“I just need closure.”
These words are way too familiar to anyone who’s gone through a bad breakup.
As you spend your first newly single days sobbing and bouncing back and forth between “I can do better” and “I’ll be alone forever,” it seems like the best way to make the pain stop—stat.
But it’s an elusive concept—and it may not even be a real thing. “Closure doesn’t exist,” says Nancy Berns, Ph.D., sociologist and author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us.
“It’s an ambiguous term that means something different to every person.” Forgiveness, revenge, forgetting—you have to figure out the root of your yearning first.
A more tangible definition of closure: healing. In other words, even though closure doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean you’ll be in pain forever, Berns says. “You can heal without closure.”
Still, that’s easier said than done. Why is it so freakin’ hard to feel better? One explanation comes from a Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik, in the late 1920s: She hypothesized the reason waiters could remember orders up until they delivered the food was because unprocessed material lingers in our brain.
This so-called Zeigarnik effect applies to loose ends throughout our lives, says Don Cole, LMFT, master certified Gottman therapist and co-founder of The Center for Relationship Wellness in Houston. “Until the information is processed, it’s being worked on in part of our brain.” And it keeps nagging at you, kind of like a stone in your shoe.
Once the case is closed, we can let it go—but that need for closure is a built-in system. Shifting those lingering thoughts into storage typically involves having questions answered, Cole says. And yes, sometimes you have to talk to the other person for this to happen—plain and simple.
But communicating with your ex can trigger painful memories—even physical pain—and set you back in your healing process, Cole points out. Reward, addiction, and emotion regulation systems associated with rejection in love. Fisher HE, Brown LL, Aron A. Journal of neurophysiology, 2010, May.;104(1):1522-1598.
To top it off, it’s likely your ex won’t be able to explain why it ended all that well, Cole adds. In short, unless the breakup was amicable, you’re probably going to leave even more frustrated and wounded than you went in. So, how do you heal without reaching out to catch up over coffee, drinks, or having a screaming match over the phone? Keep reading.
Talk things out with a (neutral) friend
The single best thing you can do: Find a truly empathic friend who can listen to your feelings, Cole says. Science agrees: A study found actively reflecting on a recent breakup can actually help speed the healing process, since it lets you process that information aloud.
But choose your confidante carefully. You’re vulnerable, so it’s important to find someone who won’t tell you how to feel or think but will just be a witness to your pain, both experts agree. Be upfront and tell them what you need, Cole suggests. The payoff is worth any awkwardness you may feel at reaching out for help.
A therapist will work too, but Cole actually recommends the friend route for the neurochemical boost we get from being around people we love.
Load up your Netflix queue with comedies
Your body responds to a breakup like it would any threat—firing up your sympathetic nervous system and flooding your body with chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol. You need to downregulate, Cole says, and convince your body to chill on the internal chaos.
Humor naturally does this, as it helps to buffer some of the negative effects of your fight-or-flight response and may slightly ease anxiety, studies show. “You have to restore the balance to be able to start healing,” Cole adds. Queue up your favorite funny flicks, or grab a friend and head to a comedy club—that way you score the perks of a good laugh and companionship.
Pick up an old hobby you used to love
Don’t confuse staying busy with distracting yourself—you have to let yourself think and feel. “Thinking about things away from other people can help you process your thoughts and feelings,” Berns says. However, focusing on something you enjoy will help you understand what you want, what you miss, and what you need, Berns explains.
Balance your days or weeks with alone time spent grieving and thinking, and activities you really enjoy and can find fulfillment in—whether it’s picking up a paintbrush (or coloring book) or volunteering with animals. Plus, regaining a clear sense of self after a breakup is key to moving on, research shows, so remembering what makes you you will bring you closer to feeling back to normal.
Sweat it off
Any activity that pushes your brain chemistry back toward a more stable state can help too, Cole adds. Exercise offers a ton of unexpected mental health benefits, including stress-relieving, happiness-boosting endorphins, and it provides a way for you to be alone with your thoughts without being still, Berns says. Pounding the pavement also helps restore the balance of your autonomic nervous system, putting your body into a more orderly state. (Scoring that revenge body is just a bonus.)
Take your time
Being in a relationship creates a very real neurochemical and emotional attachment to someone—that’s not going to just heal overnight. One small study even found that on an MRI, the brains of the heartbroken can resemble the brains of those experiencing cocaine withdrawal.
This process takes time, so ignore anyone who says you should “just get over it,” Bern advises. A week, a month, a year—it’s different for everyone. And remember, healing is different than forgetting about your ex completely, Berns points out. Plus, the loss of a relationship can tap into other losses we’ve had in our lives too, so you’re probably processing more than just this breakup.
Finally, some good news: Studies have shown people often overestimate how long it’ll take them to get over their ex, so your heartache will stop a lot sooner than you think. But if you go beyond two weeks of serious symptoms—ones that affect your life, like oversleeping, not sleeping, skipping work, constant anger, or social media stalking—seek help from a therapist to avoid slipping into a clinical situation, Cole recommends.