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From Issue #18 June 6, 2013

Face It: It’s Over

Facebook means never having to say goodbye, even when you should.

By Chris Stokel-Walker Twitter icon 

She picked a good time and a bad time to end the relationship. That I was a day into a week’s summer vacation with her, having traveled down to her home in the small English city of York, made it a bad time. As did the fact that at the end of the week my parents were meant to be coming down to attend a family wedding nearby.

But it was an advantageous moment as well. Breaking up with me at the height of midsummer meant that many friends of mine were around and ready to keep me busy rather than leave me ensconced in my duvet till autumn. This was also a memorable summer: London, my capital city, was hosting the Olympics, and the whole nation was artificially buoyed by a sense of pride that managed to salve the pain.

I won’t look back at that summer as “the summer of the breakup”; instead it’ll be the summer I spent watching sporting achievement at its highest level, diverting my mind by knowing every rule of handball and every nuance of fencing. It’ll be the summer I spent sitting in front of giant screens with a new girl, watching men and women who pushed their bodies to the limits and then accepted the adulation of the world.1

It’ll be the summer I wrote seriously for the first time, the desire to keep me busy pushing me into making ballsy calls to big editors.2 It’ll be, for good or evil, the summer soundtracked by the coquettishness of Carly Rae Jepsen and the quiet triumph of Elbow’s “One Day Like This”. Still, it wasn’t the summer I was expecting.

Going off the rails

I owed my love life to Robert Stevenson and Mark Zuckerberg. My ex-girlfriend and I spent the first year of our time together in the same city; then she moved back home to save money. Traveling up and down the country on the rails can be an expensive pastime in Britain and isn’t the quickest mode of transport. The need to eat and live and the associated costs meant I saw her only every few weeks.

Instead, bathed in the cool glow of a screen we relied on a thousand little pecks of keys like butterfly kisses, through days and nights using cell phones, Skype, and, oh yes, Facebook. And then it was abruptly over.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about breakups, and the one constant is missing someone to talk with about your day on an evening. Facebook fixes that. The wonder of time differences meant that on the sleepless nights at 4 a.m. when sadness wouldn’t let me slumber, I was able to talk to a friend living eight hours earlier in New York about big breakfasts, loud traffic, and walking quickly to not appear like a tourist in a strange city.

In a relationship, you weave yourself into your partner’s life. After a breakup, you undo all that work and unpick yourself from each other’s tapestries. Belongings are exchanged (in my case, mailed to me in a taped-up George Foreman Grill box), habits are reformed, and you begin to relearn the single life.

In a pre-Facebook world, you could do that in relative privacy. You’d be sad, sure. But after the initial sting, you’d be free. Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to connect us all to one another means that now you’re left with a tie that binds and a quandary. Unless the breakup is particularly traumatic, the likelihood is that your ex’s parting words will be, “I want us to remain friends.”

Meth problems

The academic research around the effect of Facebook on a recently ended relationship is relatively sparse — which you’d expect, given that the site itself, though now part of a billion people’s regular routine, is still less than a decade old. But what little research there is out there seems to agree on one thing: it’s infinitely more difficult to get over a former special someone when you’re still being served up nuggets of their life on a daily basis.

Tara Marshall of the UK’s Brunel University has provided the latest addition to the academic literature. Her findings were clear: “Exposure to an ex-partner through Facebook may obstruct the process of healing and moving on from a past relationship.”

Marshall says Facebook is ideal for maintaining weak-tie relationships with friends. (Those of you who woke up this morning and learned about what your great-uncle’s fishing partner, whom you met once in 2010, had for breakfast will know that sometimes our Facebook friends aren’t necessarily integral to our day-to-day life.)

And that’s the problem. Short of defriending someone — which in the cultural rules that have quickly sprung up around the technology is sacrilegious — you’re going to be continually tethered to people who may not have all that much impact on your life anymore. They might be distant relatives or friends of friends; equally, they might be a person who once was close to you but isn’t any longer.

Facebook is useful in that it provides some tools for this: you can block a person’s posts from your newsfeed, which works for a while until you realize that harsh words break your willpower as well as your heart. Because Facebook isn’t automatically serving you up the hints of her life, you have to go actively seeking them out. And heartbroken and pining for her back, you will.

Leechware

In the immediate moments after the breakup — because you are scared and have forgotten how to be single, because you feel that with a couple of days to think about it she’ll realize her mistake, and because you’re ignoring that the reason she broke up with you is that she’s actually found someone else — you’ll agree to remain friends.

