Last week I wrote about grudges and why it is so important to let them go. I like to give you guys facts rather than half-baked ideas. So, while I did my research, I found myself questioning why we are so driven to find closure after a breakup.
I had a strong inclination that the motivation behind following this desire was really just another reason to prolong a way of thinking that allows us to hope for reconciliation. Basically an excuse to hold onto that tiny little notion that your ex and you might get back together. I found myself down an internet rabbit hole so-to-speak.
But that was just my wild guess. So I started digging. The topic was really quite interesting.
I mean, we, as humans, are naturally curious people. But what fuels the need we have for things to be complete? Why can’t something just end and we accept that? I am all too familiar with the uneasiness that comes with leaving things undone.
I know I’m not the only one.
Take Napoleon, for example. He was notoriously known for his curiosity. He even invaded Egypt simply to satiate his mere interest in the Egyptian culture.
That very invasion of Egypt led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which over time wound up in London, where to this day it remains in the British Museum.
The Stone itself was the subject of hundreds of men’s curiosity during that time.
Drawings of the stone started to circulate. Intellectuals from all over Europe became invested in a contest to decipher the hieroglyphs and in turn unlock keys to several other mysteries hidden within the same hieroglyphs that had been indecipherable for ages.
Everyone wanted the fame and fortune that would come with being the first to figure out what it meant. The further they got into their journey to decipher it, the more questions they got than answers.
People from every fathomable walk of life tried their hand at figuring out how to make the common language and the hieroglyphs match up, seeing as they were supposed to say the exact same thing.
However, no one could figure out how the characters in one language matched up with the symbols of the other, and vice versa.
Enter Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832).
He came from a family with no measurable wealth and had no formal education. However, from a young age he found himself enamored with the history of the ancient civilizations.
He studied several ancient languages, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and many more. All of which he mastered by the time he turned twelve.
Eventually Champollion’s interest came to land on the Rosetta Stone. After setting his sights on it, he went about it in a different approach than any of the other people making attempt. He was not after the fame or fortune.
He was solely driven by one thing, curiosity. He learned the many languages of Egypt and how they progressed over time. He looks at the two languages holistically rather than systematically, as if they were images rather than individual words.
Eventually, Champollion was the one to crack the Rosetta Stone, l thanks to his taking on a different perception of the writings.
His approach was to look at the problem as a whole from as many angles as possible. In the process, the unknown came to unravel revealing any answers he sought and much more.
This is the exact opposite of the natural way people think. Generally, a situation is looked at as if it is two-dimensional, with only one way to approach it.
Champollion had the right idea though. It’s more like a situation is three dimensional and can be approached from all sides.
(If we were having fun and talking science-y stuff we could make an argument for a four-dimensional way of looking at things, but I don’t think that’s necessary.)
So, If you take this into account, dealing with a situation like a breakup deals greatly in your perception of the situation.
However, when the answers lie within someone else’s mind, one can only speculate. Most of the time, the truth is withheld by that other person leaving the one looking for answers without any logical explanation and often with even more questions than before.
What’s funny to me is that, by taking on the quest to understand something, we inevitably open ourselves up to two possibilities.
The first is that we will find an answer and our curiosity will be satiated.
Whether that discovery is one we want to hear or not is left to be seen. And if the answer is one we don’t want to hear, there is the question as to whether we accept the answer given or whether we opt to disregard it all together and continue searching for the truth.
This happens all too often I find and is why I have that inclination that some people hold onto the idea of closure simply to postpone accepting the end of a relationship.
However, there is also a second possibility, that we will not find an answer at all.
When faced with the lack of an answer, like Champollion, our minds know that a solution, or explanation, exists somewhere. Newton’s
Third Law states “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This can be applied to happenings in life as well. The ebb and flow of the tide is a reaction to the moon and sun’s gravitational pull combined with the rotations of the earth.
The cause for wind is a difference in atmospheric pressure which causes air to flow from the higher to the lower pressure area. However, there are some things for which the cause is unknown. It’s not that a cause doesn’t exist. It’s just that it hasn’t been discovered yet.
