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Clean Break

Breaking up is never easy and social media often makes the experience worse. MiNDFOOD’s resident psychologist gives advice on how to part ways in the digital age.

Clean Break

It’s a Saturday night and you’re staying in, alone. You know the feeling. The dull ache in your heart, the longing for someone who understands you. Memories of times when you were cuddled up on the couch. Coupledom was so much easier – or so your memory tells you. The rapidly disappearing glass of wine seems like a fitting accompaniment to your next move – checking what your ex is up to on social media.

While splitting up is never simple, has there ever been a time where surreptitious spying on past loves, through ease of access online, was simpler? Social media has added an extra layer to the complexity and pain of heartbreak.
In the past we may have “accidentally” driven past an ex’s place, or felt our pulse quicken as we recognised their car in familiar places. But now we can text our innermost thoughts to exes after one too many drinks, be friends with them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and even be Facebook friends with their new partners.

If we have a compelling need to know what they are doing, it’s pretty easy to find out. Even if you’re one of the few who blocks or deletes your ex’s digital imprint on your life, you can have unpleasant surprises when a friend tags them in a photo (especially if they have their arm around someone new) or likes their post.
At heart, we are social creatures. We want to belong. If we rewind our lives to the moments and weeks after meeting our (now ex) partner, we might find dreams of togetherness, when we thought we’d found our soulmate. These same thoughts in reverse are our deepest fears – what if I’m alone forever? What if this was my soulmate? They provide understandable reasons to hang on to past loves even if rationally we know it’s not smart.

Breaking up is hard to do

The early weeks after breaking up are usually difficult. According to research by Rutgers University biological anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher, romantic love is a natural addiction and upon breaking up, we experience rejection in a similar way drug users go through withdrawal.

In a 2010 paper published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, Fisher gathered 15 people who had recently experienced romantic rejection but still reported being intensely in love. Participants were shown two photographs: one of the person who had rejected them, and another of a familiar person who they were not emotionally close to, for example a classmate. Brain scans showed that when people looked at their recent partner, the activity mimicked those of cocaine-addicted substance users. Fisher’s paper suggests the addictive nature of love “may help explain the obsessive behaviours associated with rejection in love”.

Dealing with loss, heartbreak, an uncertain future, broken hopes and dreams is typically hard for us; in extreme cases it can lead to suicide or homicide. In our feel-good culture, we have developed lots of creative ways to distract ourselves from pain; indeed it is at these times of transition, when we feel most bereft, that we’re likely to turn to social media, the distraction of choice for many of us nowadays.

Research suggests that continued contact with your ex (offline) can make the process of recovery from a relationship difficult; people report sadness and feeling an increased sense of longing for their ex.

A study published in journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, by Dr Tara Marshall, sought to find out what impact Facebook surveillance (for example, continuing to monitor an ex’s page) has on post break-up recovery. She found that keeping tabs on an ex but not remaining Facebook friends had significant downsides: greater distress over the break-up, negative feelings towards the ex, increased sexual desire and longing for the ex-partner, and lower personal growth. These were similar consequences to what happens when you keep in contact offline.

However, staying Facebook friends with an ex seemed to be associated with less distress, negative feelings and desire, but lower personal growth. Marshall’s take on this was that the task following a break-up is not just about mourning your loss and detaching from a former partner; it is also about making sense of what’s happened while going forward with new possibilities.

Another recent study, this time from the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, found students who were still Facebook friends with exes and were generally prone to rumination, were more likely to spend time on Facebook. Students who spent a lot of time on Facebook thinking about what their ex’s life is like without them had a more difficult time recovering from the break-up. So how do you know if you’re at risk of greater distress post break-up?

The role of attachment

Your attachment style is determined early in life by your experiences with your parents/caregivers. Secure and insecure attachment are the two main categories.

Insecure attachment can be further broken down depending on your level of anxiety in relationships – one type is anxious attachment (for example if you are worried about your partner leaving you) and the other is avoidant attachment (for example, do you feel like you don’t need a partner?).

Those with secure attachment are the majority (approximately 50 per cent of people); they had consistent, responsive caregiving, which instills a sense of trust in the infant that their needs will be met and that they will be able to handle what life brings. If you agree with the statements: “It is easy for me to become emotionally close to others; I am comfortable depending on others and having others depend on me; I don’t worry about being alone or having others not accept me;” you are likely to have secure attachments.

Insecure attachment results when caregivers have been inconsistent in providing attention (this can happen for all sorts of reasons, for example if your caregiver was depressed, used alcohol/drugs excessively, worked long hours or was otherwise unavailable).

Research in the last 40 years has confirmed your attachment style is a fairly stable trait across life. It can help explain your relationship patterns later in life and how you react to break-ups.

This research has shown it is those with insecure attachment, specifically anxious attachments, who find relationships hard to let go of. (Those who are avoidantly attached are likely to break up with someone by text, email or social media, and are likely to maintain they were not ready to commit).

Those who are anxiously attached experience more distress and are more likely to engage in behaviours that might be deemed unwise, for example continuing to be in touch with their ex after the break-up, sleeping with them casually, or stalking them. They are likely to agree with either of the following two groups of statements that typify anxious attachment:
“I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like,” or “I worry about getting hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others.”
In a 2014 paper in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, researchers found those with anxious attachment styles had the highest levels of partner surveillance and relationship uncertainty.

Quoted in Psychology Today, co-author Dr Katie Warber says, “Such individuals tend to become preoccupied with checking their ex’s Facebook page. They find themselves looking at pictures and status updates – even asking friends to monitor their former partner’s page – which can ultimately compound feelings of loneliness and loss.”
How to break up effectively
Start noticing what happens to your thoughts and mood when you log onto social media. Are you immediately drawn to reminiscing about your ex and what you did together? Do you find yourself replaying conversations you had, or wished you had had, in the relationship? Does your mood dip in response to noticing photos and posts that include your ex?

If so, consider what this continued exposure is like for you and whether it is time to take the next step.
Don’t Facebook stalk your ex. If you’ve found yourself trapped in the spiral of thinking, “What’s their life like without me?” and Facebook stalking, again consider how this impacts you. Being caught in jealousy, anger, resentment, and/or sadness is a hard place to be and keeps you stuck. Consider other options.

Delete reminders of the relationship from your everyday digital life. If every time you log onto Facebook or check your email or texts you are prompted to think of your ex, you are effectively triggering memories. This will happen regardless of the digital world, so why not make it easier on yourself by deleting what you can.

One useful feature of Facebook is the ability to hide people’s posts. You can still see their profile page though, so you may continue to be drawn to it. If you have decided you never want to see or talk to your ex again, you might consider the defriending option. If things between you are more amicable, you might want to consider having a conversation about the possibility of defriending each other.
The last word on dealing with a break-up goes to Sam Smith, singer-songwriter of the moment, who used his heartbreak for creative purposes:
“I want to thank the man who this record is about, who I fell in love with last year,” Smith said recently as he accepted his Grammy for Record of the Year. “Thank you so much for breaking my heart, because you got me four Grammys.”

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