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Breakups are painful, and there’s no quick way through heartache.
It’s even worse when our pain keeps us seeking closure from an ex, tethering us to them longer than we care to admit.
More than anything, there’s a craving to let go and be at peace. We want closure—the ability to understand the hows and whys of what went wrong in a way that validates our experience and helps us move on.
Change is difficult, but the pain felt in these types of endings is not necessarily about the relationship. Often, the hurt is a mirror of past relational trauma that has also had no closure, including all the hurtful stories of how we were treated and how we were made to feel. The wounding can come from our family of origin, childhood teachers or authority figures, and friends.
These old narratives are the internal waters we subconsciously swim in. When a partner connects with us and then leaves, it can feel a bit like they saw into the pool of our heart and decided to put a sign up that read: ” Polluted Water. Unfit for Swimming.” No one wants that sign. It feels terribly unkind, making the conditions for healing even more unfavorable.
In fantasy bonds, closure is nearly impossible because the attachment was to a version of the person—not the actual person.
It’s the pattern of falling in love with potential. The fantasy of overlooking present unmet needs for the possibility of future needs being met. We hope that somehow this person will become more aware, more kind, more attentive. The lack of affection, unreturned calls, and broken promises get soothed and rationalized away with an imaginary narrative.
We end up giving more chances and more leeway because our thoughts stay stuck on fantasy bond, on the kind of toxic hope that sounds like:
“Maybe they don’t get it. Maybe they’re in a bad place. If I could help them understand, if we could work through this, it would be great. Maybe we need more time. More communication. More sex. More vacations. If they realize what’s happening and how good we could be, then everything will get better.”
When the desired outcome doesn’t happen, the fantasy of a relationship comes to a crashing halt. But the person’s potential may still painfully linger in our mind. The whole thing feels disjointed and hard to piece together.
Experiencing a deep connection with someone who then pulls a switch is deeply destabilizing. In a recent post on Instagram, relationship expert Esther Perel refers to this as unclicking. She reminds us that, “We date exponentially more people than we marry, so it’s fair to assume that every seriously partnered person out there is carrying around a few half-started situationships, lost loves, and heartbreaks.”
While most agree that endings are a part of life, when the unclicking feels hurtful and one-sided, it’s very difficult to accept no longer being chosen. We become inundated with feelings of rejection, loss, disappointment, and failure.
Relationships that end abruptly, through betrayal or with mixed messages, leave us feeling devastated. When there’s a sense of being blindsided in breakups, we feel caught off guard and that seems to feed the need for gathering more information. We can’t seem to digest the loss without clarity. Because of this, a part of us continues holding on to the hurt long after the relationship ends. We ruminate on what happened, replaying conversations addendum. We may find ourselves fixating on someone and cyber stalking their social media even though we know they’re not good for us. Instead of helping, these obsessive thoughts for more clarity end up creating greater confusion. It’s nearly impossible to let go and grieve when we haven’t made sense of loss. It all feels strangely unfinished.
Most often, I hear clients wishing they had been offered some kind of accountability, a clear reason for the breakup, or even better, a sincere apology. But knowing that we crave this kind of validation from someone who has already proven hurtful leads to more inner conflict. We end up feeling guilty and at odds with ourselves. We know they’re likely never going to offer this precious resolution, but we can’t stop thinking about them and what happened. The closure-seeking mind says “That’s it? After all that, now we have nothing? What was it all for?” Having no sensical explanation for someone rejecting us is additional torture for the suffering heart. Part of this anguish may stem from the fact that as humans, we are wired to find meaning, and in hurtful breakups, we feel abandoned in that crucial last step.
But are these endings really without warning? Was it as sudden and senseless as our suffering wants us to believe?
Often, many years later, we can look back and see that the relationship was not healthy. There were signs, almost right from the start—things like mixed messages, no shows, silent treatment, lack of commitment, lies, criticism, selfishness, ambivalence, and a general sense of not being prioritized. Once we see these unhealthy patterns, we thankfully can’t unsee them, which means at some point we eventually access gratitude for the breakup. But this powerful shift requires that we bring closure and healing to our own wounds. The closure won’t come externally.
Moving on without Closure
Once in a better place, many people come to realize that their connection was likely a fantasy bond. According to clinical psychologist Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D., author of The Fantasy Bond, creating a fantasy of connection is one of the ways children cope with their unmet needs. In the absence of a secure attachment, kids imagine that if only mommy didn’t have to work so hard, she’d be more patient and less angry. If daddy was around more, we wouldn’t feel so lonely or scared. If we had more money, the family would be relaxed and things would be different.
Everything would feel better, once the “if onlys” happened. As children, we want to be understood and acknowledged for our pain by our parents. We seek connection. This fantasy where we get to feel good takes the place of the loving bond that is absent in childhood.
We are unconsciously programmed to repeat what’s familiar. It’s not easy, but we must begin to gently acknowledge that a part of us may have recreated trauma patterns unaware. Then we can attend to our vulnerabilities with more clarity. All the residual shaming, the neglect, the feeling of not being enough is the wounding that happened to us instead of the love and acceptance we needed.
For example, children who grew up with emotionally unavailable parents may cycle through partners who are dismissive or avoidant. What they actually needed, and still need, is an experience of caring, calm, attentive energy. They lacked parents to help soothe and regulate their nervous systems and may have resorted to imagination for comfort. In other words, fantasy bonds aren’t all bad—they helped us get through difficult childhood years. This young defense mechanism helped relieve anxiety in hard times when we had few other resources, and it’s a creative adaptation to relational trauma. It only becomes dysfunctional in adulthood when we continue experiencing helplessness and false hope instead of reciprocal attunement.
As we grow up, fantasy bonds may prevent us from having authentic, loving relationships. We can be wounded in relationships, but we also have the opportunity for deep healing in the right kind of relationships. What’s important to remember is the closure won’t come from the person who hurt us. Believing in this fantasy repair keeps us stuck and unable to move on from the past. If we make healing conditional on the other person changing, we place our progress and well-being in the hands of people who are likely going to keep breaking our trust.
Moving into grief and acceptance is a powerful but painful shift. It means accepting that what we wanted and what we hoped for won’t come to pass. It’s seeing through the fantasy bond and coming out of illusive love. Until we acknowledge a loss fully, we will continue to feed the pain of it. Grieving puts us back in the feeling state where it’s harder, but out of the obsessive thinking mind that prolongs suffering.
Moving on when there’s no closure means consciously attending to our heart, even when our mind wants to keep asking why, figuring out, investigating, and replaying conversations for more clues. It means practicing titration—moving attention from our thinking mind to our body and heart, from then to now, from the pain to a part of our life that feels good.
When we feel it all with great compassion and care for our personal experience, we can slowly make sense of the hurtful ending.