seeking closure from your ex likely feels resonant to that part of you that feels so helpless and out of control. But seeking closure from your ex then reinforces and amplifies your feelings of helplessness. I want you to be creating contrasting experiences for yourself: experiences of agency; experiences of power; experiences of feeling like your feet are on solid ground because you put them there.
  2. Because your ex may not have answers to your questions or the capacity to witness your pain. If they are at the upper limit of their Relational Self-Awareness, they are not holding out on you or depriving you—they are unable to give you something they do not have. This is incredibly frustrating and it is sad, but your persistence cannot make it different. And, by the way, even if your persistence could make it different, I still would not want your energy spent on coaching your ex on how to be with you in a process of closure; I would want your energy spent on cultivating a deep connection to your wholeness.
  3. Because your ex may not have the willingness to answer questions or bear witness. Very often in a breakup, your narratives are different. You likely do not have the same story as your ex about who was wronged, of who fell short, even of who betrayed whom. Therefore, your ex may have no interest or willingness to go through a process of closure with you. They feel too hurt. They feel too righteous. They feel too mad. These strong emotions may be self-protective, keeping them from examining the impact of their actions. But again, you cannot make it different. These strong emotions may lead them to create a very rigid boundary with you, one that your persistence is likely to simply reinforce.

Waiting for your ex to have the capacity or the willingness or the ability to create closure with you is going to keep you stuck. You are giving away your power. It’s risky and it’s not necessary. You have everything you need to create closure.

THE WAY OUT IS THROUGH

So, if you are letting go of the idea that closure comes from your ex and instead embracing the idea that you create closure, what does that look like? How then do you create closure? One word: Grief.

  • Turning toward the tender feelings.
  • Letting yourself cry when you need to cry.
  • Dancing it out.
  • Stomping and growling the sadness and anger.
  • Writing the story of your loss… a story that, by the way, will then become the story of your renewal.
  • Relating to yourself as someone who is going through a thing: a difficult thing; a human thing.

Grief is an embodied process, one that is happening inside of your body, so you must tend to yourself. This means giving yourself nourishing food, having routines for sleep and movement, and digging into your social supports. Closure then is about caring for yourself while you are having a hard time. Reminder that letting yourself have a hard time means not attempting to shrink the size of your grief with any or all of the following unhelpful and self-abandoning thoughts:

  1. “We were only together for X number of weeks/months/years. I shouldn’t be feeling this way.”
  2. “I’m better off without them.”
  3. “I should have seen this coming.”
  4. “This is all my fault.”
  5. “I’m never going to find love again.”
  6. “I wasted my time.”

Etcetera, etcetera. These thoughts are the opposite of you caring for you. These thoughts are you abandoning you during your time of need. You cannot prevent your thoughts but you can get wise to them. You can notice when one of these sneaky buggers is running rampant in your mind and turning the volume up on your emotional intensity. When you notice that process, put one hand on your heart, one hand on your belly, and take some deep breaths. Come back to this moment.

Here are two images that capture the journey of grief. See if either of these might be helpful in terms of how you hold and work with your grief:

  1. Grief begins as a huge suitcase, becomes a smaller suitcase, becomes a bag, becomes a small bag. Time plus tending helps us carry grief more lightly.
  2. Imagine a box with a button on the inside of it. There’s a ball inside of the box that is very nearly the size of the box. As the ball moves around inside of the box, the ball is going to press the grief button all of the time because it fills most of the space inside of the box. With time and tending, the box becomes larger. The grief trigger button is still there, but as the ball bounces off the sides of the box, it less frequently activates the grief trigger button because the box itself is more spacious. As you move grief through you, you create more capacity for life to do what life does.

