5 Questions You Have to Ask Before Unfriending an Ex

What does it really mean to you?

Posted Apr 15, 2015

Source: auremar/Shutterstock

It's been a week since you broke up. You see that your ex has liked another person's Instagram picture and posted a picture of himself out at a party—and it makes you feel both sad and angry. Would it be better to just unfollow him once and for all?

Many articles about unfriending or unfollowing exes on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram prescribe rules: You should shut your ex out to get your ex back. You should unfriend your ex to move on. You should stop using social media to heal faster. 

But the truth is that studies haven’t proven that disconnecting with your ex online will necessarily make your breakup easier. A 2012 study of 464 young Facebook users, primarily women (84 percent) with an average age of 21, found that staying friends with an ex on Facebook was associated with a more difficult emotional recovery from a breakup and less personal growth. However, there's a big caveat: This study does not prove causation, only association—that is, remaining friends on Facebook does not necessarily lead to a more difficult post-breakup period, or lessen your ability to move on. It is equally possible that people who tend to experience more difficult breakups are more likely to stay friends with their ex online.

Those articles that say you must unfriend (or that you should do it in order to get your ex back) miss a deeper, more fundamental point—that a critical part of recovering and navigating the aftermath of a breakup is focusing on and figuring out what is right for you (and not for the sake of making an impact on your ex, your ex’s new partner, or anyone else for that matter).

In my opinion, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to whether you should unfriend or unfollow an ex. Every relationship has a different story that can change over time, and every individual has a unique and authentic way of being and responding.

Even how you feel toward a breakup can vary a day, a week, a month, or a year later. Perhaps at the beginning, you want to achieve more separation by disconnecting online from your ex, but maybe a year later, whether or not you’re friends online may not have a huge impact on your life either way. What matters most is that each moment along the way your decisions are truly your own, and that each step brings you closer to what you need.

During periods of loss and hurt, you would think that our minds would naturally offer us more compassion and empowerment. But often breakups are processed as failures and can spur internal questions about the past or future like: What did I do wrong? How could I have prevented this? How could I have not seen this coming? How can I get my ex back? Can someone else tell me what I should or shouldn’t do to make this right again?

Especially if a breakup was not your decision, you have already just been through the pain of having someone else decide for you what is right for your life, and you may feel like you did not have your voice heard, or that you lost some sense of control over your own direction. It's OK to take a moment to pause and give yourself the space and time to figure out what you need.

This can be a very challenging shift. The realization that you have the power to decide what is right for you—to offer yourself compassion, kindness, trust to decide—might seem remote or even impossible. For a lot of people, it is more familiar to beat themselves up about the past or worry about the future.

Here are 5 questions to help connect with what you really need and then to help you decide if unfollowing/unfriending an ex makes sense for you.

1. What do I need?

I put this question first because it’s truly important to spend time exploring what it means for you. You might find that you have different needs at different times during a breakup and afterward. It is easy to forget that what you need for yourself should be the driving force behind your path.

Most of the time, the decision about whether to unfollow an ex online is actually a decision about yourself and what you need: Do you need more distance, privacy, or boundaries? Do you need more understanding of what happened? Or do you need more friendship or reassurance that you will still be part of each other’s lives? Do you need to keep your connection in order to keep a part of your past alive?

2. Why do I want to disconnect from my ex? What would I gain from staying connected? Will defriending or unfollowing my ex get me closer to or further from what I need?

If you feel like you need more distance from your ex, will defriending get you that separation? If you feel like you need more understanding of what happened, will staying friends so you can keep up with your ex’s profile bring you the information you seek? And would that information get you closer to the closure you seek?

3. What does unfriending my ex mean to me? Am I trying to communicate something? If so, are there other ways of arriving at that destination that do not involve social media?

Maybe you’re afraid that your ex will unfriend or unfollow you first, so you decide you need to act preemptively. Or perhaps you are frustrated that your ex isn’t answering your texts or emails anymore, and you want to show that you're angry. It can be more effective to be direct in expressing your emotions in a conversation with your ex. Using unfriending or unfollowing as a way to signal your angry can lead to more waiting and more frustration if you feel like they don’t get your point.

4. What is getting in the way of what I need?

Often there are barriers toward moving forward. Have you decided you need more separation, but can't hit the unfollow button because it feels so permanent? Is it difficult to let go of the last sense of being included in your ex’s life? Perhaps you hesitate to take the step because you still want to see what that person is doing or check if they have moved on. Ask yourself: Do these barriers keep you from getting closer to what you really want? Are you fulfilling your needs in the big picture or just satisfying a short-term curiosity that feeds the hurt?

Creative Commons
Source: Creative Commons

5. How do I feel after my decision?

It’s helpful to keep tabs on how you feel after your decision. Is it working in the way that you hoped? You might find that time changes what you need. If you thought you wanted to block your ex but decide later you don’t want you, well, you’re allowed to change your mind.

In the aftermath of a breakup, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what you need. By letting yourself figure it out over time, without self-judgment, you can be back on the path toward personal growth and groundedness—whether or not your ex stays in your Twitter feed or not.