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Advice Goddess: Guess Pains

Freak breakups rattle the mind



I got dumped four months ago, and I'm still not sure what happened. All of my boyfriend's explanations seemed vague, and the breakup really came out of nowhere. I don't want to contact him. How do I sort this out so I can move on?

— Desperately Seeking Closure

Science has yet to figure out a number of life's mysteries—questions like: "What came before the big bang?" "Why is there more matter than antimatter?" and "If we're such an advanced civilization, what's with short-sleeved leather jackets?"

Freak breakups—unexpected, inexplicable endings to relationships—are really tough because our mind doesn't do well with unfinished business. It ends up bugging us to get "closure"—and by "bugging," I mean like some maniacal game show host in hell, shouting at us for all eternity, "Answer the question! Answer the question!"

This psychological spin cycle we go into is called "the Zeigarnik effect," after Russian psychologist and psychiatrist Bluma Zeigarnik. In the 1920s, Zeigarnik observed that waiters at a busy Vienna restaurant were pretty remarkable at remembering food orders they had taken but had yet to deliver. However, once they'd brought the food to the patrons, they had little memory of what the orders were. 

Zeigarnik's research (and subsequent modern research) suggests that the mind remains in a "state of tension" until we complete whatever we've left incomplete—finishing the task we've started or finally answering some nagging question.

This might seem like bad news for you, considering the mystery you've got on your hands. However, you can make use of psychologist Daniel Kahneman's research. He explains that our brains are "expensive" to run; basically, it takes a ton of energy to keep the lights on up there. So our mind is programmed to take mental shortcuts whenever it can—believing stuff that has even a veneer of plausibility. 

As for how this plays out, essentially, your mind assumes that you're smart—that you don't believe things for no reason. The upshot of this for you is that you can probably just decide on a story—your best guess for why your now-ex-boyfriend bolted—and write yourself an ending that gets you off the mental hamster wheel.

Should any of those old intrusive thoughts drop by for a visit, review the ending you've written, and then distract yourself until they go away—like by reciting the ABCs backward or by pondering the mysteries of human existence, such as vajazzling (gluing Swarovski crystals to one's labia and thereabouts). No, ladies, your vagina will not be more fun if it's wearing earrings.

(c) 2017, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or e-mail

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