The Science Of Closure: What It Means For A Relationship And Whether You Need It

by Benjamin Ritter

Welcome to the Ex Games: a content series about love lost. Whether it's the realization things need to end, the act of rejection, the reality of being single, or the resurrection that is moving on, the Ex Games has every stage of a breakup covered.

And to really bring these stories to life, we've launched the Ex Games podcast, where we delve into the two sides of a break-up story with a new couple each week, and aim to end up somewhere near the truth. Because when it comes to affairs of the heart, everyone plays, but does anyone win? Let's find out. 

Closure is a relatively new term created to help describe the end stages of grieving.

In the book, The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us, published in 2011, sociologist Nancy Berns discusses how the term “closure,” introduced in the 1990s, has negatively affected how we view grieving and created a new market for closure-based businesses.

She explores how it implies that grieving is bad, suggesting there are right and wrong ways to grieve or to find this closure, and that everyone needs closure to move on. These perceptions have also been perpetuated by consumer marketing, including everything from breakup parties, divorce cakes, Voodoo dolls, wedding ring coffins, pin-the-tale-on-the-ex, and penis piñatas.

A major consequence of the concept of closure is that it inspires actions that may not be healthy and productive, such as trying to meet an ex one more time in search of definitive answers, and creates the expectation that those actions or answers are supposed to make you feel better.

For example, the person who ended the relationship often may start dating again much sooner than the partner who was broken up with. The “dumper” already has moved through parts of the process of closure during the course of their decisions.

The need for closure might be understood best in looking at what happens to the brain during relationships and breakups.

Scott Edwards, a writer for the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute, reviewed the findings of biological anthropologist Helen Fisher and Harvard Medical School (HMS) professors and couples therapists Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds. These scientists are known for studying how the human brain responds during the various stages of love and heartbreak.

During a positive relationship, our brains are flooded with positive chemicals, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, vasopressin and oxytocin. In the initial stages of a relationship, dopamine makes you feel happiness and euphoria, and norepinephrine is responsible for the feelings of excitement – think adrenaline – getting your heart pumping and making your palms sweaty. Cortisol is released in response to the stress of the new relationship, which is responsible for lowering your levels of serotonin, the hormone responsible for mood stabilization and impulse control. Hence why when you are in love, you may find yourself acting irrationally.

Over time, the rush of euphoria may lessen, but by then, your brain has been flooded with vasopressin and oxytocin, which causes a sense of attachment and bond to your partner. Throughout all of this, your brain is rewiring itself, creating new connections and neural pathways associated with your partner. Hormonally and physiologically, you've essentially been brainwashed.

Now, when you're dumped, the pain and stress causes your brain to freak out and release cortisol again, lowering your levels of serotonin, thus lowering your impulse control and destabilizing your emotions.

Research such as Social Rejection Shares Somatosensory Representations with Physical Pain, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011, and the Response of the μ-opioid System to Social Rejection and Acceptance, published in Molecular Psychiatry in 2013, have indicated that the same areas of the brain are activated by emotional pain.

Your brain still craves the euphoric hormone dopamine, but your partner isn't around anymore to supply it. Your brain goes into pleasure-seeking mode (social media or real-life stalking and other risky pleasure-seeking behavior), but because you can't find it, even more cortisol is released.

During a breakup, you're left in pain, stressed out, seeking your fix, with very little impulse control. The hormonal mess of a breakup can also make you feel nauseated, distracted, and restless, which may lead you to become obsessed with the need to find out what your ex is doing and eventually get back together – so it makes sense we would also turn to the idea of finding “closure,” just to feel better when we can't find our way back to feeling good.

The greater your self-worth, the more secure your attachment. In terms of physiological and hormonal responses, a secure attachment helps keep cortisol and serotonin levels stable between relationships and breakups (stress and impulse control), which prevents many of the negative feelings associated with seeking closure.

Closure is the process of your brain stabilizing its response to the loss of your relationship.

Next time you get dumped and think -- or feel -- you need closure to move on, think about what's going on inside your brain. It may be hard, but the best way to move on and achieve closure is through working on and believing in yourself.

Because let's face it, closure isn't something a pin-the-penis-on-the-ex or penis piñata can give you.