What Closure Really Looks Like: How to Heal After a Breakup

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Art Credit: Natalie Fong Photography

The end of a relationship signifies a major life change. A walk around town can turn into a painful experience. Restaurants, songs, even the smell of a stranger's cologne can trigger painful memories. Good things get tainted—another frustrating casualty of a breakup.

Take the lyric from Gotye's song "Somebody That I Used To Know": 'But that was love and it's an ache I still remember.' And it's true: That dull ache is pain. An immediate wall goes up, your fortress now closed off from and to that person. Your world is solely yours, and he is just somebody that you used to know. Ouch.

And you can thank your human biology for that sting. A recent study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology found that people going through breakups have physical responses similar to an addict going through withdrawal. You feel out of whack because your body actually is out of whack.

The study observed fifteen people who had just experienced romantic rejection and scanned their brains in an fMRI machine. They were shown two images, an image of the person who had just dumped them and an image of a person they had no attachment to. When the image of an ex-love appeared, their brains mimicked those of withdrawing addicts.

“We found activity in regions of the brain associated with cocaine and nicotine addiction,” says Rutgers University anthropologist and lead study author Helen Fisher. “We also found activity in a region associated with feelings of deep attachment and activity in a region that’s associated with pain.”

The pain may be most prevalent right after the breakup, Fisher's research found:

"In the early days and weeks after a breakup, just thinking about the lover activates several key areas of the brain—the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which controls motivation and reward and is known to be involved in romantic love; the nucleus accumbens and the orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, part of the dopamine reward system and associated with craving and addiction; and the insular cortex and anterior cingulate, associated with physical pain and distress."

So your brain is...a mess. But while breakups do mean the end of one season, they also begin the start of another. Author Elizabeth Svoboda, in her essay "The Thoroughly Modern Guide to Breakups," offers some unique perspective on the goal of a breakup:

"The best breakups, if there is such a thing, enable acceptance and minimize psychic wreckage, so that the pain of the ending doesn’t overwhelm the positive trace of the relationship. For the partnership will take up permanent residence in memory, likely to be revisited many times over the years. The challenge of breaking up is to close the relationship definitively and honorably, without devaluing oneself or the person who previously met one’s deepest needs."

You may not be able to erase him completely from your mind. And the idea of a 'positive trace' about the relationship may be unimaginable at this point. But restoration of self is your next step—and that may or may not guarantee 'closure' how you envision it. The opportunity for you to heal is your first step to ease your pain.

Struggling with your breakup? Nancy Berns, Ph.D., and author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, offers some advice on how to heal—and move beyond—your breakup.

Closing the door on the past never means we leave our memories behind. Experiences from our past shape us—even the painful ones—and healing is more often found in our efforts to learn and grow from these experiences. It's okay to be reminded of the past. Talking to a friend or a therapist is a helpful way to reminisce constructively.

Whenever you get that wave of disappointed hopes, grief, or sadness from some suffering in your past, allow yourself to feel it, take a deep breath, and acknowledge it for what it is. It's okay for suffering to remain just that. In an effort to cheer you, friends might say things like "He's no loss," or "You're better off without him." But this isn't always the healthiest approach. Don't be afraid to remind your friends that, even though you might feel differently later on, right now you are experiencing a sense of loss. And that is OK.

People often associate closure with having the "last word." This kind of unloading is tempting—especially early on—but it too often leads to compounded hurt and increased bitterness. Resist the urge to lash out in person, and instead get it all out on paper. Write down everything that comes to your mind to say. Then walk away. Go for a run or get a massage. Hurtful words can never be unsaid, and although it might feel like those angry words will burn a hole through you now, there will come a time that you'll be thankful you resisted the temptation to say them.

It's tempting to make the person who broke your heart the villain in your lives, but in doing that, you allow your ex to be an antagonistic force in your life. Acknowledge the ways you have been hurt, but release your ex from playing any kind of role in your healing process by focusing on you and your role in the relationship. Ask yourself questions like, "How did I response when he said X?" "How did I react when he did X?" "What would I have done differently?" Now that the relationship is over, his behavior is only relevant in how you learn from it moving forward.

Not everyone has the gift of consolation. Seek out those friends and mentors who have a track record of listening and who will provide you with constructive outlets for your heartbreak. These friends are more likely to encourage you to exercise, pray, meditate, volunteer, and socialize—rather than take down shots of tequila and vent about your ex.

Forgiveness is a crucial element to healing from the past. It can be therapeutic to verbally ask another person for forgiveness or to hear someone ask for your forgiveness. But more often than not, true forgiveness is an internal, personal commitment. Choosing to forgive ourselves and those who have hurt us is a daily decision. It's this heroic act of love, which often goes unseen and unheard, that transforms and heals our hearts.

It's natural to want to retrace every step of a relationship to find out what went wrong. This is helpful to examine to a certain degree, but it's important to accept that there will be some mystery and unanswered questions. Take what you can from the wreckage and leave the rest. Attempting to answer every question will only leave you frustrated and confused.

A big part of moving on is learning from the past. This requires asking and answering honest questions about your past relationship. This isn't always easy, and sometimes it's helpful to ask a friend or a therapist to help you stay focused on growth and rebuilding your life, someone who is truthful when it is sometimes difficult to be.

It's impossible to move forward without hope of a better relationship in the future. It always sounds trite, but hear your friends out when they remind you that good things are in store for you. Even if you don't believe it at first, it's only a matter of time before happiness or even just the anticipation of it will have you smiling again.

Closure doesn't always mean every painful memory is wiped from your brain, and it doesn't mean you would go back and do everything the same—it's an acceptance of the past and a commitment to move forward with hope and courage.

edited on September 24, 2014