You’ll feel uncomfortable with every overly friendly message she sends, and you’ll spend the first two weeks of singledom checking her profile for any signal of the man who takes your place, but you need to be the bigger person. To stop her knowing you’re hurting, you’ll take the pain silently.

After one panicked moment a week or so after our breakup, a medical student friend gave me a reality check. I’d neglected to remember that what we share on Facebook is not an accurate representation of our lives. We pluck and preen our social media profiles to ensure we put our best face forward.

Only the seriously depressed and 13-year-olds who know no better post morose lyrics and cries for help in status updates. The rest of us share positively. We detag unflattering pictures and only bring a camera to fun social occasions, not to us sitting alone in our bedroom at 11 p.m. on a Friday night. Facebook puts our best face forward.

My friend linked me to LeechBlock, a browser extension that allows you to bar access to certain Web pages. “It’ll be better if you get her out of your head,” he said, “Otherwise you get a dopamine addiction cycle on the go.” With tongue firmly in cheek, and drawing on his medical knowledge, he drew a comparison to other addictions. “This is what I’m saying: if you look at her profile once more, you will be addicted to crystal meth.”3

I installed the extension, and her profile went on the blacklist. It helped: she was out of sight and out of mind.

Cold, heartless algorithms

A Facebook spokesman wouldn’t comment on the role a person’s relationship status plays in serving you stories on your news feed. They pointed me toward very superficial information detailing the way pages appear on your feed. One of the key factors the company asserts is that the amount of interaction a person has with a specific brand affects how often it appears. The implication was that this principle can be extrapolated to people’s profiles too.

History bears this out. I interacted regularly and heavily with my ex on Facebook for nearly three years. Before that there was a period of another couple of years where I was smitten and she was too naive to notice that my friendly comments were something else. Thus she regularly topped my news feed, relationship or no.

Single people will be able to draw similar parallels: if you like someone, you’re likely to check out their profile page semi-regularly, to see what interests you have in common or to do some old-fashioned Facebook stalking. Facebook records those visits and recognizes that this person means a lot to you. It shows you more information about them because it knows you’re likely to want to know more about them. (This has happened to me recently — not that I’m complaining.)

And that’s great — a tad creepy when you realize that human beings are so easily read — but great. Not so when things go south and you don’t want to see any more of that person who broke your heart.

The solution, then, is obvious. The smartest thing, researchers like Marshall say, would have been to defriend her and be gone. Science and psychology shows that to be the case, and it’s something my friends were saying, and something the former and current proprietors of this magazine told me nine months after the fact.4 It seems easy: today I would tell someone in my position to defriend, too. But deep down I know it’s not that simple. That person was your life for nearly three years.

Fifty-seven percent of those asked by Marshall remained Facebook friends with their ex, despite the heartbreak. They know it’s not as simple as pressing a button. Only a quarter of those who are now not Facebook friends with their ex took the action of defriending.

It’s a big step, and there can be a sense of admitting defeat in being so bothered you have to physically remove someone from your life. So we blunder on for a few months connected on Facebook, when a cleaner break could telescope the process.

It’s complicated

The last time I talked to her on Facebook was February 17. She started the conversation sunnily, which made me feel guilty for acting closed off to her. I was working on a story, and she had just flunked out of a job interview. We chatted for 27 minutes, in the same vague but smilingly personable way that you do with someone to whom you once told all your secrets but can’t anymore.

I had unanswered questions about the breakup and I had life complications, but they weren’t her business anymore. She may have wanted to know, to help — I’m unsure — but she didn’t need to. She wasn’t the person I could talk to anymore.

The story I was working on was 6,000 words long and contained a convoluted mix of different viewpoints on a niche event that I was worried people wouldn’t care about. “It’s too long and complicated,” I wrote. “In fact, so complicated I should probably look at it. Be back later on when I realize it’s too complicated,” I added. She replied, “OK.”

She’s still my Facebook friend, but I didn’t come back. It was too complicated.


  1. Spoiler alert: I didn’t get the girl. That faded after the summer, but rebound relationships usually do. 

  2. The reason I’m writing for The Magazine is in part thanks to my midsummer need to be busy enough not to have time to consider my situation. 

  3. My friend is very funny, and this was just what I needed. 

  4. Marco Arment had this to say in an email: “Dude, just unfriend her already! You can do it. We’ll provide emotional support.” 

Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based freelance writer for the Economist, the Sunday Times, the BBC, and BuzzFeed.

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