We Should Stop Obsessing Over ‘Closure’ And Just Learn To Live With Ghosts

Vinh Pham

I’m still haunted by memories of the one that got away. I can’t explain his continued and occasionally overwhelming presence in my mind, considering that it’s been nearly half a decade since he departed from my life. We even had our “closure” moment… twice.

We briefly reunited one year after the first one, a post-mortem lunch that only made me want him more. Within a year, we were back together, only to break apart again a month later. Our second “closure” moment was an amicable and civilized conversation in which we agreed parting was the best way forward. Although I convinced myself that was true, more than four years after our last contact (seriously – not even once have I given in to temptation to Facebook stalk him), I think about him practically every day and regularly play rounds of “What if?” in my head.

Call me crazy, stupid, still in love, but I’m not above harboring a fantasy of one final reunion that will end in “…till death do we part,” a matrimonial reference to the ultimate closure. I have no idea if I ever cross his mind. Maybe he’s achieved his closure, but I certainly haven’t achieved mine.

Ah, closure, aka resolution, denouement, The End. The first time I heard that word, it was 1994, and a different now-ex boyfriend was talking. I can’t recall what made him say it, but the word stuck in my mind, mostly because I’ve heard it a million times since.

On TV, in movies, in real life, everyone (well, mostly women and gay men) talks about “closure.” It was an unspoken theme of the 2004 film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In that fruitloop daydream rom-com, the main characters played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet pursued romantic closure through a sci-fi process in which their great loves – each other – were completely erased from their memory drives.

That’s a lot to go through simply to reclaim your life after love – especially since the characters still ended up together.

So much for closure!

When people use the term in real life, they’re talking more along the lines of an apology, an explanation, or an after-the-fact conversation to hash out where things went wrong and why. Those events are supposed to bring us closer to the emotional holy grail that is closure. It’s like wrapping up months or years or decades in a box and locking it up deep inside your psyche without racking up a therapy bill.

But as any therapist will tell you for free, love and life are messy. Tidying them up, if possible, takes a lot more than an apology, an explanation, or one soul-baring encounter. That begs my question of the day: Is closure an impossible dream?

As I understand its meaning, “closure” signals an ending. In romance, you’ve achieved it when you can officially file a relationship under “dead.” We tend to pursue it in some form of communication or communion with the other person involved. In lieu of a tête-à-tête to discuss why he/she dumped us by email, text, or Post-it, perhaps we write a four-page letter to the one we love/loved detailing all the ways in which he/she hurt us.

But does the closure that supposedly follows really bring us lasting peace?

Anyone who has ever been dumped by one true love knows you never really get over it. You might move on, possibly even fall for someone else, but the old love wound lives just under the skin, waiting for the tiniest emotional paper cut to send it oozing blood all over again.

As someone who has sworn off four-page letters after writing too many of them in the past, I can say sorting through your feelings in writing helps, but those four pages don’t really close the book on anything. You still go over and over the minutiae of the relationship in your head. You still think about the other person a thousand times a day until you don’t. When you finally “get over” it, you might not notice for days, weeks, or even months, because it happened when you weren’t looking.
But beware. All it takes is one trigger for all of those old emotions to come rushing back to center stage. Oops! Goodbye, closure.

Would we be better off if the other person were dead – or rather “dead”? Would that be a more effective form of closure?

In the 2016 film Looking: The Movie, Patrick’s 22-year-old pick-up shares some words of millennial wisdom after Patrick tells him he has contacted an ex after months of nothing. The goal of this reconnection? Closure, naturally.

“You have to bury your dead real good, you know? So they don’t come back to haunt you,” the twentysomething gay oracle advises. Clearly he’s not a fan of Patrick’s method of gaining closure.

David Vickers, a character on the defunct daytime soap One Life to Live once said something similar. He told another character that the way he gets over any break-up is by pretending the other person is dead. Maybe that’s the idea behind “ghosting,” a social media buzzword that sounds far more dramatic than merely ignoring someone.

Unfortunately for David Vickers and for Patrick’s trick, the dead and buried can still come back to haunt us. The key is to embrace living with the undead dead, though they may not be as welcome in our lives as zombies are on our TV and movie screens. Learning to co-exist with the ghosts of relationships past might be the only way to find true peace before our own afterlife.

The goal shouldn’t be closure through communication or communion or “death,” for as romantic entanglements go, “The End” isn’t necessarily the end anyway. Every story – even love stories that have been over for years, or decades – can be rebooted in an instant. It’s not until the real end, death without quotation marks, that “closure” in the truest sense of the word can be achieved, and then, only for those who are no longer around to benefit from it. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

More From Thought Catalog