CLOSURE IS NOT ABOUT THE ABSENCE OF PAIN

As I said before, closure is not about doneness; it’s about wholeness. Your wholeness is the whole of you: your hope, your fear, your wins, your losses, your gifts, your growing edges. Let’s talk about what I call the Pain-to-Pang transition. You are moving toward closure when the edges of your grief become a bit less jagged—when there are longer stretches of calm between your bouts of deep emotion and when you are looking more through the windshield than in the rearview mirror. But still, you may never feel 100% neutral about your ex. Neutrality is not a requirement of healing. You may always feel a pang when met with a reminder of your ex or when you see your ex. A pang is a shift from neutral to something (nostalgic or wistful or tender or sad or remorseful or regretful). If we think that getting over someone means that we feel nothing when we think of them, then we are going to keep reaching outside of ourselves for closure. When we feel like sturdy caretakers of our inner worlds, then we can notice the pang and tend to it. Because different facets of emotion are all part of wholeness.

      Neutrality is not a requirement of healing because love does not leave us where it finds us. Because the self is relational, relationships shift who we are and how we experience the world. One of the leading writers about divorce in the field of family therapy, Dr. Mavis Heatherington, described that people going through a divorce reported a “not me” feeling—they didn’t quite like themselves. Dr. Eli Finkel studied people going through a breakup and found that their self-concept clarity scores dropped. In the wake of a breakup they felt less clear about who they were as people. This sense that you are changed by the experience of having loved and been loved is true no matter the length of the relationship or the type of relationship. Your ex is likely someone with whom you shared experiences, intimacy, secrets, jokes, rituals, and adventures. These experiences shifted you so it’s wholly understandable that your ex will continue to carry some measure of charge for you.

Your ex is now, like everyone who loves you throughout your life, another memory keeper for you. How could you feel neutral as you hold awareness that they are off doing something else? There’s a separation, and especially because it’s one you did not choose, a measure of yearning may remain. Does this mean you cannot love again? No. The work of Relational Self-Awareness is about creating and nurturing that internal capacity for complexity and contradiction. I believe you can fully love your next partner and experience pangs about your ex. You don’t have to be done; you just have to be able to rest in awareness of your wholeness.

CREATE CLOSURE VIA BOUNDARIES WITH EX

Because you are now being tasked with creating closure for yourself, I want to talk now about two kinds of boundaries that will help you recover from your breakup: Boundaries with your ex and boundaries with your family and friends. 

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but if I had my way, I would want you to cut off all communication with your ex. Can exes be friends? Yes. Can being friends with your ex be a defense against grief, one that prevents you from accessing the closure you seek? Yes. Is that going to be another whole blog article at some point in the future? Also, yes.

If you are brokenhearted, the last thing you need is ongoing contact with your ex. Think of your breakup like a wound—space from your ex and caring for yourself as you grieve helps create a scab that becomes a scar. When you are in communication with your ex, you are picking at that scab, delaying your healing and creating risk of infection (here, infection= emotional stuckness). I want you to think in a really holistic way about communication. Certainly I would like you to avoid meeting up, socializing even in a large group, or talking on the phone or facetime. I also want you to clean up your tech boundaries. This may not be what you want to hear, and it might be really difficult for you to do or even imagine doing. If I had my way, I would like you to block them on social media and unfriend them. By the way, I hate the harshness woven into those words “block” and “unfriend” and “unfollow” These are not harsh acts; these are acts of self-preservation, necessity, and grace. Our brains don’t seem to know the difference between “seeing” someone in real life and “seeing” someone online, so these tech ties are potentially as powerful as any other ties. I’m going to be a stickler here: I really do want you to unfollow rather than mute. I know someone who muted her ex on Instagram so that she would not see his new posts and stories in her feed. This was helpful, but then she needed to look at a sneaky loophole she had left herself. She knew that he could still see her new posts and stories, and when she was honest with herself, she realized that she was curating her feed in a particular way, posting images that conveyed to her ex that she was moving on with her life and having fun. This desire to manage his perception of her was keeping her stuck. It was so hard for her to unfollow him because there was such a finality to it, but her belief in her entitlement to feeling whole and aligned won out over her desire to live a certain way in his mind.

Cleaning up tech boundaries also means things like removing your access to their location services, ring camera, and Venmo or Zelle. Knowing their whereabouts or what they are doing or buying is an energetic tie, one that puts you at risk for ruminating and staying stuck. If you’re feeling like what I am asking you is WAY too much, check in with yourself. What is keeping you in virtual contact?

