How Following Your Ex on Facebook Prevents Personal Growth

Focusing on your future means releasing, and possibly unfriending, your past.

Posted Jun 25, 2018

In 2012, research by Tara C. Marshall showed that continued exposure to an ex-partner through Facebook may impede post-breakup healing and the ability to move on.[i] Marshall began by recognizing the widespread practice of checking the profiles of other Facebook users, colloquially known as “Facebook stalking,” which previous research has demonstrated can lead to offline relational intrusion as well as increased distress. Marshall, however, wanted to determine how online exposure to an ex-partner related to personal growth.  

Her study found that frequent monitoring of the Facebook activities and friends of an ex-partner created more negative feelings, greater distress over the relationship dissolution, sexual desire, missing the ex, and a decreased amount of personal growth.  This was true whether or not the ex-partner was officially a Facebook friend. Marshall also found that the type of information available on Facebook, such as news that an ex-partner has become romantically involved with someone new, can intensify heartbreak. 

The Decision to Unfriend

There is a difference between constant Facebook monitoring and simply remaining Facebook friends. Notable findings in Marshall's study include that individuals who remained Facebook friends with an ex-partner reported lower sexual desire, longing, or negative feelings for their former flame than individuals who were not Facebook friends. 

Marshall notes that potential explanations for this finding include weaker romantic feelings during the relationship or a more amicable split than participants who unfriended their partner. She provides another possible explanation, however, that captures the reason many people do not use Facebook: “An alternative possibility is that unbidden exposure to the potentially banal status updates, comments, and photos of an ex-partner through remaining Facebook friends may have decreased any residual attraction to the ex-partner.”  

Drawing a contrast, Marshall notes that without a constant stream of information about the activities of an ex-partner, the prior paramour may remain “shrouded in an alluring mystique,” suggesting that in some cases, continued Facebook contact may actually help post-breakup recovery.

On the topic of moving forward, however, Marshall notes that people who remained Facebook friends with an ex-partner experienced less personal growth than those who did not.  She notes that consistent with previous research, it appears that relational recovery and personal growth may be independent processes.

Post-Breakup Personal Growth 

There are far healthier ways to experience personal growth post-dissolution than looking at a Facebook post about what your ex had for lunch. Research reveals that it is more important to focus on yourself and your future. 

Tashiro and Frazier, in a study entitled “I'll never be in a relationship like that again” (2003), investigated the link between romantic breakups and personal growth.[ii] They found that participants who suffered a recent breakup reported an average of five types of personal growth that they intended to use to improve the quality of future relationships. 

The most frequently reported type of post-breakup positive change was what the authors characterized as Person types of growth, which focused on how the participants could improve their own traits, beliefs, and characteristics. They give as examples not broad changes such as becoming more extraverted, but specific behaviors such as learning to admit when you're wrong. 

The second most frequently reported type of growth was Environmental, including enhanced academic success and improved family relationships.  

Interestingly, participants reported very few changes in terms of learning how to pick a better partner in the future, although they did report improvements in Relational factors such as engaging in better communication.    

Spend Time Growing, Not Grieving

Prioritizing post-breakup personal growth is a healthy way to reframe, rebound, and recover.  Moving forward instead of looking backwards requires making changes both online and offline.

Apparently, according to research, unfriending an ex-flame is not necessarily required to enable you to move on. But depending on your Facebook settings, consider that it might spare you from being notified when your ex-partner changes relational status from "committed" to "single" (ouch), adding new photos with a new love interest, and eventually changing relational status back to "committed"—with someone new.  

Instead of subjecting yourself to painful reminders of love lost, capitalize on freedom gained by collecting a new set of friends, fans, and followers. Venturing out from behind the computer screen into the real world provides a change of scenery and a welcome diversion from a recent breakup, paving a positive path on the road to recovery.


[i]Tara C. Marshall, ”Facebook Surveillance of Former Romantic Partners: Associations with PostBreakup Recovery and Personal Growth,” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Neworking 15, no. 10, 2012, 521-526.

[ii]Ty Tashiro and Patricia Frazier, I´ll never be in a relationship like that again: Personal growth following romantic relationship breakups,” Personal Relationships 10, 2003, 113-128.