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Dealing With the Loss of a Relationship

Use healthy closure and forgiveness to overcome relationship loss.

Key points

  • Forgiveness and healthy closure may be the most effective therapeutic tools to manage a broken relationship.
  • Initial, reactive, and protective closure is likely to be fragmented and incomplete, which may extend pain and complicate future relationships.
  • There is a strong human need to make sense of and accept our loss and to find out what we can do to recover from it.
 Dziana Hasanbekeva/Pixie
Grief and loss.
Source: Dziana Hasanbekeva/Pixie

What happens when your life partner unexpectedly breaks off your relationship, and you have no idea why this has happened?

I have experienced many relationship losses from friends, family, and close connections over my 76 years of life. While these losses were extremely painful, and some were debilitating, I was able to not only survive but also thrive in a few areas of my life. I am grateful to be able to share with my readers some lessons learned mixed thoroughly with new empirical research.

All of us who have experienced a relationship loss create some form of closure to explain the breakup and the aftermath. This is how the brain works to process painful events. However, this initial, reactive, and protective type of closure is likely to be fragmented and incomplete and therefore of limited value.

Unfortunately, many of us create closure in unhealthy ways that may extend the pain of our loss as well as complicate future relationships. Before we look at closure up close and personal, let us consider that the key question is not whether you have closure but the quality of the closure you provide for yourself.

Healthy Closure

What does the term "healthy closure" mean when applied to relationship loss, either through death or partner rejection and breakup? Recent research suggests that there is a strong human need to make sense of and accept our loss, figure out why it happened, and determine what we can do to recover from it in a new and meaningful direction.

Creating a healthy narrative or closure seems to be the answer as long as it supports a flexible and constructive interpretation of your breakup, allows compassion for both you and your partner, and creates a guidepost for recovery and "moving on." This framework combines healthy narratives with the practical tools of forgiveness and may prove to be highly effective.

Recovering From Relationship Loss

When a relationship ends, it is "natural' and "normal" to experience grief and sadness. This is universal and a part of the human experience. However, this is also a pivotal moment to reframe our initial narrative and massage it to be more flexible and accepting of our life goals.

Healthy closure is not demeaning toward your ex-partner or yourself. It involves a broader perspective that explains the facts of the breakup and offers a more useful and compassionate framework for understanding how and why the relationship ended.

It organizes a path on how you can learn from this experience and use it to your advantage once the grief has run its course. It allows you to be future-directed rather than stuck in the past resenting your past hurts. Simply, it allows you to "breathe fully" and consider all of your choices, options, and possibilities.

Healthy closure works best within a context of self- and partner forgiveness. The healthy narrative provides the needed cognitive framework, while forgiveness helps purge toxic emotions from past injuries.

The Philosophy of Forgiveness

Engaging in forgiveness work that includes a mental framework for understanding your loss and taking active steps toward meaningful recovery may offer the most benefits in the shortest amount of time. There is strong empirical support for this conclusion. Recent research, including DBT and the philosophy of Zen acceptance and compassion-focused therapy, assert that the use of forgiveness formats and cognitive narratives are effective therapeutic tools within close relationship encounters.

The main reason for self-created healthy closure and active forgiveness is simple and selfish in a positive way. You are justifying why you "should" forgive your ex-partner and/or yourself. What would you gain and what would you lose?

The use of forgiveness formats combined with healthy narratives allows us to reframe and regulate toxic feelings as well as to exchange a negative mental set about our past partners for a more constructive and flexible attitude that is more aligned with our own personal values and life goals.

We are making a purposeful and intentional decision on which direction to go: Do I hold on to the past and ruminate about past hurts and partner rejections, or do I allow myself to engage more fully in the things I value most? It is clearly difficult to do both.

For example, consider this metaphor: Why would you plant a healthy seed in toxic soil and then expect it to grow tall and strong? Your choice on what to focus on can either keep you stuck with past hurts or move you forward in a more open and accepting manner. The decision you choose to bet on will decide the direction you will travel.

The Importance of Using Forgiveness Tools

It is rare for anyone to have a complete picture on how their past relationships have ended. However, we can imagine that there is a complete picture and that it will take into account the context, background, and history of our past partners. This wider perspective, even if based on imagination alone, may allow us to view our past and the people in it more descriptively and with less judgment.

For example, a couple of years ago, I was standing in a long line at the market watching the one clerk move slowly. It was a hot day, and the air conditioning barely worked. In short, I was feeling irritated. Then, I was hit from behind with a large stick.

I whirled around, ready to attack my "enemy." However, it turned out my attacker was old, blind, and walked with a large cane. He smiled and apologized. My emotions immediately shifted from anger to sympathy. I had experienced the "whole picture," and it changed my perspective of the event.

If we look back at our last broken relationship and then reflect and selectively remember some of our ex-partner's positive traits that we had admired at one time, it might fill in some blanks. These positive traits have not disappeared, even though they may not be directed toward us anymore.

If we view our ex-partner from a wider perspective that includes positive as well as negative qualities, we may be in a better place to understand the mystery of our breakup and see a more complete, realistic, and balanced picture.

This view of our ex-partner is less skewed in one direction based on the way our relationship ended. We may have forgotten or pushed aside some of the better qualities. It is harder to blame and take revenge on someone that you once loved and respected. We also might be wise to remember that we also have both positive and negative traits, as seen by the eyes of others. We are all imperfect.

A Last Comment to Remember and Reflect Upon

The combined use of healthy narratives with the philosophy and tools of forgiveness may allow an easier and more effective recovery from our relationship loss. As previously stated, this conclusion has empirical support, and, on a personal level, it has worked in my life.


Gilbert, P. (2014). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 15(3), 199–208. Doc: 10,1111. 1bjc. 12043

Linehan, M. M. (1997). Validation and psychotherapy. In A. Bohart & L. Greenberg, (Eds). Empathy Reconsidered: New Direction in Psychotherapy (pp. 353–392), Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.