Hollywood and the modern myth of closure: 'You may never get answers'

Closure makes for a tidy narrative in the movies, but in real life, there isn’t a curtain that closes over the bad times.

Dawson Leery, the great orator of Dawson’s Creek, once argued that closure was just a Hollywood invention designed to help the film industry make money – because people like a good resolution.

Even though Dawson’s knowledge of psychology left a lot to be desired, he was right in that real-life events don’t often follow a clean story structure that ends in a nice, logical resolution.

If only it did, because life would make a lot more sense.

It’s not that seeking closure is inherently misguided, but the fact is that real life is messy, and people – even family – can do you terribly wrong for no good reason at all.

So you might find that searching for a resolution in the name of closure can be a barrier to actually finding it.

‘The concept of “closure” has become very popular in recent years,’ Counselling Directory member Victoria Jeffries tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Possibly due to the fact that closure gives quite an idealistic impression of a “clean cut” ending, with a final line being drawn under something that has been causing pain.

‘This gives people the idea that they can simply move on from something or someone that has caused them distress, never to be revisited or bother them again; meaning that they don’t have to deal with difficult feelings that they may be wrestling with.

‘However, the truth is that difficult feelings such as pain and hurt don’t ever truly go away – they change and evolve with time.’

Counsellor Beverley Blackman says that the original meaning of closure in this context is really just ‘the end result of grieving for a relationship that has broken down’.

‘The notion of “closure” in a relationship was first used back in the 1990s by social psychologist Arie Kruglanski, who proposed a framework in order to find the answers to significant events that cause us pain, such as a breakup,’ she explains.

‘Since then, it has taken on the meaning of “getting over” a relationship.’

But that’s an oversimplification.

Beverley says that the grief you feel over the loss of a relationship, be it family or otherwise, can be similar to what we feel when somebody dies, calling it ‘a difficult period of adjustment’ as we ‘pinball our way’ around the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

And these incredibly challenging feelings can also hit all at the same time, which does not a tidy narrative structure make.

‘Closure as Hollywood would have it is very different to what we actually experience in terms of loss,’ says Beverley.

‘But how we respond to the loss of a significant relationship will also depend on our attachment patterns, early childhood relationship blueprints, and how well we are able to acknowledge and regulate our emotions.’

What does an unhealthy search for closure look like?

This isn’t to say that a desire to, as Victoria puts it, ‘draw a line under a difficult experience’ is a bad thing – it’s actually a very human impulse.

However, recognising this impulse for what it is is vital, because there are times when looking for the wrong kind of closure can be harmful.

‘For example,’ says Victoria, ‘if you feel you can’t rest until you receive an apology from an estranged family member, especially if this person caused you harm or was abusive in any way, it is likely that the much-wanted closure you are seeking may not only not materialise, but also do more harm than good.

‘It may be that, by keeping communication or a metaphorical “door open” for this person, you are in fact opening yourself up to more hurt and confusion.’

Beverley says we could also end up ‘stuck in the grieving process’ if our closure has been unhealthy, explaining: ‘You may remain predominantly angry and pinball around between denial, disbelief, depression and anger.

‘Your behaviour towards the person you used to have a relationship with can become militant and often unreasonable because you cannot process their emotions.’

What about healthy closure?

Instead of holding out for an apology, Victoria says we need to be asking ourselves questions like:

  • What am I really expecting from this person?
  • How is keeping the conversation open with them affecting me?
  • Is this detrimental to my health?

‘In reality,’ she adds, ‘you may never receive the answers or clarity you are searching for, leaving you feeling even more deflated and confused.’

Beverley points out that it’s very possible to get closure without involving the other person.

‘It can be harder,’ she says, ‘but it is perfectly possible to work your way to closure without anything from them.

‘This requires the capacity to introspect, to explore your emotions, to accept all of the conflicts you are feeling and all of the pain you are going through, a good deal of resilience, and the capacity to focus on where your life is going now so you can move forward.’

Both Victoria and Beverley also recommend getting a mental health professional involved to help you through it.

Victoria says: ‘Consider what you have learnt from the experience, process your feelings around what happened, ideally with a professional who would provide you with a safe, non-judgmental space to explore this.

‘It may be useful to understand that you don’t have to wipe clean your entire history with the estranged person; for example, acknowledge that you may have had good times together at one point, but at this moment in time, it is better for them not to be a part of your life. 

‘Most importantly, allow yourself to feel what you feel, resisting the urge to push these difficult emotions down. It may also be useful to derive your own narrative around what happened, which feels true to you, as opposed to seeking clarity from an outside source.’

If you take nothing else away from this article, let it be this: the idea that the world’s loose ends must always be tied up is a fallacy, and you can’t afford to spend your life reaching for threads.

‘Sometimes in life, there are no clean-cut endings,’ Victoria tells us.

‘Humans can’t tie a neat ribbon on something or someone that has caused them stress.

‘It may not be the Hollywood version of closure, but it may be the safer, more psychologically healthy way.’

Degrees of Separation

This series aims to offer a nuanced look at familial estrangement.

Estrangement is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and we want to give voice to those who’ve been through it themselves.

If you’ve experienced estrangement personally and want to share your story, you can email [email protected] and/or [email protected]

Do you have a story to share?

Get in touch by emailing [email protected].

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