Cher broke up with her long-term boyfriend — let’s call him Sonny. It ended on amiable terms. They worked out the custody of the dog, and then took a few weeks to divide the music and book collections.
Over the years, Sonny’s far-flung family had added her on Facebook to keep in touch. When Cher started dating him, she didn’t change her status to “in a relationship,” so when they broke up, she kept things quiet on the site. She didn’t see a need to point out they were now “single.”
Or so she thought.
A week passed after they called it quits. She kept herself busy to take her mind off him. But then, she got a message on Facebook. His mom had sent her a video of a shark-costumed cat chasing a duck while riding a Roomba. Paired with it was a comment: “Just thought I’d share.”
She was startled. It dredged up sharp pangs of pain, so she called Sonny, asking why he didn’t tell his mom. He mumbled some apology, and then agreed to handle it. But a week later, another article popped on her wall. And then, a day later, a goofy cat video.
Annoyance turned to agony.
Cher called Sonny again, but he didn’t pick up this time. He was getting some “alone time” on a surfing trip in Costa Rica. Helpless, Cher watched as his mom continued to post articles, photos and videos.
“You’ve been quiet on here,” his mom wrote on her profile. “Hope you’re having a good time in Costa Rica with Sonny.”
Cher was miserable. She could have sent a reply explaining that they’d broken up. She could have locked her wall. She could have even deactivated her profile. But breakups make us do irrational things, and Cher’s case, she did nothing. She just shut down, traumatized with each post from his mom.
Never did a cute kitten make someone more miserable.
We all know how to get over a relationship: reconnect with friends, explore new interests, keep busy — just don’t text or call when intoxicated. But in the digital age, how do we deal with Facebook? Do we stay friends, untag all photos together or change the status to “single”?
Extended circles cause extensive problems, too. So do we defriend our ex’s friends, too?
When Facebook marks relationship milestones, it becomes a major obstacle to breakups and emotional resolutions, and adds unexpected wrinkles to an already painful process.
“Back in the day, you’d break up, and you could take everything from that relationship, stick it in a box, and burn it,” Kevin Lewis, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, told Cosmopolitan. “Now, all that stuff can’t be kept in a box. It’s out there on the Internet for everyone to see, and breakups have gotten much harder to control.”
When a breakup happens, of course, consider defriending your ex. But then, decide whether to delete all vestiges of your life together. Friends who track newsfeeds like a hawk will notice the drop in cutesy posts between the two of you.
Some people use the relationship status to communicate their love life changes, either by switching it to “single” or more subtly removing “in a relationship.” If a breakup feels especially painful, maybe post photos of a party, accompanied by an emphatic “free at last” caption.
Just don’t break up over Facebook.
Face-to-face is the best way to end a relationships, Ilana Gershon, assistant professor at Indiana University, who studies social media and breakups, told IU Newsroom. “It allows for the broadest bandwidth of information.”
Not all breakups have to be melodramatic, angst-filled affairs. One Brooklyn-based couple, Jonathan Mann and Ivory King, announced their breakup with a catchy song, and the video went viral. When Facebook can turn people into equal-opportunity tabloid stars, everyone, it seems, becomes fascinated by a glimpse of a private trainwreck.
Meanwhile, Cher’s breakup started to feel distinctly like a trainwreck, despite her attempts to follow typical, relationship-ending social media advice. They agreed to defriend each other for the time being, turning an often hostile gesture into a mature discussion. She even installed the Dignity app, which temporarily removes contact information from an address book.
Mutual friends avoided talking about Sonny with her, but there was still his family, and especially his affectionate, clueless mother, who continued to send messages, complete with emoticons and exclamation points.
Finally, Cher took action and e-mailed his mom, thanking her for being so warm and welcoming, how much that had meant to her, and how she would always think fondly of her.
“It was almost worse than the breakup,” Cher said. “I hit ‘send’ and tears just poured out of me — as if I finally realized this chapter of my life had come to an end.”
She then did the digital equivalent of staying home eating ice cream and watching DVDs — avoiding Facebook for a couple of weeks, and then playing all the Angry Birds games on her iPhone.
Sonny, meanwhile, stayed in Costa Rica.
When she felt ready to log back on, she systematically untagged Sonny, his family and herself — years of birthday parties, holidays and events. She also hid mutual friends who posted photos of Sonny’s now-infamous Costa Rica sojourn. She practiced keeping a healthy distance from Facebook to help her move on more quickly.
Sonny’s friends and family got the memo. Some of them dropped her, while others kept her as a friend, but stopped commenting on her posts. Still, a few even sent messages to say goodbye before defriending her. Through it all, Cher kept a remarkably even keel, and felt rich in a hard-earned lesson to never connect so much of her personal life on Facebook again.
We can’t control the actions of our circle, and even if we could, Facebook’s byzantine controls make it impossible to decipher. Even if we did have our act together, and our boundaries firmly established, there’s always a way for someone to reach us.
A month ago, Cher celebrated her birthday. She received hundreds of well wishes on her wall, a text from the prodigal ex, Sonny, and even a couple of real cards, including a kitten-festooned one from his mom.
“Wherever you are, thinking of you,” it said. Cher had to smile, she’d come through to the other side, and it was good to know that some affection remains, even after a Facebook breakup. ♦