Thinking her ex-boyfriend was several thousand kilometres away, Alex was caught off guard when she saw him kissing someone else.
What the 26-year-old Sydneysider actually saw was a photo of her recent ex with someone new, posted by a friend on social media. No, it wasn’t in person, but that didn’t make it sting any less. It’s a modern update on the age-old tale about life after a break-up.
Technology has fundamentally changed the way we relate to each other, including romantically. We regularly meet, fall in love and break up through the internet and our phones. But how has it affected what happens after a relationship ends?
According to Relationships Australia’s couples and family therapist Jenny Douglas, technology has changed each part of a separation: emotional, physical (like moving out and splitting up your stuff) and legal, for those in a marriage or de facto relationship.
“We’re all digital dependent these days,” she says. “And we’re only beginning to write the new rule book of break-ups.”
Where’s The ‘Space’ Button?
Cutting off contact with a partner is a common way to start the healing process after a break-up. This used to entail moving out and avoiding the same places and events. Today it means ducking them online, which can be a little more difficult.
University of Dundee and University of Technology Sydney’s Daniel Herron, who is completing his PhD on how technology affects sensitive life processes, states that social networks are designed to try to connect people.
“But when it comes to a break-up,” says Herron, “the connectedness that social media and messaging services bring are kind of a mixed bag.”
Seeing your ex on Facebook isn’t just distressing, it’s also stopping you from getting over them.
Having a smartphone with social media and instant messaging means that – at any time, at any place – a notification or your feed can surprise you with a reminder of your loss.
Each of us trains Facebook, Instagram and other algorithm-driven services to give us what we want, which is usually content from our partners. Unfortunately, they don’t get the memo when we break-up. This is why The Algorithm seems to revel in cruelly serving the perfect nostalgic picture of you with your ex when you’re down. This is particularly damaging for those going through bad break-ups or ones with abusive partners.
Seeing your ex on Facebook isn’t just distressing, it’s also stopping you from getting over them. Research suggests that online surveillance – a.k.a. ‘Facebook stalking’ – of your ex delays the moving on process. It also makes you more negative and horny towards them, a terrifying emotional cocktail.
There are ways around this. Facebook, Instagram and Google Photos all offer ways to mute or see less content from your ex. Blocking text messages, phone calls and online accounts works too.
Our hyper-connectedness can help after a break-up. It’s easier than ever before to get in touch with people in your support networks when you’re feeling low.
“There’s a lot to be said for being able to reach out to a friend to say ‘I feel like shit today, this break-up is rough af’” argues Herron.
My Instagram Grid Defines Me
The next step after a break-up is to redefine your identity as you go from one part of something to just one. Some will change their aesthetic (“I’ll look great once I cut my bangs”) or obsessively throw themselves into activities like trail running. It can also be cathartic to curate digital posts and pictures that represent you online.
A 2017 survey of young Brits’ break-up habits found that social media content can painfully “freeze emotional moments in time”.
That’s why you might want to change your profile picture from a cute couple pic to one where you look fire emoji, eggplant emoji, splash emoji. The beauty of having a digital persona is that you are empowered to make it what you want.
One less great way people use social media post-break-up is to try to convince the world (and usually their ex) that everything’s fantastic, even if it isn’t. Alex recalls feeling a temptation to post what she was doing to Instagram stories, hoping her ex-boyfriend would see it.
ReachOut Australia’s Senior Manager Jackie Hallan recommends doing a “social media spring clean” and warns not to try to manufacture an online persona that doesn’t match reality.
Who Gets Custody Of Stan?
We all own stuff, some of it digital. Romantic partners typically share digital possessions like photo albums, chat logs and shared online accounts. A standard part of a relationship’s post mortem is deciding who gets what. It’s a little more complicated when it comes to digital possessions that can be endlessly copied and shared.
This can be good – you’ll no doubt be relieved that both of you can keep the those cringeworthy DMs where you waxed lyrically – but it also means you have no idea how many copies are out there and who has them. One particularly delicate area is if you’re one of the half of Australians who’ve shared explicit photos like a garden variety dick or tit pic.
Let’s be clear: it’s a serious crime to share someone’s nudes without consent. Don’t be a dingus.
Jenny Douglas suggests establishing rules during your relationship to avoid sticky situations later on, like agreeing that any sensitive materials will be deleted when you break-up.
“These things only belonged to each of you while you were a couple. They don’t belong to an individual” says Douglas.
Some digital possessions that aren’t designed for neat break-ups. Daniel Herron gives the example of video streaming services like Netflix or Stan.
“After a break-up, the person who paid for the subscription will keep an account littered with recommendations for their ex,” says Herron, “and their ex will have to start a new account and build up their preferences and watch history from scratch – nobody is a winner.”
Once everything’s been divvied up, there are three ways to deal with your digital possessions: you can keep them, ditch them or choose some things to keep.
Based on how people fared post-break-up, the researchers recommend creating a “Pandora’s box”, a place out-of-sight to store all your digital possessions until things have cooled off rather than deleting everything in the heat of the moment and regretting it later.
Take My Phone Away From Me Before I Do Something Stupid
The instant, frictionless nature of the digital world can be a blessing and a curse when it comes to post-break-up behaviour. Let’s face it: no one’s at their best when breaking up. We’re vulnerable and prone to doing things that are out of character.
Jenny Douglas posits that technology makes it easier to act on our worst impulses during these unstable times.
“You can have a communication that’s so instant, it’s barely even landed in your conscious brain,” says Douglas.
It can be more severe than an ill-advised ex-text or venting on Facebook. Douglas points to location tracking as a digital behaviour that becomes unacceptable after a break-up. Some couples choose to share their smartphones’ locations. Unless disabled after the break-up, stalking an ex’s location becomes as easy as just a click of a button.
“You used to have to drive someone’s house. Now, tracking them is so easy,” says Douglas. She adds that abusive digital behaviour like this is easily documented and she’s seen it used by police and used in legal proceedings.
The indirectness of technology can help, too. Some people find that emailing or texting their ex is one way to maintain a relationship (especially if you still have a common link a child together), but you don’t want to see them face to face. Plus, smartphones and the internet gives unlimited access to info that can be used to challenge negative thoughts and actions wherever and whenever you are.
“There are break-up apps that outline clear and practical steps for when you’re feeling emotional and stressed, “ says Jackie Hallan from ReachOut Australia, which has apps WorryTime and Breathe, “it’s like a road map charting a path back to feeling better.”
Alex used an app called Breakup Boss, which lists common break-up feelings sentiments like ‘WTF just happened’ and tips for dealing with them. “It makes you realise that other people have felt that too,” she remembers, “makes you feel less crazy and neurotic, less alone.”
Technology tends to amplify human experiences; it can help or hurt, depending on how it’s used. Breakups represent a lost connection, but it also means a new chance to link, sync and connect again.