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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak

Finding Closure After a Breakup

At the root of many malfunctioning relationships and unhappy break ups lie two stories that run alongside one another but never manage to align or converge, about who has done what to whom and why. In the mind of one of the participants, the reason why, after so many fights and frustrated evenings, matters eventually had to come to end might be summarised like this:

My partner was cold: I tried so hard to ask them for greater emotional connection. But they always got furious and defensive – and eventually I had to give up to preserve my sanity.

But in the mind of the other partner (who might have spent five years in the very same bed as them), the story of exactly the same relationship might sound very different:

My partner was demanding and paranoid, always suspecting that I didn’t love them.  But I did! Just in a different way. They kept getting furious and frustrated with me – and eventually that became impossible.

It is extremely gratifying to have to hand a story of a breakup that feels familiar, that positions one in a benevolent light and that casts doubt on the integrity of the departed lover. But unless a story can also in some way be corroborated by its co-creator, there is likely to be an enduring problem for both partners psychologically. We will be left feeling strangely dissatisfied, uneasy, questioning and, in our more courageous moments, sceptical as to whether we have in fact really understood what happened and why – together – we failed. We will have left but, as the expression puts it, we will be lacking ‘closure’.

Closure doesn’t involve magically eradicating all differences between two stories, but in harmonising points of view into a more generous joint narrative that holds room for alternate realities. 

The difficulty of life without closure is that one or the other party must continuously be entirely right and the other, by necessity, entirely wrong, as if love were a court of law where the outcome had to be binary, and either someone would be wholly guilty or they would be wholly exonerated. So, in the case of our imagined story, either one partner was unnaturally cold and the other completely reasonable in the way they set about trying to build intimacy. Or else the allegedly cold partner was in fact thoroughly sane and it was their partner who was in every way peculiar in the intensity of their demands. This sterile debate may go on for years within the couple – and then in each person’s mind for decades after the break up.

But part of why we cannot rest easy is that we suspect – with good reason – that any story which feels too gratifying and too flattering to our own interests must in the end only ever be half a story – and half-stories have an unfortunate habit of not allowing us to sleep as well as we should. The choice is between clinging to a sense of being unquestionably ‘right’ – or of allowing ourselves to understand the reality of love.

The true story of the relationship, told from an Olympian vantage point by a warm-hearted narrator, will always involve a judicious blend of sympathies. Without knowing any of the specifics, we can be sure that the direction will be towards nuance and ambiguity. Yes, the partner was in certain ways at the colder end of things, but let’s call this emotional avoidance rather than coldness, as that term deserves sympathy and is hugely understandable, given their complicated and painful early history. And of course, the way the other person handled that tendency was not especially admirable. Shouting ‘be warmer to me, you weirdo!’ is a paradoxical request at the best of times. Then again, it would be fairer to say that this afflicted character wasn’t just mean, they were anxiously attached, a phenomenon which also has a history and carries with it plenty of grounds for compassion.

It takes great courage to surrender a tenacious hold on an overly neat story and to wonder whether what’s written down in an ex’s ‘book’ might hold one or two truths that we could benefit from assimilating. But when we dare finally to surrender full control and feel confident enough to cast ourselves in a not entirely heroic light, we will come into possession of something even more important than a neat story: a multi-faceted, intelligent, kind and closed one.

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