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Why Exes Aren't So "Ex" Anymore

When you can separate on social media, experts say, you'll bounce back faster.

A and N photography/Shutterstock
Source: A and N photography/Shutterstock

Breakups are supposed to be the end of a relationship. Whether the end came via a fight or a fizzle, after a relationship used to end, it required some significant effort to contact an ex or figure out what was going on in his or her life. Now, social networking sites can keep you digitally connected to exes, whether or not it’s good for you.

A growing body of research demonstrates that although we could delete that connection and “defriend” an ex, we often choose to stay virtually linked. We don’t necessarily maintain this connection due to feelings of closeness or friendship, though; users typically admit staying linked so they can “Facebook stalk” to see how an ex moves on (or not) after the breakup:

  • Is s/he posting about the breakup?
  • Is s/he brooding over the relationship?
  • Is that song lyric or sassy quote directed at me?
  • Has anyone started to flirt or show romantic interest?
  • Is s/he dating someone new?

Before social networking sites, we’d often have to rely on updates from common friends if we wanted information about an ex without directly contacting them. Now Facebook is ready and willing to share this information with a few quick clicks. And the site will never chastise you for asking.

Although social networking sites enable you to access such information, when you’re distressed about a breakup, it’s in your best interest not to do it. Ruminating too much about a terminated relationship tends to augment feelings of sadness and regret and stifle your healing process. Similarly, looking at artifacts of the relationship or “creeping” on an ex’s Facebook profile can keep you stuck in a post-breakup funk. Research by Tara Marshall has shown that, regardless of any offline contact, following an ex’s activity on Facebook will prolong your distress, increase negative feelings, promote more longing, and postpone emotional recovery.

The role of attachment

As noted in my earlier post , people with anxious attachment styles are more likely to engage in Facebook stalking. Thus, those with preoccupied and fearful attachment styles may be at higher risk of post-breakup distress and hindered recovery due to intensive monitoring an ex on Facebook.

The end of relationships are especially hard on those with anxious attachment styles. As Katie Warber notes:

“Such individuals tend to become preoccupied with checking their ex's Facebook page. They find themselves looking at pictures and status updates—even asking friends to monitor their former partner's page—which can ultimately compound feelings of loneliness and loss.”

Your best bet, then, is not to monitor an ex on Facebook at all, especially if you have an anxious attachment style. Willpower can be lacking when you’re emotionally drained, so even if you’re typically a limited Facebook user, you may need to figure out ways to keep yourself away from your ex’s page. Here are some options:

  1. Get rid of the digital artifacts.
    If there are reminders of the relationship all over your own profile—comments s/he made on your page, pictures or posts you’re tagged in together, photo albums you created or shared—it’s more likely that you’ll be thinking about your ex-partner. As Warber notes, “Digital social media makes erasing those memories much more difficult, keeping them at the forefront of the mind and making it more difficult to move forward.”
  2. Block and hide.
    Facebook allows you to block any user or hide their posts, meaning their updates won’t show up in your newsfeed. So if/when your ex starts friending attractive singles, your feed won’t make it appear that the ex is casting the new season of “The Bachelor."
  3. Defriend.
    Blocking or hiding means you still remain “friends,” so it doesn’t prevent you from ever visiting an ex's page. Defriending can keep you off of the ex’s page altogether, yet it can also send an unintended message. Your intention may have been to keep a healthy distance, but the action, when noticed by the ex, might read as “I never want to talk to you again.” If you’re still on good terms with an ex, give a polite heads-up before you fully sever this connection.
  4. Ask a friend.
    The digital era may leave you without photographs or ticket stubs to ritually burn, but friends can still be useful in helping you make your computer screen a reminder-free zone by deleting posts or photo albums you don’t want to see.
  5. Stay off of social media entirely.
    If you can’t trust yourself to use it properly, taking a social media sabbatical is a good idea. Block sites from your browser or remove apps from your phone to make them difficult to access. In perhaps the most creative solution I’ve heard, a young woman had her sister log into her account and change the password, telling her sibling not to reveal it until she felt the young woman was sufficiently over a breakup to handle it again.

In the end, it’s up to you to take control of your life after a breakup, and part of that means dealing with social media. Keep your use positive and productive to promote healthy healing and recovery.

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