For example, the sailing rocks of Death Valley. Since the 1940’s scientists have speculated at the reasons these rocks travelled, seemingly on their own, across the desert floor. It had essentially been labelled a phenomenon.
However, in 2013, the mystery of the rocks was finally solved by two cousins, also scientists, who placed rocks with GPS trackers on one end of the playa.
They found that during the colder months, the entire area would be covered in a shallow pond. When the temperatures dropped at night, the water entire area would be blanketed in a sheet of ice.
Often gripping the rocks within it. During the day as the temperatures rose, the sheet of ice on top of the area would break into sheets and shift as they melted, taking the rocks with them as they moved.
The rocks would drag the floor of the playa, leaving trails. Eventually, as the temperature rose, the ice would melt and the water would evaporate, leaving the rocks in their new position with trails behind them.
The change in temperature and moisture created the perfect environment for the rocks to slide. And because no one had gained a permit to observe them until the two cousins, the rock’s movement had retained its mystery.
Like the scientists, our minds continue to yearn and search for that explanation. Even when faced with an impossible answer, an answer still exists.
Feeding The Curiosity
So what is it that makes our curiosity so… insatiable?
Curiosity originates in our desire to fill a gap in our knowledge.
Let’s make this visual.
Just roll with it. My thoughts can get a little abstract.
The pictures help.
Let’s imagine that everyone in the world possesses a wall and this wall is made up of all of the knowledge we possess.
When we are babies, we know very little. So we may as well only have a few bricks, because our knowledge is limited.
However, when we are brought face to face with something interesting that we lack knowledge in, our wall expands.
That desire to fill the gap leads us to search out the information necessary to fill it. This drive would be curiosity.
Now, as we grow in age, our wall grows in height as well, depending on how much knowledge we accumulate in the areas we take interest in.
The wall, symbolizing our knowledge, continues to expand as we are faced with questions that need answered throughout our lives.
Some people are naturally more curious than others. Their walls would be roughly the size of the Great Wall of China. All the while, others might be inclined to be less curious, rarely leaving their comfort zone and keeping their knowledge limited.
So, you can imagine, when a person falls in love, they create an entire section of information based on their relationship.
I mean, being in love you will constantly want to know more about the person and their interests. You’ll learn new things together. And create memories.
That being said, after a relationship is over, it’s almost as if an entire section of that wall is now useless knowledge that has been set apart from the rest of the wall, leaving a space full of questions.
“What did I do wrong?”
“Is there anything I can do to fix this?”
“What do I do now?”
The human mind doesn’t just crave answers. It craves simple answers.
And I think we can all agree there aren’t many simple answers in this situation.
According to a TedTalk with Ameya Naik, psychologist, analyst and graduate student from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, there is only one accurate and honest answer to every single question we could ever ask.
And he has a point.
“I don’t know.”
Except that is an unsatisfying answer.
I chose to bring up Ameya Naik’s TedTalk because in it he told a story about a huge controversy surrounding a bombing in India when he was young. The brother of a terrorist involved was caught and sentenced to death.
Note: I’m paraphrasing here. It was a much longer and detailed story. But you just need to know the gist.
It took 20 years of debates before they ever carried out the guy’s sentence. Ameya was part of those debates. The debates concerned the brother’s level of involvement and whether it deserved capital punishment.
In 2015, two days before the man was to be executed, the Supreme Court of India convened and denied his final appeal.
Once the man had been executed, anyone who still debated the specifics of his case was suddenly labeled a terrorist sympathizer.
“On 29th June, it was a complex issue. On 30th June, it was inexplicably simple, even to some people who were familiar with the legal intricacies right until that moment.”
He goes on to talk about the different reasons this happens. One of which is emotion, quite possibly one of the strongest motivators there is.
From here he talks about fear and uncertainty.
No one likes to be in a situation where they are uncertain and don’t know the answers, especially when the question is, “Why did things end with someone who was supposed to care about and respect me?”
In 1990, a researcher named Arie Kruglanski came up with the “need for closure”. The scale he created measured a person’s need for an answer on a given topic.
