A couple of years ago, I received a quite unexpected email from a college boyfriend. I’d only talked to him once since then after a mutual friend had died. That conversation had focused on memories and the unique grief we shared.
But this time, he shared one of his memories about us. It seems that one evening I offered scholarly advice about how to wash dishes using very hot water – “so they’d dry more quickly.” He laughed, saying to this day he’d remember that domestic advice when he was performing the – at times – dreaded chore.
The email ended with a sweet sentence about gratitude for our relationship.
I teared up when I read it. I returned the same kind of message to him – one of kind reminiscence and appreciation.
What’s sad for me… I can think of only two other relationships in my life that ended with that kind of respect. And although I’ve tried, from my perspective, to achieve such closure – my efforts have largely been rejected. Instead, especially with my ex’s, I’ve been met with continued resentment and certainly, little to no talk of how each of us was responsible for what was good – and what went wrong.
Ironically, of course, if we’d had the ability to have that conversation, those marriages might’ve had a better chance of survival.
If you long for emotional closure…
Many people long for this kind of emotional closure. This is true not just for divorce or other romantic relationships that end, but also for friendships that suffered from misunderstanding or betrayal of confidences, or familial estrangement from a sibling or a parent. Even if there isn’t hope or desire for complete reconciliation, people can carry tremendous pain when a relationship that was once extremely vital in their lives didn’t end respectfully. It’s painful to recognize that such important people are now gone without having mutual understanding of the situation and its untangling.
“I hear that she blames me for everything. I want her to know that I really cared for her.”
“He just disappeared.. I still don’t have a clue what went wrong.”
What You Can Do to Get Closure On Your Own…
Yet there are things you can do to help yourself get the closure you need. It takes time and patience. But you can do it. Here are four ways to you to get emotional closure — for yourself.
Realize that not everyone has the willingness to take responsibility for themselves.
Often the conversation you can imagine having is just that – your imagination or your fantasy. The other person doesn’t have the capacity to have an objective conversation with you. They’re not withholding something from you; they simply weren’t ever capable of doing that in the first place. You misjudged. You thought you could fix them. They prefer to blame you, and live in that blame. Maybe they’re a narcissist and can’t fathom their own culpability.
There’s simply no way they’re going to sit down with you, and rationally and reasonably talk about the issues that ate away at your relationship. You’re only in control of half of that discussion.
This realization is painful, but also can free you from continuing to seek something that doesn’t exist.
Quit trying so hard and give it time.
If someone is blaming and even vicious toward you, your attempts at trying to change their mind is likely to fuel the flame. Your own anxiety will feed their antagonistic impulses. Give it time and give them some space. Maybe a cooling off period is needed.
Maybe you’ll get closure together, but maybe you won’t. Trust that you can live with both.
Maintain your own integrity.
This lack of closure is especially hard if the two of you have children together, and will be amplified if your ex has an agenda to disparage you in front of the kids or maintain a blaming stance.
One of several ideas is to talk to your child in an age-appropriate way about the fact that your perspective differs from your ex – and that may be hard for them to handle. But you can empower them to ask you or your ex to stop saying hurtful things about the other in their presence.
You can grow to trust that who you are will shine through. Be mindful of your own integrity and don’t be controlled by what your ex is doing or saying.
Guide your own life in a way that reflects your values. Your children will learn. But it might be painful to watch.
Make sure you’re moving through all of your feelings.
It’s hard enough when relationships end that you’ve valued or worked hard on. Add a lack of closure to that picture, and it can cause a more complicated grief.
As in all grief, try to notice whether or not you’re moving through all the emotions of loss: denial, anger, fear, sadness, loneliness, confusion. Feel all of these feelings and take the time to grieve.
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Originally published on July 30, 2016; updated and republished on October 22, 2023.
Photo by Simone Dasgoni.