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Shira Hirschman Weiss Headshot

'Closure,' The Great Misnomer

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When I hear the word "closure," I immediately think of a former colleague whose work style clashed with my own when we were cubicle mates. Years later, we would meet up and compare how we had each matured and amended our work styles, and how we both would do things differently should we collaborate again. A few months later, we partnered for a project that yielded both positive social and professional results. We prided ourselves on not only becoming productive co-workers, but good friends.

An acquaintance of mine, Ariella*, who is part of the Jewish social scene on Manhattan's Upper West Side, has a different take on the concept of "closure." Ariella is glum, to say the least. She, along with much of the community in which she resides, is focused on finding "the one" and getting the hell out of Dodge -- er, make that her dorm-like apartment building teeming with singles on West 96th street. She has just broken up with a young man I've dubbed the "Lower East Side Lothario," as he is known for stealing and breaking hearts during his regular visits uptown. While she is mainly relieved that their hectic year-long ("his longest") relationship has ended when it consisted of wondering with worry rather than wonder (in the positive sense), she also feels robbed. Lothario left her with too many questions and Ariella feels she needs answers.

"I composed an email with all my thoughts," Ariella says, "I put everything into it... everything. Then I printed it up and tore it into pieces. I convinced myself I had emailed that letter and he had seen it and I'm not going to let myself believe otherwise."

Having just spoken with Sandra, 75, I tell Ariella that one day she will thank herself for not sending that letter. "I will never forget the embarrassment I felt after sending my own love letters in my youth when relationships that showed promise suddenly took a turn for the worse," says the retired school teacher. "I remember feeling that I could not accept the reality I was dealt. This was a time before email. Email really gives us more of a chance if we think about it and use it properly in these situations. We know something can get forwarded and we know how difficult it is to get the email back. You have the draft box and you can let it sit, reread what you wrote and then transfer it rather easily to deleted Items... and subsequently delete those."

"The email would have gone unanswered," says Ariella with conviction, "With caller ID, I'd have been ignored, so there was no sense in calling him. Plus, I don't want to get back together, I just want answers! It's going to take me a while to get past these feelings, but I think I just have to let myself experience them until I no longer think about them."

Curiosity doesn't kill the cat, despite the saying. Being the cat, you can slink away, sulk and purr and go on to have nine more lives. Or, you can choose to be ridiculous, chasing your own tail around and around to get absolutely nowhere. I realize how lucky I was to actually achieve "closure" with my former colleague when the term closure is -- more often than not -- a misnomer. When I look back on a friendship that I abandoned due to frustration and think of all the things I wanted to say... when I think of forgiveness (or is it absolution that I desire) for wronging someone who never wants to hear another word from me, let alone an apology... I realize we may claim we want "closure" when in reality, we desire an outcome that differs from the one we got. This is all too often the result of self-absorption, placing too much importance on one's "pride" and trying to satisfy a bruised ego. All of the individuals I interviewed for this article, four men and five women, related past incidents to me where they had sought closure to feel better and only ended up embarrassed and frustrated.

Jonathan, a novelist, says he is too ashamed to even write about his own past romantic flops, especially the time when he wrote a letter to a past love and actually had the "cojones to mail it rather than sticking it in the mailbox without an address, the original plan." Jonathan talks about how he tried in vain to intercept his past love's mailman for the next few days, cutting out of his graduate courses when he thought his "dreadful ramblings" might arrive at her doorstep.

"In retrospect, I should have been laughing at myself. In the letter, I had asked her to explain her reasoning for ending the relationship, but I knew she would rip it up and I would never get those answers. I was right. For the longest time afterwards, I feared bumping into her and having to hide. She moved [from New York] to Atlanta, and I never saw her again until she popped up on Facebook as someone I might know."

Neither one "friended" the other.

Shoshana Dayanim, Ph.D., an Atlanta-based psychologist, compares the importance of knowing when to give up in adult relationships with dealing with one's child. She explains that one must realize when all has been said and the rest is "just tit for tat."

"This is similar to parenting and trying to control yelling at your children when you are at your wit's end," says Dayanim. "You need to walk away from the situation and sometimes that means allowing the other person to get the last word in. Typically the last word isn't very meaningful -- it is usually more like an immature 'hah-hah.' This is a form of regression, where what you really want to do is stick your tongue out at the person and storm off like you would in 2nd grade."

For those in a face-to-face situation tempted to have the last word, Dayanim suggests "tuning out, actually starting to count in your head or saying the alphabet backward. Breathe deep. Breathing relaxes you and allows you to collect yourself. When you are upset, typically your breaths are short and infrequent."

Gila Elbaum, a New Jersey-based psychologist, reminds me of my own past struggles trying to get others to see my point of view but instead getting caught in a fruitless, endless loop-de-loop:

In a personal relationship, closure is something that is thought to be important in order to move on, but in reality, that final conversation, where perhaps you speak your mind while trying to make the other person realize what they are losing, often pulls you back into the drama you were trying to get away from. How many of us have had that 'final' conversation and then went on to repeat what we have said over and over in our heads? The closure that people speak of often results in re-opening old wounds. Being content with not having that "final" word is challenging and requires the most maturity, something we all aspire to, but too often fall short. However, to achieve the allusive "closure," exercising restraint may be just what you need.

As I try to bring the issue of "closure" to a close after a day spent discussing the subject, Ariella calls. She has just bumped into Lothario. "It was awful, but at first I thought it was great," she tells me, "I said exactly what was on my mind and he definitely appeared to be listening. He tilted his head, nodded, looked me in the eyes and then he opened up his mouth. I expected to hear the words that would give me some kind of reassurance and put this whole thing to rest -- finally. Instead he said 'OK... well, see ya.'"

*Some names have been changed.