Why We Seek Closure


Suppose you go through a painful breakup. There are different ways to frame what’s happened. You can view the entire relationship as a failure – as an instance in which you saw but ignored warning signs and spent months or years trying to make the relationship work when you should have known it wasn’t meant to be; or you can frame it as a learning experiences that helped you get to know yourself and what you want in a partner better, so you can find happiness.

Could we refrain from telling a story at all? Not frame things? Can we live without spinning narratives about the past?

Probably not. We do not simply live our lives, we interpret them. It is in this sense, and not because we have novels — though that is a reason too — that we, humans, can be said to be story-tellers.


The power of narrative is extraordinary. We can accept a good deal of pain and suffering if we can tell a story that makes them meaningful. Friedrich Nietzsche says, similarly: “Man, the bravest of all animals and the most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such. He desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose for it.” [1] Terrible experiences such as a battle with cancer may be framed positively, for instance, as an opportunity to get closer to loved ones and appreciate the things that matter. When that happens, people may, surprisingly to outsiders, say that they regret nothing and would change nothing about the past even if they could. When, by contrast, pain appears utterly pointless and we cannot tell a story about it at all, we may not know how to reconcile ourselves to our circumstances. Nietzsche says, relatedly, “The meaninglessness of suffering, not suffering itself, was the curse that lay over mankind.”

The deep human need of narrative is particularly evident in the yearning for closure. Suppose you lose a loved one, and you never find out what happened to him or her – maybe, the person did not return from a hike in the mountains, and the body was never found. You may have a difficult time moving on. If the body were found, things would be different. But why? Your loved one has been taken from you in both cases.

The answer appears to be that if you don’t know what happened, you may not be able to get closure. It would be as though one chapter of your life is not over, but you have to move on to the next. Finding out what happened in this case would not make the tragedy meaningful, but it can help you put it behind. Narrative closure thus brings emotional closure in its wake.

I suspect that the celebration of the start of a New Year and the phenomenon of New Year’s resolutions are ways of dividing life into chapters; of introducing new beginnings in the fabric of time. There is always a reason to want to start a new chapter. We carry various traumas and engage in maladaptive behaviors, and we attempt to channel the power of narrative in order to effect change. The New Year’s resolution device is just such an attempt. You can tell yourself you will leave your last year’s self behind and become a new person.

Of course, if you look at the way in which life unfolds organically, it is unlikely that anything that might be called a “period” in your life would end on the very last day of a year, but the social aspect of the New Year device — having everyone mark the occasion — makes up for this. (Though not invariably. Many perceive the calendar-based division of life into segments as hollow and artificial, as though a book were divided into chapters by using a mathematical formula. I am one of those people, actually. But no strategy works for everybody.)

I should note here that the story we tell ourselves about our lives would not fulfill its psychological function unless we see it as more than a story; as one that’s true. Think again of a person you’ve broken up with. That person probably has a very different story, one you may not want to hear. (Of course, if you and the other talk about it, you may each come to see the way things look like from the other person’s point of you, but there are no guarantees.) When the other’s narrative is incompatible with yours, you may see it as undermining the authority of your own, making closure difficult. Sometimes, people go so far as to send an elaborate written version of their own story to the other person — in a letter or message — and then immediately block him or her, because they don’t want a retort, a challenge to the original narrative.

This is not to suggest that all ways of framing the past are on a par. Quite the contrary, manipulative people may successfully get another to accept an interpretation of the events that any moderately impartial observer would reject outright. Relatedly, if a person is never open to having his or her interpretation challenged and simply dismisses the other’s view of things, something’s probably wrong with both the relationship and that person’s character. Nonetheless, multiple ways of interpreting the past are possible, and some are more helpful than others. (We can find experimental support for this claim in studies of cognitive reappraisal.

We may also turn to friends for external validation of the stories we tell. The person you broke up with may not agree with you about what happened and who was at fault, but if a friend agrees with you, that can help. Upon occasion, friends may even suggest a narrative where we didn’t have one before at all, helping us find meaning in what previously seemed like pointless turmoil and anguish. More generally, others may help us frame past events in a way we can accept. They can co-author the story we write about our lives.

I don’t know what it is like to be a non-human animal, but I suspect that pain such as losing a partner (in the case of pair bonding species) may be more difficult to deal with for a non-verbal creature than it is for us. This is because without language, you cannot tell a story, and you cannot get closure. You cannot get help from others in seeking closure either, which is one of our major strategies of coping. We humans can talk about things. One may say language is an ultimate kindness of nature. We can frame and help each other frame experience in a way that allows us to move on. The extraordinary power of narrative is in that somehow, in some way, our stories help us heal.


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