A few nights ago when I was randomly scrolling through my Facebook Newsfeed, I saw a comment on my friend’s wall by someone I haven’t been in touch with for a while. I was a little bit surprised to see their name, and a part of me just wanted to scroll down and ignore the stimuli that had caught my eye, but curiosity got the better of me, and I ended up going on their profile and stalking them for quite a while. While I can honestly say that I am glad that they are no more in my life, that brief, momentary experience of just being on their social media page opened up a whole Pandora’s box of myriad emotions – a part of me was amused at their ridiculous, almost non-existent, privacy settings; another part of me was upset seeing photos of them hanging out with mutual friends; a third part was, of course, busy evaluating how their life was since we’d parted ways, and feeling immense gratitude for this parting; but there was a large part of me feeling extremely angry at myself for giving into temptation so easily. As I tried pacifying this angry self by moving on to another website, I was reminded of a conversation I had had with one of my clients some days ago of how she had almost suffered a panic attack after seeing her ex changing his status on Facebook to “In A Relationship”.
Breakups are hard. Most people, after a breakup, sit back and wonder: what went wrong? I have had so many clients in the therapy-room struggling to find answers, typically creating new relationship stories, spending copious amounts of time analysing events leading to the breakup, flagging key events, using them to build a cohesive storyline to make sense of the turn of events. According to a study conducted by Howe & Dweck (2015), people who continue to be haunted by the ghosts of their romantic past – compared to others who seemed to move on from failed relationships with minimal difficulty – often end up portraying their own personalities as toxic, with negative qualities likely to contaminate other relationships (“I am not good enough”, “Something is wrong with me”, “I am impossible to live with!”) and social media plays a very significant role in today’s times in causing a powerful decline in wellbeing after breakups.
One of the most common things that friends or clients report feeling awful about after a breakup is when they casually start their morning flipping through the Facebook Newsfeed or Instagram Stories and spotting random notifications from the ex. The “Memories” feature on Facebook is another tool that just does not make breakups any easier. According to a recent study conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder (2020), even those who use Facebook features like unfriending, unfollowing, blocking and Take a Break still experience troubling encounters with ex-partners online. Breakups were always difficult but, before social media, it was easier to get distance from that person. It is extremely difficult to move on if one is constantly bombarded with reminders in various places online. Even people who take all measures they see possible to remove their exes from their virtual world find social media returning them – often, multiple times a day because, unfortunately, social media runs on algorithms which, in essence, do not have the capacity to process that someone who was once your everything is no more a part of your life. One’s past clicks and relationships statuses will continue to determine the posts one sees on their social feed, and it is highly likely for them to see stories and photos their ex would have either commented on, or tagged in. Unfriending and unfollowing does not work either as many have discovered because of shared spaces, such as groups, or mutual friends’ photos.
In real life, it is easier to pick sides and know who remains on your side and which connections fall apart along with your failed relationship, but in the online world, the chances of mutual connections unfriending, unfollowing and cutting all ties with one party completely are extremely rare. So, if a mutual friend uploads a picture with the ex without tagging them, that photo would still flow through their feed and make its way to you. To combat this issue, Facebook tried, in 2015, to launch the “Take A Break” feature – unfortunately, it only works when a user switches from “in a relationship” to “single” and prompts the platform to hide that person’s activities. For people who do not use the Relationship Status tool, this feature is not on offer. A few days ago, another client of mine reported feeling really sad because her ex’s cousin who she had been close to showed up on Facebook as a suggestion under “People You May Know” and it made her relive the whole experience of all the connections she had lost because of her breakup.
There is another side to the story of how social media is detrimental to the process of moving on. Many people make it more difficult for themselves to move past the breakup by falling into the trap of digitally stalking their ex. Social media allows us to contact anyone at any time, and to follow that person with a degree of ease that is almost disturbing. It may start with a harmless glance at the ex’s online profile, and then spiral into untold psychological anguish as one falls into the trap of returning to their profile again and again. More than half my clients involved in relationships admitted that they looked at their current partner’s social media profiles very often, and about the same percentage of clients admitted that they stalked their ex-partner on social media at least once a week. While digitally stalking an ex may be viewed as a harmless response, this social media surveillance obstructs the natural process of getting over an ex and is often associated with greater negative feelings after a breakup, and a lower sense of self-esteem.
It is natural to experience a sense of rejection after a breakup. People feel sad, angry, confused, and all these feelings are a normal part of the grieving and letting go process. Looking at their “happy posts” on social media does not make one feel any better, and, in fact, delays the process of healing and ability to move on. Physical, mental, and emotional distance are important in coping with and healing from a breakup. Taking a break from social media until one finds themselves in a better space is strongly recommended because unfriending, blocking, untagging, and blocking are not entirely failproof. For those still itching to stalk their ex on social media, put down the phone, practice calming breathing techniques or mindfulness or simply consider catching up with a friend. One may also benefit from connecting with a mental health professional to just work through their emotions.
Use the time after the breakup to work on your issues and build a better relationship with yourself. Give yourself some extra love and care. Remember, no matter how ugly and painful the breakup was, and how empty your life feels without that person in your world, you are still there for yourself, and you deserve all the very good things that exist out there, because, you are worth it. You always were, and you’ll always be…
Howe LC, Dweck CS. Changes in Self-Definition Impede Recovery From Rejection. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2016;42(1):54-71. doi:10.1177/0146167215612743
University of Colorado at Boulder. “How social media makes breakups that much worse: New study shows its hard to get distance in the digital age.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 February 2020. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/02/200214094404.htm>.