Brain Babble

Unraveling neuroscience research and FAQs—without the jargon

Facebook-Stalking Your Ex: Or, How NOT to Move On

Why keeping tabs on an old flame can prevent you from going forward

Do you have an ex?

Do you have a Facebook profile? Does your ex?

Do you stalk your ex on Facebook?

To the untrained eye, that photo of him eating dinner with...that girl...at Olive Garden is no big deal. But Olive Garden was our place, and—wait, is that the watch I got him? Oh, and it looks like he got into that grad school he wanted to go to. The one for which I edited his personal statement and quizzed him with GRE words...

Ugh.

I'm going to tell you something that you probably already know: you should stop doing this. And I'm armed with the psychology of why it's bad!

In a study published last month in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, Tara C. Marshall of Brunel University in England examined how individuals who use Facebook have—or, uh, haven't—moved on after a breakup.

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The participants comprised of 464 individuals—mostly college-age students (60%), and 84% of whom were female. They were recruited via an online survey which, if you ask me, should have established a criteria to create a 1:1 ratio of males to females. But they didn't ask me.

First, the participants were asked questions about their online activity, such "How often do you look at an ex-partner's Facebook page?"

Next, they described details about their breakup, including whether they had lingering desires, their distress over the ordeal, and rated negative feelings such as confusion, anger, and jealousy.

Lastly, the participants assessed how their lives had changed since the breakup; for instance, have they taken up new interests.

As you may expect, those who indicated that they regularly "stalked" their exes were more likely to still be hung up on the relationship; they had higher levels of distress over the breakup, lingering negative feelings, a greater sense of longing, and demonstrated less personal growth compared to those who did not keep tabs on their ex.

In a counterintuitive twist, Marshall asserts that you shouldn't "unfriend" them to overcome these negative consequences. Those who did so seem to be just as damaged as those who stalk.

The mystery of not knowing what's going on in their lives may be just as alluring, causing one to draw one's own conclusions, good or bad—employing the wild imagination that seems to inevitably accompany a breakup.

The goal, then, should be to maintain a weak connection with your ex. Seeing their boring statuses about how much homework they have or an Instagram photo of their bacon burgers may be just enough to allow us to move on.

Now all we need is a scientific study telling us how, exactly, we are supposed to exercise that kind of self-control.

Photos courtesy Hot Hardware and MSNBC Media.

Marshall TC (2012). Facebook Surveillance of Former Romantic Partners: Associations with PostBreakup Recovery and Personal Growth.Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking PMID: 22946958

Jordan Gaines Lewis is a science writer and Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Penn State College of Medicine.
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