“The NFCS was designed to assess individuals’ “motivation with respect to information processing and judgment.” Need for cognitive closure is defined as a desire for an answer in order to end further information processing and judgment, even if that answer is not the correct or best answer.”
I mean, is this not totally true?
When I was in school studying visual art and business, we learned the technique of using a broken line to convey a shape in one of my art classes.
Look at the picture below.
When you look at the picture, do you still see a triangle?
There aren’t complete sets of lines there to tell you the shapes, and yet you still see them. Your mind filled in the space that is missing without even consulting you first.
But… how cool!
That is just the way our minds work. When something is incomplete, it seeks to correct the issue without you even realizing it.
It’s why we, as humans, are so good at pattern recognition. And why I burst into song when someone uses a simple phrase in regular conversation.
You can’t tell me that when someone says “We’re halfway there?” that you don’t want to sing “Woah-oh! Livin’ on a Prayer.”
Our brain wants so badly for things to be finished and complete that it will literally just make it happen on its own.
It can be pretty cool. Or, in my case, it can have your friends constantly rolling their eyes before I can even get the first Adele “It’s me” out of my mouth when they yell “Hello” as they walk in the door.
So it’s not entirely surprising that, after a breakup, we find ourselves lying in bed every night staring at the ceiling for hours, unable to sleep. And fighting the urge at two o’clock in the morning to call our now ex to demand his explanation for what happened to our relationship.
I hear so many people after a breakup demand that the “need closure.”
But what even is closure?
“I just need to know what happened!”
“I need to understand.”
While our curiosity to grasp the unknown has been the driving force behind all of our major discoveries and every brilliant invention ever
made, the need to know isn’t always a positive force.
Humans don’t deal with the unresolved well.
Closure is when the desire for answers no longer exists.
This can be attributed to a different word as well, acceptance.
I prefer acceptance over closure.
You see the difference between the two is that closure requires answers, whereas acceptance can be obtained regardless of whether an answer is given or not.
This drive to gain closure formulates in the Hippocampal formation, or HCF. This area of the brain controls short term memory, long term memory, and spatial navigation. Some studies suggest that our memories are ties to places, basically mapping out the world in terms of what we remember at any given position in it.
They also suggest that by having a memory or an emotion tied to something tangible like a place or an item gives the memory or emotion a feeling of being more “real”.
This is why, after a breakup, our emotions about the breakup aren’t tied to anything in particular. There is no solid idea, or reason that can explain completely why things didn’t pan out as expected.
The result is jumbled thoughts and an inability to focus on anything else. This is intensified in the time after a breakup because of the intense emotions.
Some people spend years searching for answers.
Is it even possible
Yes, closure is possible in two forms.
One, you confront your ex and ask for an explanation. The only downside to this is that most of the time an ex will sugar coat their reasons as to why the relationship didn’t work, either to keep from hurting you or to keep you from getting mad at them.
What I’m saying is, even if you get an answer, it might not be one you can accept. I mean let’s face it, even if he tells you the truth, sometimes the truth isn’t what we want.
Two, you get closure from accepting that you won’t get closure.
Don’t Just Take My Word for It
Nancy Berns is a sociologist at Drake University. I once heard her deliver a speech on closure and in it she debunked closure as a myth of sorts.
She laid it out like this:
Joy and Grief – Closure as a Bridge Between the Two
Most people imagine that joy and grief are two separate states. This means that the promise of closure is a means of traveling from a state of grief to a state of joy.
The only stipulation is that you take all of the memories that cause you grief and put them in a box and leave them in the state of grief when you go back to being joyous. I like her way of describing it because it gives you a metal image of the idea she’s putting forth.
However, this concept that most people accept is misleading.
Joy and Greif are not separate states. They coincide.
The idea that you can only be happy or only be sad at any given moment is to severely underestimate the complexity that is you.
A few years back, a friend of mine and I went out to the lake with some inner tubes and a cooler. We tied our tubes together and decided to spend the entire afternoon just floating. We chatted away, but eventually both of us wound up dozing off. When I woke up, he was gone.
He had gotten a text from some girl and swam back to the house while I continued floating. I think he had planned on returning. But when
I woke I found that I had drifted all the way to the other end of the lake, almost a mile away from where we had gotten in.
