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How to deal with a breakup: the pros and cons of seeking closure with an ex

Relationships breakdowns are painful, even if you’re the initiator. So how can you deal with a breakup? Psychologist Stephanie Ambrosius says asking for closure after a break-up can help both parties find clarity and comfort – and explains how to respond compassionately.

Let’s face it: break-ups are messy, and most of us have been left with a broken heart at some point in our lives. But asking for closure can be a divisive issue.

After a particularly bad breakup last year, my friends had strong opinions on whether I should reach out to my ex-partner and ask him why he left. There were those who empathised with my need to have my questions answered, yet still advised me to block him and move on. However, there were others who, like myself, believed that talking things through could help me heal.

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Relationship therapist Stephanie Ambrosius sits in the latter camp. “Closure is a clearer understanding of the reasons for why the leaver is actually leaving the relationship,” she explains to Stylist. “Once you’ve got some clarity on this, it can make it easier to understand what’s happened and move on.”

If you’re beating yourself up for feeling the need for clarity post breakup, then stop. It turns out that we, as humans, are hard-wired to search for answers because “people view their lives as a bit of a story”.

“We see our lives in the past, present and future,” Ambrosius explains. “It’s sort of made up of puzzles; you put all the pieces together in a puzzle to create your past, to create your present or to create your future. So if everything feels like it’s going fine and then, at one moment, a part of the puzzle breaks, or goes missing, you lose sense of who you are in your story.

“Then you start to doubt your past or the decisions you’ve made in your present, and you start to worry about the future. Anything like a break-up (or a redundancy or a bereavement) can start that process because we plan so much. We think we know where we stand in our narrative but as soon as it changes, it throws us off balance. So we need to understand what’s going on around us, because it’s such a difficult situation to deal with if you are the one that’s being left.”

Ambrosius recommends speaking face-to-face unless the relationship has been violent or toxic. But while she believes that seeking closure is innate, it’s important to remember that not everyone feels the same need to talk things through.

“Reaching out to some people could prove a bit difficult,” she explains. “Because some people want a lot of closure, and other people don’t need it so much. Some people become fixated on getting closure – and that can manifest in depression and anxiety, because they’re always asking for it and not getting it from the other person.”

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How to deal with a breakup: not everyone feels the need to talk things through after a relationship ends

The cons of seeking closure

Of course, there are also cons to seeking answers from an ex – and they are worth considering before you reach out. 

“Closure can be quite hurtful because you can receive some home truths that you weren’t prepared to hear,” Ambrosius points out. “You could end up feeling rejected, or quite helpless, and not being able to do anything about it.

“The explanation might be quite logical and – if you’re a very emotional person – it might be hard to understand a logical point of view,” she continues. “In most cases you might not agree with the reason for the other’s decision to leave.”

The benefits of seeking closure

The benefits of seeking closure include helping the person who has been left understand what might have happened, as well as improving their future relationships and and their understanding of themselves.

“It might even make you realise that this isn’t the person you want to be with,” Ambrosius says. “It could help you to self-reflect and think about what you do want from a partner in future. 

“It could make you feel better, especially if the person says ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ – you could leave feeling on top. If the person gives you the opportunity to sit down and chat about it, it’ll give you a chance to say your piece because when the leaver is leaving they’re the one who’s normally in control. 

“Closure is communication, and the bottom line of every relationship is communication. Usually when a breakup occurs, there was a breakdown in communication in the first place. So this might be the first part of positive communication the couple is having.”

Being ‘the leaver’ also comes with its own challenges. Although the initiator may have had more time to process their decision, walking away is still painful. So, it’s understandable that they might want to steer clear of mulling things over with an ex. Ambrosius believes kindness and compassion, on both sides, is important here. 

“If you are the leaver, it would be kind if you could open up and actually tell the person why you’ve made this decision,” she says. “But, by opening up, you really need to prepare yourself because you might have to tell them some home truths. You might feel guilty or angry giving them those home truths, so it could be quite difficult.

“And for the person who hasn’t got the closure, you can ask the leaver what’s gone on, what’s happened, why now and why me. But it’s up to them if they actually what to give you answers or not. It’s best to give the answers if you can.”

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How to deal with a breakup: if you're going to have a conversation, it's important the leaver owns their emotions and steers clear of blame.

How to get closure with an ex

When it comes to actually having the conversation, Ambrosius says it’s important that the leaver has compassion for their feelings, owns their emotions, believes what they’re saying and steers clear of blaming the other person.

“Always use ‘I’ statements, so ‘I’ feel in this certain way and ‘I’ feel in that way, without blaming the other person,” she explains. “No, ‘you always do this’, or ‘you’re not good at this’, or ‘you never do this’. Try and think of your side of the relationship as well and the things you could have done better.”

Then it’s about giving the other person space to process what’s been said – and being aware that they could respond “with some home truths of their own”.

“They might have questions for you”, Ambrosius says. “I’d say be prepared to answer some questions, because that’s being compassionate but have your boundaries. Clear boundaries will mean that they can’t over-step the mark as well.

“Clear boundaries mean that you will talk to them and give them the closure, but you won’t retract what you’ve said and sleep with them. Or meet with them too much, or call them over and over again.”

It’s also useful to go into the conversation with a set time-frame in mind. That could be half an hour or an hour, but sticking to this ensures the conversation doesn’t linger on. “Lingering relationships are the hardest ones to overcome,” Ambrosius says.

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What if your request for closure goes unanswered?

“Well they say that you should be able to find closure by yourself,” explains Ambrosius. “That’s the best way, because even if the other person sits down and tells you what their reasons are, they might not be the real reasons, or you might not agree with them.

“So the only way to find true closure is to find it yourself. That can take time, and you have to allow yourself the time to piece together that narrative I was talking about; to put the puzzle back together. Allow yourself to reflect on your own actions in the relationship and allow yourself to feel sad, and then decide how you’re going to move on in the future.

“If you’ve got a good support system around you of friends and family, then that can make it easier. They do say that you can write a letter to your partner and we do that a lot with clients. They write a letter – or they talk to their counsellor – and they say what they would say to their partner, even though the partner isn’t there to respond. 

“Sometimes that helps to get it off your chest a bit, which can help you to move on.”

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Eating With My Ex will be available on BBC iPlayer from Sunday 5 January and launches on BBC One on Wednesday 8 January at 10.35pm

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