When relationships break, confrontation will never lead to a sense of closure or healing. Introspection will…

A few weeks ago, I overheard a conversation between two young men sitting next to me on a flight. It's very hard, when you're packed like cattle in an aircraft of a low-cost airline, to have any private conversations, more so if your co-passengers are psychiatrists with biggish ears. And although I missed key portions of said conversation since the commander from the flight deck was insisting on furnishing details of our cruising altitude, the outside temperature and other such perfectly useless trivia, I heard enough to figure out that one of the young men was going through a rather messy break-up of a romantic relationship and his friend was exhorting him to confront his recently erstwhile girlfriend so he could apply adequate ‘closure' to the relationship. The young man was advised that once he did this, he would experience a huge sense of relief and would be able to get on with his life and perhaps start dating again.

The term ‘closure' has obtained wide currency in the context of relationships, whether romantic or otherwise, in contemporary life. The expectation is that a certain procedure has to be followed if we are to come to terms with the termination of relationships and that this ‘closure by confrontation' process will enable us to heal from the trauma. The general understanding is that closure takes place only by confronting the person or persons who we see as being responsible for the trauma. And that unless we do this, we will be stuck like hamsters on a treadmill, never free to move on.

Marketable concept

In truth, ‘closure' is not really a psychological concept. It's an American ‘pop psychology' invention that has sold large numbers of self-help books and innumerable day-time talk shows. Rarely is it used in reference to actually closing or terminating a relationship, which in fact is what closure really means. The way it is used is really a reflection of a typical American response to a traumatic event — liability. Who's to blame for the emotional pain? And if somebody is, then the somebody has to pay for it, or at least, take responsibility for it; thereby, it is believed, assuaging, at least to some extent, the devastation caused to the sufferer. However, most people who have attempted this sort of ‘closure by confrontation' do not experience the relief from pain that they expect to, and often come away from the confrontation with a feeling that the ‘offender' was defensive, aggressive, irrational, glib or all of the above. For, very few people have the maturity to respond to personal attacks with calm and good cheer.

What most of us don't understand is that ‘closure' takes place inside our minds. We have to grieve over the traumatic event, understand it and come to terms with it through a process of introspection, ventilation and perhaps, therapy if required. But, if we are dependent on the mature response of the ‘other' to make us feel better, it only means we are still hurting and want the ‘other' to make the pain go away. And this, believe me, is never going to happen simply because the same reasons that caused the break in the relationship will continue to operate even during the process of confrontation. Also, take my word for it, confrontations to deliver a broadside or two are most certainly not going to help you heal, and unless you heal, you're never going to be able to apply closure.

Key to moving on

The way I see it, closure happens when we learn to forgive. Not the person or situation that caused us pain, but ourselves. And the reason for this is fairly straightforward. We can take responsibility only for our own behaviour. We cannot force someone else to take responsibility for theirs. Also when we are in emotional pain, we can only see the situation from our own point of view, never that of the other person. But what most of us are not quite ready to acknowledge is that a fair portion of the anger and pain is directed against ourselves and therefore, we direct it towards the perceived cause of the pain.

It is not important to the healing process that the other person understand how devastated we are and provide us an explanation for the breakdown of the relationship. For, nothing that the ‘other' says will be acceptable to us. What is important is that we understand what happened, learn from it and realise that notwithstanding the trauma of the breakup, the relationship did contribute to making us better people. Sometimes, after we've gone through this process, we might or might not want to have a bit of a ‘ chat' with the other. This will work only if both have applied closure in their respective minds and are meeting, not with the purpose of discussing the break up or to rant at each other, but just to clear the air. Of course some mature acknowledgement of the broken relationship may or may not happen, but it's not critical that it does. Nor should one feel compelled to forge an agreement to remain ‘friends'.

Finally, it's only when we ‘let go' of the trauma from our minds, does proper closure take place. And only then do we really move on.

Email the writer: vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com