Needless to say, this was not in the game plan.
So, there I was, just me, two empty inner tubes, and another inner tube with a cooler in it.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a phone; I had left it back at the house for fear of dropping it in the water. And I didn’t have a lot of options. I could sit there, and hope that he came back to get me, or I could swim the mile back to the dock.
There was one more issue. I couldn’t just leave the inner tubes and the cooler.
I knew it would take a while to swim that entire distance, and it would be dark by the time I got all the way back. It would be impossible to guarantee that we would be able, to drive and find the tubes in the muddy and overgrown edge of the lake.
There was a reason we had gotten in where we did.
So, I did the only thing I could think of. I untied the inner tubes and tied the length of rope together to make on long rope. I wove it through the grommets in the tubes, treading water the whole time.
I tied the end of the rope securely around my ankle and began the swim back.
About halfway across, I became incredible fatigued.
The dramatist in my head shouted, “we’re not going to make it!” I held onto the tube and caught my breath.
It was then that I reminded myself, I had no choice. It was either swim, or wait.
Waiting has never been my forte, especially in the middle of a lake in East Texas where snaked tend to swim when the sun goes down and the water gets cool.
So, I put my mind in charge. When my legs got tired, I used my arms. When my arms got tired I laid on my back and used my legs.
Eventually, exhausted, I found myself within yards from the shore.
There on the dock sat my friend.
He said,” I saw you were already almost back so I figured I’d just wait for you.” I was livid, but the fact that my legs were literally Jell-o overrode my anger as he helped me out.
You see, getting through hard times, a breakup, a death of a loved one, or failing to accomplish something you worked really hard for, is comparable to the lake.
Almost always, an outcome we don’t expect is what we wind up with, like me stuck a mile across a lake with more gear than I should’ve been able to tow. I wasn’t prepared.
You don’t spend the time in a relationship preparing for the fallout of it ending. If you did that you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the relationship at all.
Most people would refer to the emotions you feel after a breakup as baggage.
We go out on the lake a lot, so we spent a lot of money on good gear for when we go. Had I left all of our gear across the lake, it was unlikely that I would find it in the same state it was in when I left it.
I’m going to go ahead and apologize for dropping an economic term on you here.
The opportunity cost of leaving it there didn’t outweigh the benefit of taking it with me, even though it made getting back that much harder.
The idea that you can lock the memories of a relationship away in order to move forward is a complete waste if your relationship was positive in any way. If it brought you joy at any point then those memories are worth keeping, even if there is a little pain in there with the happiness.
Your best bet is to take any pain you have after a relationship and using it as a learning opportunity. Decide what you will and won’t accept in the future. Learn to see through people’s actions.
This is part of why I love psychology so much.
Besides, if you try and hide your memories away simply because they’re painful, you’ll find that they have a tendency to crawl out of that box you put it in and sneak up on you. Like that feral squirrel my dad tamed as a kid that kept eating his way out of a shoebox.
If I were to boil everything down, because we covered a lot today, it would come down to the fact that everyone thinks that closure will be the master solution to why they feel so horrible after a breakup. It’s normal to want to understand what happened.
But, closure doesn’t work the way most people think it does.
If you truly want to move forward and let go of the painful emotions that are stomping all over your heart right now, you have to grab hold of them and make them work for you.
Transform your pain into a learning experience while allowing yourself to hold onto the happy memories you have with your ex.
Some people say that they can’t bear to think of the memories. They’re too painful.
So, what? You just wasted the time you were in that relationship. You’re going to write it off as a lost moment in time?
There is nothing in this world that would make me want to forget the time I spent with any of the people I’ve dated.
Each relationship taught me more about myself than I knew before. Without them I wouldn’t be who I am. Even if they are the biggest jerks on the planet, they gave me that and for that I am grateful.
I hope you can find the strength to swim the distance, even if you’re treading water and find the value in the baggage left in the aftermath of your relationship.
Tame that squirrel, so you don’t have to keep it hidden away in a box and you can just enjoy how awesome it is that you have a pet squirrel…
I mean happy memories that are also useful.