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Should You and Your Ex Still Be Facebook Friends?

Research on the risks of online and offline contact.

Source: baranq/Shutterstock

It probably goes without saying that people can and do use Facebook to monitor the activities of their current romantic partners (Marshall, Bejanyan, Di Castro & Lee, 2013). Further, the evidence suggests that one third of people also use Facebook to monitor the activities of former partners (Chaulk & Jones, 2011). Provided that this surveillance behavior does not intrude on or adversely affect the life or well-being of an ex, is such behavior a problem? Strictly speaking, surveillance behavior would be defined as actively looking through an ex-partner’s Facebook profile, whereas simply remaining Facebook friends would not necessarily mean actively looking for information regarding an ex-partner on Facebook.

A further question, which we pose here, is:

Does the continued surveillance of an ex-partner, or even remaining friends with an ex-partner, have the effect of delaying a person’s emotional recovery following a breakup, or does it in fact help post break-up recovery?

Contact with an ex

If we wish, we can stay in contact with an ex-partner in various ways. We can see them in person or maintain some kind of online contact through social networking. In terms of keeping in contact with an ex-partner, the distinction may be between what is called strong-tie contact, which is offline contact (seeing someone face-to-face), or weak-tie contact, which may mean remaining Facebook friends or looking at an ex’s activity on Facebook (Marshall, 2012). These weak ties mean that there is continued exposure to an ex-partner’s activities, which one would reasonably assume could prolong any distress experienced following a break-up.

To investigate this issue, Tara Marshall recruited 464 participants who reported being in various types of relationship (e.g., single, married, exclusively dating, etc). Participants all had a Facebook account, and had experienced at least one relationship breakup.

All participants were asked to recall a breakup with someone who had a Facebook account, and which had caused them distress. The study also ascertained whether participants:

  • Currently had offline contact with their ex-partner.
  • Engaged in Facebook surveillance of their ex-partner. This was assessed with two questions: “How often do you look at your ex-partner’s Facebook page?” and “How often do you look at your ex-partner’s list of Facebook friends?”
  • Were still Facebook friends with the ex-partner.

Data were also collected on:

  • Current distress over the relationship breakup.
  • Negative feelings towards their ex-partner.
  • Sexual desire for their ex-partner.
  • Longing for their ex-partner.
  • Personal growth, after the breakup, defined in terms of how many life changes and how many new experiences had occurred since their breakup, e.g. developing new interests.

What was found?

1. Offline Contact

The amount of offline (face-to-face) contact was positively associated with current distress, desire, and longing for an ex. The more offline contact a person had with an ex-partner, the greater the amount of current distress experienced and the more participants desired and longed for their ex.

2. Facebook Surveillance

Facebook surveillance was positively associated with current distress, negative feelings and a longing and desire for an ex-partner, but negatively related to personal growth. In other words, actively monitoring an ex-partner via Facebook was related to greater distress following a breakup and more longing for the ex-partner.

3. Facebook Friends

Remaining Facebook friends with an ex-partner was inversely related to the amount of desire and longing for and negative feelings towards an ex-partner. So remaining Facebook friends meant that respondents experienced lower levels of desire and longing for an ex-partner. However, remaining Facebook friends was also associated with a lower level of personal growth. In other words, remaining Facebook friends meant that people were less likely to move on and develop new interests.

What does this mean?

Marshall’s study (2012) suggests that Facebook surveillance of a former partner may have a greater effect on post-breakup functioning than strong-tie contact (offline). Why is this the case? It was speculated that Facebook provides information not readily available offline, such as an ex-partner’s involvement with someone else.

Contrary to what might be thought, and what was expected in this study, those who remained Facebook friends with an ex-partner reported lower negative feelings toward them, and less sexual desire and longing for them than those who did not remain Facebook friends. Marshall (2012) suggests that perhaps those who remain Facebook friends may have had weaker feelings for the partner before the breakup, or maybe they experienced a more amicable breakup, than those who defriended their ex. Indeed, remaining Facebook friends possibly suggests that people may have had a more amicable breakup than those who defriended their ex.

However, those who remained as Facebook friends experienced lower personal growth than those people who defriended. This weak-tie contact of remaining as Facebook friends seems to inhibit a person’s ability to move forward, and therefore the suggestion is that recovery and personal growth are independent.

Marshall speculates that the continued exposure to an ex-partner’s comments, photos, and status updates as a result of remaining Facebook friends, may have the effect of decreasing any lingering attraction to an ex-partner. Whereas ex-partners with whom we are no longer in contact remain a mystery to us, possibly sustaining our longing.

All in all, then, it seems that remaining Facebook friends with an ex may help rather than hinder emotional recovery following a romantic relationship breakup.

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Chaulk, K. & Jones, T. (2011) ‘Online obsessive relational intrusion: further concerns about Facebook’. Journal of Family Violence, 26, 245–254.

Marshall (2012) ‘Facebook surveillance of former romantic partners: associations with postbreakup recovery and personal growth’. Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, 15(10) 521-526.

Marshall, T. C., Bejanyan, K., Di Castro, G. & Lee, R. A. (2013) ‘Attachment styles as predictors of Facebook-related jealousy and surveillance in romantic relationships’. Personal Relationships, 20, 1–22.

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