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Sometimes the Breakup-Instigator Struggles With Closure

Why was I having so much trouble moving past my own decision to end the relationship?

by Michael Stahl
Apr 12 2018, 2:53pm

Ten months ago I broke up with my live-in girlfriend Sarah, ending a two-and-a-half-year relationship that, for a time, rewarded me with the greatest combination of friendship, compassion, and love I’ve ever experienced. The decision to end it is among the most excruciating things I’ve ever had to do. Though I no longer perceived Sarah as a life partner like I once did, I still harbored plentiful feelings of care and admiration for her. I didn’t want to hurt her, but I wasn’t happy anymore. I didn’t think we were happy anymore.

So I picked an evening to deliver the message, packed a bag, and said the words. Over the course of that night, and in subsequent phone conversations and text messages the rest of the week, I was told by Sarah that I was a terrible communicator—something I conceded then. She also told me I wasn’t ready for a long-term relationship. And then that she never wanted to speak to me again.

“After everything I’ve done for you…” Sarah told me.

I’d expected some of this, but with the way things had been going the previous year—the fights, the noticeable dip in sexy time, and other improprieties on both sides—I didn’t think she would seem so surprised by the breakup.

“So, you mean to tell me you’re happy?” I asked at one point.

“YES!” she said, quickly and without a modicum of doubt.

I’ve had almost no contact with Sarah since then. We figured out some financials strictly through texts and Venmo, and there was a chance encounter on the street that was as awkward as watching a dinner guest eat a meal they’re clearly not enjoying. I’m all but certain it’s better Sarah and I don’t speak; I’ve lingered far too long in exes’ lives before to know how that usually ends up. Still, as I’ve settled into a new apartment, mourned the loss of Sarah, and dated a little bit, I sometimes wonder if I did the right thing, if there was some level of misunderstanding about the relationship on my part. I craved more closure, even though I was the one who broke us up.

Google could not seem to make up its mind when I asked about closure. It mostly told me that it’s bullshit, that people should just be empowered and move on. But it also informed me that closure can be crucial for getting over a breakup, though seemingly not for someone like me, the relationship breaker-upper.

“When someone is rejected and refused honest answers about why the relationship ended, they are left depleted of their dignity,” Mariana Bockarova, who teaches the psychology of relationships at the University of Toronto, wrote in a post for Psychology Today. The person who’s broken up with is, thus, left with great confusion about the breakup and may have a more difficult time “moving past a decision” they didn’t even make.

But why was I having so much trouble moving past my own decision to end the relationship? I decided to contact Bockarova and ask.


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“What I assume happened in your situation is you knew why you were breaking up” with Sarah, Bockarova tells me, having initially only heard scant details about the breakup. “You saw her a certain way, and you saw yourself as incompatible because you had mapped her out in your mind, [but] perhaps she said something that opened up doubt about you actually being sure who she was. Or maybe she said something about you that reflected on your character, somehow, [and] you didn’t realize she had that idea about you.”

This was more or less the case. I was sure Sarah and I weren’t happy, but when I initiated the breakup, Sarah indicated she was convinced we were. Did I misperceive our status? Further, Sarah’s remark about all that she’d done for me made me question whether or not I was being selfish for wanting to end things. Was I willing to put in the hard work relationships require?

“I think your experience is so common and underrepresented,” says Lisa Marie Bobby, a relationship and breakup counselor who authored the book Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to An Ex Love. “We all need to construct narratives to make sense of our lives. If we have a coherent story about what happened, we can understand our life experiences. When people are in a place where they’re seeking closure, they don’t really understand; they’re trying to make sense of what the heck happened.” This apparently can be true on both sides of the breakup coin.

It's certainly true that my communication could have been better. But as more time passes, I recall plenty of instances in which I—sometimes with a decent amount of tact—aired grievances that were never addressed with consistent action on her part. This caused me to slowly withdraw from the relationship, as Bockarova puts it. Maybe this is what I need to focus on in order to explain to myself how things ended up this way, and to move forward. In the post-breakup period, “a lot of times people get caught up in ‘if only I’d known this’ or ‘I could’ve done that, and maybe things would’ve been different,’” Bockarova says. “Maybe. But there are usually a lot of issues that culminate in a breakup.”

Furthermore, the pursuit of closure can backfire. Bobby points out discussions with exes can prove inauthentic and, thus, counterproductive, as one party continues to avoid hurting the other’s feelings with platitudes like “It’s not you, it’s me.” Bockarova notes that people who think they need closure should examine when those feelings come about. If it’s when they’re alone on a Saturday night feeling blue, it could just be a sign of loneliness, not a true indicator that a past relationship could’ve been fixed. She also emphasizes that, in abuse cases, the victim should never seek closure because it opens up the possibility that the abuser will find a window of opportunity to manipulate them. Finally, she says that, like anyone in similar circumstances, I should respect Sarah’s wishes to not be contacted.

I might always wonder if Sarah and I could have mended fences. But for now I think it’s best I stick to the narrative I’ve written in my mind. It may not be "closure," but it feels real enough to allow me to move on.

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