Defining Closure Psychology

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When a relationship ends or when a loved one passes away, we often hear about the need for "closure," but what does the principle of closure really mean? What is the psychology behind this term, and is it particularly positive or negative to need it?

The American Psychological Association defines closure in the following way: “the act, achievement, or sense of completing or resolving something." They give the example of a therapy client recognizing that they’ve found a solution to a particular problem as an experience of closure. 

When we say a person has a need to achieve closure, we typically mean that they're seeking the answers or resolution that they feel they need to move on. See below for a more in-depth view of the psychology behind the closure, plus tips and information on seeking it after some type of loss.

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Are you struggling to move on after an unexpected breakup?

What psychological science says about closure

Closure may sometimes give someone a feeling of control where there wasn't one before, and it may provide a stronger foundation from which one can take action and move forward. 

The need for closure may stem from the way the human mind makes sense of the world. In an area of psychological science known as Gestalt psychology, the law of closure refers to a strategy the brain uses to make sense of various visual elements.  

Per Gestalt psychology, when a person is shown an image of a common item that is missing a key segment, the brain will automatically fill it in, or “close” the gap to perceive the expected familiar shape. Additionally, when several visual figures are presented in certain arrangements, an illusion may occur as the brain attempts to understand the various items as one whole image. In this famous example of this Gestalt principle, when several ‘pacman shapes’ are arranged in a certain way, our brains believe we’re looking at a square rather than four pacmans.

In a similar way, social psychology suggests that people tend to have a need to view relationships as a “whole” - as a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When a relationship concludes, the mind seeks to fill in any gaps before moving on. In other words, the person often seeks closure.

According to social psychology, A person's need for closure is thought to come from two sources: the urgency tendency, which is the need to find closure as soon as possible. The permanence tendency, which is the need to hold on to closure permanently, or for as long as possible. These motivated tendencies may lead a person to jump to conclusions that aren't necessarily correct or complete, which can create bias.

Biases are often created when a person cherry-picks from presented information that tends to support the answer that they desire most rather than what might actually be true. They can create an image of a person or situation that is unnecessarily positive or negative. The person then forms a judgment and may engage in decision-making based on the information that answers their question—even if it’s nothing more than a coincidence. The individual can feel a sense of closure and be able to move on as a result, even if the conclusion is incorrect, such as overly positive or negative.

The intensity of a person's need for closure may depend largely on their personality. People with an intense need for closure may be used to being in control and prefer life to go as planned. They may feel distressed by and have a desire to avoid uncertainty, and their sense of safety and well-being may depend on structure and plans. In addition to individual differences in personality, situational factors can impact the extent to which someone may feel the need to achieve closure. For example, if someone has recently experienced a death in the family, they may experience a greater need for closure than normal. 

Conversely, people with less need for closure may tend to be more creative, open-minded, social, willing to "go with the flow," and spontaneous. These individuals may have already made up their minds about a situation, but they can often remain willing to consider alternatives. They may also be more likely to enjoy spontaneous activities and keep friends who are unpredictable.

The Need For Closure Scale (NFCS)

To determine an individual’s potential need for closure, researchers developed the Need for Closure Scale, or NFCS in 1994. Originally comprised of 42 items and revised to 15 in 2011, the closure scale has since been used in many studies and translated into multiple languages. 

Structure of the NFCS

The Need For Closure Scale evaluates people based on five subscales:

  • Decisiveness
  • Desire for predictability
  • Preference for order and structure
  • Discomfort with ambiguity
  • Closed-mindedness

NFCS and political and social conservatism

Those who score higher on the Need For Closure Scale are often considered to be more conservative, which can also correlate with political and social conservatism. Research shows that people with conservative views tend to score high on the NFCS compared to those with liberal views. 

Low NFCS scores and avoidance

Opposite results of the NFCS may indicate a need to avoid closure. The need to avoid closure is often thought to be born of a person's desire to not engage in commitment or confrontation. In other words, someone who avoids closure may not want certain questions answered, as they might be afraid of what they'll learn. Or, there is also the non-specific need to avoid closure, which is the fear of receiving the answer to a question, regardless of whether the answer would have a positive or negative effect.

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Giving someone closure after a breakup

Perhaps you've been on the receiving end of a bad breakup in the past, and you don't want to do that to someone else. Later in life, you might realize that you're in a relationship that is not providing you with what you need, or that you’re unable to give what the other person needs. If this is the case, you might be wondering how to end it while giving the other person the closure they may need. Doing so could help you avoid an abrupt, unexplained break that leaves them with unanswered questions and a lack of understanding.

In general, it’s best to be direct and truthful but gentle and calm when you end things with the aim of providing closure. You might answer their questions to the best of your ability and take accountability for your part in what may have gone wrong. Note that these tips are generally best for those in largely healthy, non-abusive relationships. Seek help if you are leaving someone because they are physically or emotionally abusive.* 

*If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse in any form, you can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for immediate support, advice, and assistance.

Strategies for achieving closure

There may be instances where you will not be able to get the closure you desire from someone else, either because they refuse to communicate with you or be honest or because they are no longer present. In these cases, there are strategies you can try to initiate healing and work toward the sensation and perception of obtaining closure on your own.

For example, research suggests that journaling may help following a breakup as writing your feelings in a journal could help provide a sense of closure. Meditation can be another effective way to get in touch with your thoughts and emotions. When you are relaxed and thinking clearly, it may be easier to come to a place of closure and engage in positive decision-making strategies for how you might move forward. Finally, taking the time to examine your inner dialogue or self-talk might not only enable you to claim authorship of your own story but also enlighten you as to how any disempowered language or thought processes might be affecting your mental health.

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Are you struggling to move on after an unexpected breakup?

How therapy may help with closure

If you're experiencing challenges related to a difficult breakup process or the loss of a loved one, you might consider reaching out to a licensed counselor for guidance. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing a topic like closure at a therapist’s office, you might try online therapy, which numerous studies have suggested may be just as effective as in-office therapy. For example, in a literature review of academic articles on the topic, researchers indicated that internet-based and mobile-based therapeutic interventions seemed to provide significant positive effects on symptoms of grief in adults experiencing bereavement. 

Those who are interested in the convenience of online therapy might consider a platform like BetterHelp. You can get matched with a licensed therapist according to your needs and preferences and then meet with them via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging. All you need is a smart device and an internet connection, so you can engage in sessions from the comfort of home or wherever else you may prefer.

Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from clients who sought their help with achieving closure.

Counselor reviews

"Chinyere has been amazing with being supportive of me when I need it most and I have no one really else in the world to listen. She has given me good coping tools and made me feel like over time I can get through the pain I’m feeling for the loss of my fiancé. I would highly recommend her!”

“Lauren Uyeji has consistently listened intently to my issues regarding my breakup and fear of being alone, and has always responded in a timely and insightful fashion. I really couldn't ask more from a counselor. I had a therapist in the past who said barely anything and I remember getting very little from my time with him over a whole year of counseling. Lauren knows how to ask the right questions and give answers that are wise and informative. I feel like I am talking to someone that cares and is seriously considering ways to interact with the things I say. None of the questions she asks feel generic or insincere - they always are directly related to the immediate topic at hand and guide my thinking in ways that I feel actually growth. I would highly recommend Lauren to anyone seeking help with dealing with intense emotions.”

Takeaway

Giving or getting closure can be difficult but possible in a variety of situations, from breakups to loss. Humans crave closure because we tend to see our lives as linear stories and our brains automatically try to fill in any gaps. If you’re having trouble getting closure for yourself, journaling, meditating, and seeking therapy could all help.

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