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Unfriended? Five Ways to Manage Online Rejection

What to do when your Facebook friends stop being your friends.

Your Facebook friendships have great potential to enrich your emotional life by expanding your social horizons beyond the people you would normally interact with at home or work. Unfortunately, just as Facebook can bring you up, it can also bring you down.

The ending of a Facebook relationship rarely occurs in a mutually agreed-upon way. Someone decides it’s time to call the friendship off, unfriends you, and that’s it. Depending on your closeness to the other person, you may not even realize you’ve been a victim of unfriending until it dawns on you that you’re no longer seeing this person’s posts on your newsfeed. When you search for the person, you’re greeted with the message “Add as friend,” if that person is even searchable, and by then your worst fears are confirmed.

Facebook unfriending should actually be called “Facebook estrangement” because by unfriending you, the person has officially severed social ties with you. You are estranged in the sense that you will not continue to have contact with the person, at least not in an emotional or social sense. Making the situation awkward as well as upsetting, you may still work with the person or share family ties.

It’s possible for unfriending to happen in a deliberate fashion where the two of you actually communicated about the ending of your relationship prior to the unfriending. It’s also possible that the break was mutual, with both of you choosing to part ways in person and online. In real life, a person might decide to stop seeing you, and that person would just disappear from your daily existence.

This type of separation can be harsh, but when separations occur on Facebook, they tend to have other features that make them particularly painful. Perhaps the worst is the way that the unfriending occurs. People have to give unfriending much more thought than they give to friending. They actually have to decide that they don’t want to hear from you anymore or have you know anything more about them. If you weren’t in on this decision, a Facebook unfriending is very much a rejection and can hurt as much as can any in-person rejection.

Psychology is beginning to discover the uses of Facebook for research on relationships as in studies of friendship networks. However, Facebook’s unique properties as a platform for relationships make it a phenomenon worth of study in its own right.

In the case of unfriending, this is particularly true. Unfriending is perhaps the ultimate in passive-aggressive forms of rejection that doesn't have a counterpart in the "real" world of relationships. On Facebook, no one tells you that you’re unfriended; they just uncheck you as a friend. They never have to tell you in person or even explain why, nor do they need your consent to do so.

The unique status of Facebook for studying rejection led Chapman University researchers Jennifer Bevan and team (2012) to investigate the reactions of 547 adults to the experience of Facebook unfriending. Bevan was particularly interested in finding out whether experiencing this “relationship sudden death” would be associated with negative emotions such as feeling sad. They also wondered whether the unfriended who gave more thought to the breakup (“ruminated”) would also experience the most sadness.

Their analyses showed that rumination was positively related to negative emotions; in other words, the more that the participants thought about the unfriending, the worse they felt. The unfriended were also more likely to ruminate if they spent a lot of time on Facebook, meaning that Facebook played a central role in their social life. Being unfriended by a person they were close to was harder to take especially if the cause had something to do with their own Facebook sins, such as over-sharing, posting about polarizing topics, and making crude comments. Finally, participants reported greater rumination when the unfriending occurred from a person who they had sought out as Facebook friends in the first place.

Facebook estrangement in the form of unfriending is difficult enough to endure, but it seems even more difficult to manage when the online rift reflects a deliberate attempt by your former Facebook friend to hide from you completely.

Writing in The New York Times about this experience, Catherine Saint Louis documented the tragic stories of families who go for decades without communicating only to gravitate to Facebook to find their long-lost relations. In the pre-Facebook era, family members certainly experienced anguish over their lost relationships, but in some ways, the relationships were more easily put out of mind. With Facebook’s window into the lives of your estranged relatives, though, you can know what you’re missing out on, which only rubs salt into your painful emotional wounds.

If you can figure out ways to get around Facebook’s privacy settings, you can see them enjoying lives that do not include you. Those “family” gatherings to which you’re not invited put your estrangement into bold relief. It’s no wonder that the unfriended become so prone to rumination. It’s hard not to think about the people who’ve rejected you when you see exactly what it is that they're doing in your absence.

Estranged individuals looking for payback can also use Facebook to exact revenge their former friends. They may keep their activities visible so that they can flaunt the happy lives that don’t include these estranged parents, children, siblings, or ex-spouses. They may even go so far as to post fake Facebook postings to reinforce the impression that they're living the high life. They can also post the full story (from their side) about the cause of the breakup, leaving the unfriended humiliated and defenseless.

How do these findings translate into your everyday life? First, consider the "unfriender." Just when you thought Facebook might give you a clean way to break off your undesired relationships, you may now realize just how much pain the unfriending is costing others.

Whether you mean to or not, you may wish to consider a more direct way of confronting people whose Facebook relationships no longer interest you. Give your soon-to-be unfriend a chance for redemption. It's possible that this person could benefit from your feedback into what is bothering you about his or her Facebook posts. If you're about to unfriend someone because the relationship is over, similarly, just call (don't email) the person and discuss why it is awkward for you to continue being that person's friend.

On the other hand, if you’re the “unfriendee,” you need to find ways to cope with the pain of online rejection.

From the findings of Bevan and team’s study, let me suggest the following five ways to cope with Facebook unfriending:

  1. Don’t ruminate over the unfriending. It’s possible that you’re more upset about being unfriended than about losing this online friend. If you’re thinking more about the unfriending than about the friend, this suggests that the person wasn’t really all that close to you.
  2. Expand your real-life social network. If Facebook is the centerpiece of your social life, you’re more likely to ruminate over the loss of one of your virtual friends. Make it a goal to interact more with the people who you can see, talk to, and share experiences with than the people who only read about you online. It’s particularly important that you “love the one you’re with,” as the song goes. Don’t be one of those people who updates their Facebook status while out on a date, or it’ll be even harder for you to form those real-life connections.
  3. Look critically at your own Facebook behavior. The Bevan study showed that the people most likely to be unfriended were the ones who committed some of Facebook’s most reviled sins. Do you continually make crude comments? Are you guilty of TMI (too much information) in which you share every morsel of food you eat and every step you take? It’s no wonder that some people decide to trim you when they trim their news feeds. If you’re really not sure whether you’re committing these sins or not, ask a trusted friend (in real life) to tell you directly whether your Facebook behavior needs to change.
  4. Try to figure out what caused the rift and then try to repair it. This is very easy to say, but in practice, it can seem nearly impossible to mend deep family fractures. However, family therapy and couples therapy are methods of intervention that work. The Facebook problems may be not fixable, but if you’re feeling anguished over estrangement from family and formerly close personal friends, it’s worth giving serious intervention a chance (or a second or third chance, as the case may be).
  5. Don’t stalk those who unfriended you. If you’re unable to repair a broken relationship, don’t torment yourself further by becoming an online detective. You will only re-open old wounds and might even make things worse. If the rift was, in fact, a temporary one, by taking the higher and more dignified approach of retreating into the background, the other person may very well re-establish ties with you. Don’t hold out hope that this will happen, to avoid setting yourself up for disappointment. Let fate, and a cooling off of tensions, take its course and if it’s meant to be, the relationship will resume in its own time.

Even if unfriending turns to longer-term estrangement, these five ways to manage your feelings will help you cope with the pain of rejection. What's more, you can learn from the experience to prevent unfriending in your future online — and real — relationships.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012

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Bevan, J. L., Pfyl, J., & Barclay, B. (2012). Negative emotional and cognitive responses to being unfriended on facebook: An exploratory study. Computers In Human Behavior, doi:10.1016/j.chb.2012.03.008