Wanting Closure


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Dear Susan,

I just got dumped and I need to understand why! I met Ty pretty early in the year at a tailgate, and since then we’ve been hanging out a lot and having a great time together. I’m so attracted to him, and I know that he felt the same way! We weren’t official or anything, but recently he said he was going to miss me over Thanksgiving break. I just felt that things were going really, really well.

Then nothing. He just stopped. He stopped texting, didn’t respond to me, and once on campus he pretended he didn’t see me when I know he did. Last weekend at a party he was clearly trying to get with some other girl, and I felt like he wanted me to see, like he was trying to make me jealous. Could that mean he still likes me? Is there some sort of misunderstanding?

My friends just say “another one bites the dust” but I’m just so frustrated and sad. The worst thing is not knowing the reason. I feel like if I could understand why he changed his mind I could get closure and move on. Should I ask him if we can talk? Doesn’t he owe me that much? 


Ah, closure. We all want closure, a sort of magical bullet that numbs the pain and kickstarts the process of finding the next great thing. The term “closure” as a psychological end point of some sort is relatively recent – when I was in college we had no such word for it, but of course we suffered the same kind of anxiety around uncertainty.

There’s a good article on closure at Science of Relationshipsand I was surprised to learn that there’s no agreed upon definition for it. In my experience, the need for closure generally focuses on two kinds of uncertainty:

Is it really over?

Why is it over?

In the first case, we don’t want closure at all – we usually want to enliven a flagging relationship or facilitate getting back together. We may think of this as not giving up, or refusing to let someone go. We may even consider this a noble expression of true love, or take pride in our loyalty. In truth, it usually means we’re in denial – refusing to accept something that has actually been made pretty clear. 

In the event that the relationship really is over – we get an outright and firm rejection – then we want to know why. Why, why, why? There are generally several reasons we want to know this:

  1. Maybe there’s a misunderstanding I can clear up and then things can go back to being great. 
  2. What mistake did I make? Was I too needy? Too distant? Not good in bed? Boring? I need to know so that I can improve and get him back, or at the very least not do the same thing next time!
  3. Maybe this has nothing to do with me! Maybe he has cancer, or he’s struggling in class. I know, his dog died. Maybe he’s “got a lot going on right now.”
  4. Is the reason that he has figured out that I am just not good enough? Not pretty enough, not feminine enough, not interesting enough, not sexy enough? I knew it!

Psychologists do agree that the goal in getting closure is that we no longer want to feel attachment or pain. We want to move on, i.e., leave those feelings of want and hurt behind. But it may be that we’re better off looking for meaning rather than closure. The relationship ended. We didn’t want it to, and we don’t know why it stopped. Accept that. Psychologists believe that learning to live with those questions that can never really be answered for us enables us to get better at living with anxiety around uncertainty. Anxiety is part of the human experience, but we can get better at tolerating it.

The thing is, Ty doesn’t want to talk about why he ended it. He’s avoiding you because as awkward as that is, it’s easier than having a difficult emotional conversation that includes hurting your feelings. Even if he was willing to talk, he may not even know what to say. “I realized I wasn’t as attracted to you as I thought.”  To which you would ask, “But why? What happened to change your mind?” He would reply, “I don’t know but it changed.” My guess is that when he made a show of hitting on another girl, he wasn’t trying to make you jealous, but to send a loud and clear message: “We’re done.” 

I have seen girls go several through several rounds of Why?, asking the guy, asking his friends, asking their own friends. The truth is that you’re never really going to get a satisfactory answer. You have to accept the loss, grieve it, and heal from it. My guess is that you won’t feel pain for very long given that you weren’t together very long. You may always remain curious or puzzled, but after some time passes it won’t matter much.

When I started college, I met a guy at a party. I thought he was so handsome, my heart was pounding. But he was kind of awkward – sort of a brooding loner type. He didn’t talk about his feelings much, but he moved the relationship forward and we went out pretty frequently. He asked me to a New Year’s Eve party, and the following week we were both going on a college ski trip so I felt secure that we were becoming an established couple. On New Year’s Eve he got really sloppy drunk, and he wound up crashing with me. As I tucked him in he grabbed my hands and said, “Hey, I wanna tell you something. I love you. OK? I love you.”

The next morning he was gone when I woke up and he never spoke to me again. It took me months to get past it. He didn’t date anyone else, but he avoided me. Eventually, I got together with someone else, but I never forgot about it. Two years later I saw him at a Halloween party. He was friendly (and drunk again) so I looked at him and said, “Why?” That’s all I said. He looked me in the eye and said, “I was scared.” And that was that. I got my closure, but by then I didn’t need it, I just had some residual curiosity.

This can happen in friendships too. One day my best friend stopped talking to me. I was 30, I’d just had my first child, and we had been very good friends in grad school and the following years in NY. I never learned why. She didn’t tell any of our friends the reason. 27 years later I still dream about her, and the painful end of that friendship. I will never have closure, but I’ve learned to live with the uncertainty. 

You will have other opportunities, there will be other guys. One of them will be a good match for you and he won’t disappear. Ty will be a footnote, entry #12 in your “College Drama” diary. He wasn’t right for you. It sucks, because you like him. 

There is no such thing as closure. There is only living your life one day at a time until the hurt subsides. Some guys will hurt you, and you will hurt some guys. Ultimately, the relationship that feels right and works will be the one you keep, and all the false starts will have just been part of the experience of learning what you want and need in a relationship.