When I ran into my ex-boyfriend for the first time after our relationship imploded, the awkward chitchat soon steered toward social media.
"So I noticed that someone de-friended me on Facebook," he said with an uncomfortable chuckle.
"I didn't de-friend you," I responded, taking a sip of my beer and trying to think of a way to casually change the subject. "I just blocked you."
The difference between a permanent de-friend and a temporary block apparently didn't make much of a difference. He took it as a snub, a petty act perpetrated by a scorned lover. But the truth of that status update blackout was that I had done it to save myself from the inevitable 21st-century post-breakup tradition of weepily clicking through exes' photo albums, mining their feeds for hints of hookups or shiny new suitors and in the process, sparking all of those unanswered questions, desires to be near them again and general self-flagellation at the sorry state of things.
A recent study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking that Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory and LiveScience's Megan Gannon reported on last week attests to Facebook's very real capacity to hamper the post-breakup process in the same way that maintaining close contact offline after a romantic meltdown can prolong angst. Initially, the study findings implied that I didn't need to go to the trouble of coldly blocking my ex because that simply remaining online friends with an ex, as opposed to outright Facebook stalking, could be benign enough. After all, Marshall's research uncovered a correlation between staying friends and lower, not higher, sexual attraction, bruised feelings and longing to get back together.
But, as reflected in studies of people's post-breakup contact in real life, Marshall also found that keeping in touch on Facebook nevertheless related to stagnant personal growth. The breakup sting had eased for the Facebook-friendly folks in the study, perhaps, but the moving onward and upward part hadn't happened. From the study discussion:
Indeed, healing from a relationship loss entails a process of recovering from negative emotions and detaching from the former partner, but also of developing a meaning-making narrative that enables personal growth. Thus, while remaining Facebook friends may benefit the breakup recovery process by mitigating negative emotions, desire, and longing for the ex-partner, it may simultaneously impede the construction of a personal growth-enhancing narrative.
This jives with what many relationship psychologists (and Dan Savage) will say about post-breakup friendships in general. Yes, they can and do happen, but it's often a good idea to give it time, especially considering the depth and breadth of the relationship. A quick lesson in brain chemistry and attraction also confirms that getting over a love lost in a healthy way often requires the hard work of living without them for a while. When we get attached and fall in love, it isn't just the metaphorical heart driving us wild; it's the same reward circuitry in our brains that facilitate drug addiction. And when that stimulus -- i.e., your sweetheart -- is taken away, those neural networks go into a type of withdrawal, which is partly why staring at exes' profile pictures and scrolling through their timelines can rattle us so deeply. Engaging in those relationship-related behaviors only revs up those reward system pathways and ultimately leaves us wanting because the best we can get is a collection of images on a screen that bring us no closer to resolution.
When I decided to block my ex on Facebook, it wasn't a knee-jerk click. I understood its potential to pour salt on the fresh wound of our breakup, and a part of me was scared to sever the last connection that we had. But soon after, I found a comfort in the self-inflicted firewall. I didn't have to wrestle with whether to check his page and simultaneously eliminated any temptation to post a "my-life-is-fabulous-and-I'm-absolutely-fine-with-absolutely-everything" status update or hyper-flattering Instagram pic in hopes that he would see it. And by making that conscious decision, it provided a much-needed sense of agency and jumpstarted my recovery process in a healthier way than trying to construct a false easy, breezy narrative on social media of all things.
My ex initially interpreted the Facebook block as me virtually acting out and trying to make a point, but the real point is this: Breaking up is hard enough, so why not do ourselves a favor and remove that troublesome Facebook factor, especially since we have empirical data that demonstrate how doing so can be helpful? That said, I have yet to find a study on publicly blogging about breakups, so the next time my ex and I run into each, I might have some explaining to do all over again.