  • Is it the fear of the finality? If so, what might it be like to trust your own sturdiness. What if you can handle more than you think you can?
  • Is it the fear that needing this clear boundary means that you are weak or dramatic? If so, blame it on me! There is immense pressure on people, I think especially younger people, to be able to be chill and unfazed and “undramatic.” Creating tech boundaries is NOT dramatic. 

Pro-tip: If you’re feeling really pissy with me right now because you know darn well that you have left yourself a loophole, be gentle with yourself. But then also perhaps consider creating a little ritual—bring in the reinforcements and get it done. Have a friend come over, light a candle, and clean up your phone and laptop. Or do it during a therapy session. And then celebrate that you’re a breakup badass!

Creating and enforcing clear and firm boundaries with your ex is not an act of cruelty; it is not a disparagement of what was. By contrast, clear boundaries reflect the solemnity of the ending and sets you both up for closure. Is it sad? Yes. Is it necessary? Sadly, also yes.

CREATE CLOSURE VIA BOUNDARIES WITH FRIENDS/FAMILY

The final angle I want to explore is creating closure via boundaries with your family and friends. If you are the Follow, I want your family and friends to circle you up and love you as you’re hurting. I want them distracting you. I want them checking up on you. I want them bringing you soup or whatever makes you feel nurtured when you’re down. I do not want them to rush in with any or all of the following:

  • Any version of I told you so: “I told you she was going to break your heart,” “I told you men are trash.”
  • Any version of you’re too good for them.
  • Any version of “let’s get you wasted.”
  • Any version of “the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.”

Yes, I’m getting judgy about how your people show up for you! But that’s largely because the breakup experience of the Follow is so much harder when family and friends do any of the things I just described. Why is that? Because those things I just described are ineffective—they don’t work. Why not? Because of Newton’s Third Law of physics: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

If your people do the whole “I told you so” thing, you’re going to present them with evidence to the contrary. No, she was a great partner or you don’t get it. The moment you start taking the other side of the teeter totter, you’re moving away from closure and toward stuckness. If your people tell you that you are too good for your ex, same thing. Based on the laws of physics alone, you are going to remind your people of your ex’s redeeming qualities. Thus, reminding yourself of their redeeming qualities. Thus, keeping yourself stuck. If your people want to get you wasted or high, they are really just enabling you to block your healing. Unfortunately, your broken heart will be there when you sober up. If your people want to get you laid, same thing. They are setting you up to have a too-much-too-soon experience. I am here to support you reclaiming your erotic self for sure, but I want you to do that mindfully and with intention when you are ready, not when your crew is ready for you to be ready.

All of these misguided attempts to help reflect a couple of things:

  1. How hard it is to see someone you love in pain. It’s so hard in fact that we tend to push these strategies that feel productive but are ineffective instead of just being there.
  2. Our culture’s lack of trust in the power of holding space for each other. We think that people heal by being directed away from painful feelings into vindication or distraction. But really people just need presence, witnessing, and love to heal.

When you’re in the wake of a breakup, you get to be discerning about who is on your Healing Team. You don’t need everyone; you just need a core person or two or three who can stay near you as your hurt and process. Here’s what you can do:

  • Ask for what you need, to the degree you know what that is. One day it might be, “I need to be distracted, can we go to the gym?” Another day it might be, “I need to talk about my relationship. Can you just listen?”
  • Empower yourself to say “no, thank you” to that which resembles misguided support.
  • Thank people when they offer support in a way that feels nourishing to you. What we focus on, we get more of.

Bottom line: Creating closure for yourself also involves your commitment to practicing healthy boundaries with your family and friends, even the well-intentioned ones.

CONCLUSION

In this article, I validated the desire for closure. I offered you a way to reimagine closure—as wholeness not doneness. I made the case for why closure needs to come from you, not your ex. I talked about how the way out is through. That closure comes from letting yourself grieve. I discussed the pain-to-pang transition. I talked about how you can create closure via firm and clear boundaries with your ex. Finally, I talked about how you can create closure via boundaries and asking for what you need from your family and friends. I hope you have found this a helpful read. We will pick up next time to discuss breakup regret. 

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