After a tragic loss or traumatic breakup, we'd all like to believe there's a way to turn off the pain switch and get back to normal life. So when well-meaning friends and family say "you just to find some closure," we think that's the answer. Once we achieve this mythical state of closure, we hope, the pain will disappear and the bad memories will be wiped clean.
The problem, psychologists say, is that closure — at least as we understand it in popular culture — doesn't really exist. In fact, by searching for permanent closure to emotional pain, they say, we are closing ourselves off to healthier ways of processing difficult experiences.
The concept of closure comes from Gestalt psychology. Gestalt began as a way of understanding how the mind perceives and processes images, and one of the principles of Gestalt perception is that the mind seeks closure. Even if an image of a circle is incomplete, the mind still perceives it as a circle.
Over time, this principle crossed over to the processing of life experiences. If you suffered an unresolved trauma in the past, Gestalt taught, then you were unable to fully move on until the issue was "closed" in some way. This led to therapeutic techniques like "the empty chair," in which participants would imagine the source of their "unfinished business" — an abusive parent or deceased lover — sitting in the chair and speaking to them. While empty chair therapy often provided a short-term emotional release, it didn't free the subjects from long-term pain.
Despite the questionable efficacy of Gestalt therapy, the belief that closure is a panacea for emotional pain became deeply embedded in American pop psychology. It's a favorite of the news media where the families of murder victims or people affected by terrorist attacks are always looking for "closure." And it's a cliché of daytime talk shows, when a jilted lover is brought on stage to confront her lousy ex so she can finally get some closure.
The truth, says psychotherapist Ashley Davis Bush, is that the kind of closure peddled by pop psychology isn't really achievable. Nor should it be.
We Want Happy Endings
"Americans like happy endings," says Davis Bush, author of "Hope and Healing for Transcending Loss." "We're a feel-good society. We like clean-cut things. We want to believe there's an end to pain. In reality, it's not that the pain ends, but it changes over time."
When Bush sees clients who are grieving a lost spouse or close family member, she doesn't talk about achieving closure, which to her is the equivalent to trying to close the door on honest, if sometimes painful emotions. Instead, she uses terms like "healing" and "growth," and helps surviving spouses learn how to "live with loss," how to carry the precious memory of the loved one with them in positive ways.
"I also call it 'living with the love,' Bush says, "really allowing the memories of that person to fortify you. Recognizing that you're a different person because you loved them, that they're still with you in certain essential ways, and not being afraid to honor that relationship."
Honoring a relationship with a deceased spouse doesn't mean that the widow or widower is stuck in the past or will be unable to form new relationships. In fact, it's often the opposite. By not attempting to blunt or shut down their honest feelings, they remain emotionally alive. Bush has clients who, after passing through a period of intense grief, have fallen in love again and even remarried without sacrificing deep feelings of loyalty to their first husband or wife.
But what about divorces and bad breakups? Is it still a bad idea to seek closure if you're having a hard time moving on from a painful end to a long-term relationship?
"That's a different situation," Bush says. "I do think that closure is more relevant when you have the end of a relationship. There really are elements of closure, whether it's signing the divorce papers or moving out of the apartment you shared. There's a more specific kind of closure that we think is achievable."
Yet at the same time we are always affected by our past relationships and will carry those experiences with us. Bush says we still need to learn how to "honor" the relationship and gather wisdom from it, even if it didn't end the way we imagined it would. The question, she says, is whether the emotional baggage we take away from the relationship will be heavy or light.
One way to lighten our emotional baggage, research has shown, is to write about the breakup. Specifically, researchers asked 100 people who had recently experienced a breakup to journal for 30 minutes a day for three consecutive days. A portion of participants was told to write exclusively about positive aspects of the breakup and how they've grown because of it. After the writing exercise, this group reported no increase in negative emotions and a boost of positive outcomes including comfort, confidence, empowerment, optimism, thankfulness and wisdom.