Regardless of their reason, break-ups have always been complex. Along with contending with an inevitable host of messy emotions, we also have to navigate the temptation of break-up sex, the awkward exchange of belongings left at each other’s houses, and the well-meaning friends trying not to take sides.
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Dating in a digital age has only added to the subtle politics of a split. Do you delete your ex’s number to avoid a late-night drunk dial? What does it mean when they’re always the first to watch your Insta story? And is it OK to be upset if you spot your most recent bae on Bumble?
There is no break-up dilemma however that is as hotly contested as whether to stay connected with an ex on social media. Whilst you might be confident that you will never cross paths with a former flame, our increasingly active online lives mean that they are still never more than a few clicks away. Although it can be tempting to keep tabs on an ex’s feed, or send a sneaky ‘like’ when you’re feeling lonely, this can seriously harm your chances of moving on.
“Social media can without doubt make working through a break-up much harder,” says psychotherapist and counsellor Denise Dunne. “The ease of finding your ex online — deliberately or accidentally — really interferes with the process of working through and moving past the loss.”
Access to the carefully curated life that an ex chooses to portray online can still make us crave a renewed connection, even if you’re sure that breaking up was the right thing to do. After all, who wouldn’t feel a pang of jealousy at seeing someone you once got frisky with looking fantastic in their heavily edited vacation pictures whilst you cram down a desk-side lunch on a gray Monday afternoon? Seeing only the rose-tinted highlights reel of your ex’s life can make you long to be a part of it again, but it can also throw up some self-flagellating feelings — why are they having so much fun without me? Have they really moved on as quickly as it looks like they have? Why do I still feel sad when they’re having the time of their life?
Seeing only the rose-tinted highlights reel of your ex’s life can make you long to be a part of it again, but it can also throw up some self-flagellating feelings.
“Seeing an ex apparently moving on with their lives when we perhaps are still working through our loss or are struggling to meet someone new, can make reuniting with them an attractive prospect, but really just to avoid being the one left behind,” says Dunne. “When we aren’t really thinking psychologically, we can tend to appraise break-ups as dumper-dumpee with all the corresponding feelings of rejection, abandonment, and not being good enough, rather than two people who became incompatible. As psychotherapists we can often see people returning to problematic relationships for these self-esteem reasons.”
While failing to hit ‘unfriend’ may seem harmless, the possibility of spotting a hilarious tweet or a seemingly innocuous night out snap may in fact be much more powerful. Separation from a loved one leads to a decrease in happy hormones dopamine and oxytocin, but coming across them online can deliver that quick dopamine hit we’re craving. It is this chemical reaction that makes moving on so tough.
“From an unromantic neurobiological perspective, managing a break-up is analogous to withdrawal from addiction,” explains Dunne. “On the online world of acceptable cyber-stalking it can be really tempting, seemingly harmless, and maybe even at times unavoidable to have a look at an ex’s pictures. Ultimately this is a really bad idea — for a good number of reasons, but from an addiction perspective that little bump of dopamine we get when we look at them actually sends us right back into the painful addiction cycle and reinforces our belief that we can’t live without our ex.”
From an unromantic neurobiological perspective, managing a break-up is analogous to withdrawal from addiction.
Keeping connections with past romantic prospects alive is common for a host of reasons. Perhaps you can’t resist sneaking a look at their profile every now and again. Perhaps you broke up amicably and fear appearing petty if you’re the first one to hit unfriend. Perhaps you’re hoping that they’ll feel a pang of regret when they see that steamy new selfie you posted. Whatever your reasons, you still might find that choosing to unfollow gives you a freedom that outweighs the potential benefits of staying in digital touch.
“A really important thing to do upon a breakup to help you move on in a healthy way is to cut social media ties with your ex, not in a malicious or angry way, but in a considered ‘if we are going to get through this’ way,” says Dunne. “Managing relationships and loss is a fundamental and challenging part of being human that affects all aspects of our lives. While social media cannot really be held responsible for our desire to avoid or mitigate the loss of love, it is fair to say that the constant connection can add another obstacle to healthy separation.”