How to Survive a Breakup in the Digital Age

By Dr Mary Grogan

woman relationship breakup
Breaking up is never easy and social media often makes the experience worse. Psychologist Dr. Grogan gives advice on how to part ways in the digital age.

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. 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 easy, has there ever been a time where spying on past loves 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, or follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.

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.

Sad woman breakup social media

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. Dealing with heartbreak, an uncertain future and broken dreams is hard; in extreme cases it can lead to depression or even suicide. It is these times of transition when we feel bereft that we to turn to social media, the distraction of choice for most. Research suggests that continued contact with your ex (offline) can make the process of recovery difficult; people report sadness and an increased longing for their ex.

A study in journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking by Dr Tara Marshall analysed the impact Facebook surveillance (e.g. monitoring an ex’s page) has on post break-up recovery. Marshall found that keeping tabs on an ex had significant downsides: greater distress, negative feelings towards the ex, increased longing for the ex and lower personal growth. These were similar consequences to what happens when you keep in contact offline.

Another study in journal Computers in Human Behaviour found students who were 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?

Sad woman breakup social media

A clean break

Consider how continued exposure to your ex through social media effects you. Are you miserable when looking at their social profiles? Does your self-esteem drop when you see photos of them happy and seemingly carrying on with their life? If you’ve found yourself trapped in the spiral of thinking, “What’s their life like without me?”, it’s time to stop Facebook stalking your ex. Being caught in jealousy, anger, resentment or sadness is painful and will prevent you from moving forward.

Instead, consider other options. Delete reminders of the relationship from your everyday digital life. If you are prompted to think of your ex when logging onto Facebook or checking Instagram, you are effectively triggering memories. This will happen regardless of the digital world, so make it easier for yourself by deleting what you can.

Alternatively, use social media features that allow you to avoid other people’s posts. If you don’t want to unfriend your ex but find it difficult getting updates on their life, try unfollowing them on Facebook and making them an ‘acquaintance’. To your ex, you will still appear as Facebook friends, but you will no longer see their posts or photos. You might consider unfollowing their friends as well, so that images they are tagged in don’t appear in your feed.



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