There’s a relationship fantasy that has nothing to do with getting physical. Rather, it’s verbal. And the climax isn’t orgasm; it’s that ever-elusive concept of “closure.”
In this fantasy, maybe you’re berating your ex for ghosting, or mustering up all the perfect comebacks at the exact right moments. Or maybe they have had a rare flash of self-awareness and are apologizing for how they hurt you when you were together; you were right in every single argument, they admit, and they were wrong. In response, all you do is sit there, smile and say: “Thank you.”
That’s the fantasy. But reality is often more frustrating.
So how do you get closure if you might not talk to the person again? Or if you know they’re not going to apologize? Maybe you won’t forget what they did, but you can recognize that it’s time to forgive and move on. In search of relationship zen, I spoke with a dating coach, a relationship writer, a meditation teacher and a rabbi, and they all stressed that finding closure and forgiveness starts within and can be done entirely on your own.
Like many of our sky-high expectations about love, pop culture reinforces the notion that we are owed (and will receive!) a satisfying sense of closure after a relationship ends. “Culturally we have a lot of conditioning, movies that tell us it is important to have that one pivotal conversation where everything gets resolved. You can’t count on that and you can’t hold yourself back because of it,” said Francesca Hogi, a dating coach in New York. “One thing I tell my clients when … things are unresolved with an ex, is that it becomes a crutch for you to not be vulnerable again because you’ve created this whole story about a relationship in the past and you’re still stuck there.”
Hogi said she has seen a lot of people who are single and want to meet someone new, but “they still have so much anger about a past relationship — and it’s so clear on the outside, looking in, how much that anger is holding them back.”
So then, how to move on?
First: Embrace the suck, but don’t get stuck there. Everyone I spoke to emphasized that, before you can move on from something painful, you have to sit with the sadness, disappointment, anger or whatever you’re feeling. “Allow yourself to grieve and to just have whatever feelings of hurt and pain are happening. Allow them to be there without judgment,” said Sara Eckel, author of “It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single.” If you’re feeling that you should already be over a certain breakup or traumatic event, Eckel said she has found it useful to remember “that it’s not about what I should be feeling. It’s about what I am feeling.”
Eckel added that it’s good to be aware of when righteous anger arises — a la “he’s so terrible and I’m so much better.” These reactions to pain are less productive. “The thing to watch out for,” Eckel said, “is when it starts to feel really pleasant to go over [the offending situation] again and again.”
How do you avoid getting all riled up in self-righteous anger? Lodro Rinzler, a meditation teacher in New York and author of “Love Hurts: Buddhist Advice for the Heartbroken,” explains it this way: You’re not intending to add fuel to the fire with lots of stories of how to respond to being wronged. Rather, “we’re just holding our hands up to the fire itself, to feel the emotion without [getting mired in] the story behind it.”
Like all forms of grief, it takes time and space to even be ready to move on. But once you’re there, you can:
Meditate. Okay, so it’s no surprise that Rinzler, the meditation teacher, suggests meditation as a path to forgiveness. But his basic explanation of why is an interesting one. “When you’re meditating, you have a constant chance for forgiveness. You sit there with the desire to remain focused on the breath. But what happens? You drift off into thought instead. In that moment, you can berate yourself, thinking you’re the worst meditator of all time, or you can simply forgive yourself for doing what you are habituated to doing: thinking,” Rinzler writes in his book. “When we do this simple act of forgiving ourselves, we establish a stronger foundation for forgiving others.” In a phone interview, Rinzler emphasized that our relationship with forgiveness starts with ourselves, specifically, “forgiving ourselves for whatever came up” in a relationship.
Acknowledge that forgiveness is not condoning. When I spoke with Rabbi Evan Moffic, author of “The Happiness Prayer: Ancient Jewish Wisdom for the Best Way to Live Today,” about the role that an apology does or doesn’t play in obtaining closure, he noted that “in some ways, forgiveness isn’t a great word. It’s about moving on.” He added that the closure we get comes from our own actions, not by what anyone else does or says. In his book, Moffic tells a story of a friend from college who had left an abusive relationship; her ex-boyfriend kept apologizing and asking for forgiveness. Moffic told his friend: “You’ve already forgiven him by moving on with your life. You don’t need to say that everything’s okay.”
Write a letter you never intend to send. “Don’t hold back. Get everything out and then don’t send it,” Hogi said. So you have that cathartic moment without actually interacting face-to-face. It doesn’t matter so much what you do with the letter, she noted; the point is to get everything out. “Set it on fire; rip it up; set it in a drawer,” Hogi said. “As humans, we want to make ourselves feel better. Sometimes you just have to recognize that there is no fixing this.” Just know it’s up to you “to make peace with it and move on,” she added.
Or place a photograph of the person you want to forgive, or move past, somewhere you’ll see every day. You’ve heard about burning or ripping up photos after a breakup. Rinzler suggests the opposite — actually displaying a photo of the person you want to move past in an innocuous place in your home. “Acknowledge that photo and say something like: ‘I forgive you,’ or ‘May you be happy,’ ” Rinzler said. “In that way, we’re actually practicing opening our heart to that person even if they’re not there.”
You can even visualize the person at your dinner table. This idea comes from Moffic, who writes about reaching forgiveness through visualizing it. In his book, Moffic cites a 20th-century rabbi who taught that “we should take a moment every year and picture everyone who has hurt us sitting around our dinner table. We all share a meal and conversation. We talk and laugh. That’s it. It’s simple.”
“What makes this visualization effective is that it is hard to be angry at guests we welcome into our home for a meal. This visualization doesn’t work miracles, but it can pry our hearts open for a few minutes, and help us imagine what it might be like to be in restored relationship with someone who once wronged us.”