Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Especially in the Digital Age
Relationship breakups and the angst surrounding them have always been solid psychotherapeutic fodder. As we’re all aware, these issues are challenging in and of themselves, and they also tend to evoke deeper emotional and psychological issues that can be worked through over time in therapy. On the one hand, this can be quite productive, as a well-managed clinical crisis often leads to useful therapeutic insights and breakthroughs. On the other hand, the emotional pain of a disintegrating relationship is nearly always incredibly distressing for the client, particularly if that client is emotionally fragile to begin with.
Therapists of all stripes are usually well prepared to uncover and address relationship-related issues. You may even specialize in working with the broken-hearted, thereby bringing great knowledge and experience to the table. But are you fully up-to-date with today’s tech-driven twists? Are you in touch with the ways in which this drama of wounded egos and hurt feelings can and often does play out online? If not, you should be. In fact, I suggest to you that this knowledge is now clinically essential, as therapists in today’s world must routinely counsel clients on any number of tech-driven relationship issues.
To warm up conversation on this topic, I have presented below two very real issues faced by many tech-driven clients, along with some general advice on relationships and breakups that may be useful.
Is It Really Over?
In pre-Internet days of yore, breaking up typically involved a relatively predictable conversation held in a private place, and even when that discussion was emotionally messy the actual message was clear: It’s over. Usually, breakups were not only clearly articulated, but inevitable and natural. Consider, for example, high-school sweethearts suddenly separated by college or military service, college graduates taking jobs in different cities, or two good people simply growing apart. In the past, these situations typically led to a breakup, and most of the time both parties knew (at least cognitively) that they had broken up and it was time to move on – a process facilitated by not seeing and/or talking to each other very much. Out of sight, out of mind.
When I was a therapist back in the analog era and my clients struggled with the “out of sight, out of mind” concept, I had at my fingertips some very basic and practical advice such as: In the beginning it may be useful for you to box up all the pictures and gifts, along with any other symbols of your love, labeling that box “Do Not Open For Six Months” and storing it in the garage or attic. Suggestions like this helped soften the remorseful and often obsessive rumination that sometimes crops up when meaningful attachments are ended. This advice was not intended to eliminate healthy grief, but to stop certain clients from turning that grief into unrelenting agony.
Well, that was then and this is now. In today’s world, even the savviest newly single person can’t help but run into a past relationship every time he or she logs on to Facebook or any other social media site. There, for them and everyone else to see, is the undeniable, undeletable timeline of their past romance – every image, every sentence, every little check-in. And there is no way to simply box it up and not look at it until a bit of healing has occurred.
My boyfriend and I broke up three months ago, and I haven’t even begun to get over the relationship. My friends are all telling me that it’s time to move on, and several really nice guys have asked me out. But I’m just not ready for the next step, and I’m not sure I ever will be. Every night I just go on Facebook and Instagram to look at our pictures and re-read our little love posts. Then I start thinking about what I’ve lost, what I did wrong, how I could have done things differently, and how I can win him back even though he’s already dating someone else. And do you know how I know he’s dating someone else? I know because we’re still friends online, so I can see all of his pics and posts.
—Lindsey, 24, Elementary School Teacher
So what advice would you give to Lindsey? Should she track down her ex and tell him how she feels? Should she listen to her friends and start dating someone new, even though she feels she’s not ready for that? Should she view this process as a healthy form of grief and healing? Should she “unfriend” her boyfriend so she at least doesn’t have to read about his new love interest? Etc.
Can I Avoid the Bad Breakup?
Not so many years ago TV watchers laughed incredulously as, on Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw experienced a Post-It Note breakup. How long ago that now seems. Reaching further back, some readers may remember when those with answering machines would come home and click play, only to hear a cowardly breakup message. For the recipient, this sort of breakup was nearly always incredibly painful – more so than a face-to-face breakup – because they weren’t able to ask questions, making it even more difficult to avoid self-blame and to find healthy closure.
Well, in the digital world the same thing occurs, just faster and much more publicly. At least with a phone message (or a post-it note) it was only the recipient who heard/saw the tormenting message. Conversely, digital world breakups tend to play out on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media venues, with friends, family, business associates, and even people who live thousands of miles away being privy to every sordid detail and feeling free to chime in with their opinions on the relationship, the other person, who’s at fault, etc.
Consider the woes of Brandon, a 22-year-old college senior:
I’ve been dating this girl for about six months, and we’ve hit the point where we either need to get serious or call it quits. For me, I’m ready to call it quits. I’m not interested in marriage right now, and even if I was, I’m not in love with her. The problem is that she’s already told me that she loves me and wants to get married. She’s pretty emotional, and I’ve seen so many bad breakups with my friends that I’m worried what will happen if I tell her what I’m thinking and actually do end it. The stuff that people post about each other after breakups is pretty awful sometimes. I’m pretty sure the old quote, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” should be amended to “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned who has an Internet connection.” Is there a way I can avoid that? Honestly, I’m afraid to break up with her even though I know that it’s the best thing for both of us.
What would you tell a client like Brandon? Should he just suck it up, take her to coffee and tell her it’s over, and deal with her reaction? Should he stick it out and hope that he eventually falls in love with this girl? Should he just send her a breakup text and unfriend her on social media? Should he go on the offensive and start posting nasty things about how “emotional” she is? Etc.
A Bit of Current Relationship Advice for Clients
One piece of modern-day relationship advice that I universally offer is this: People should not put every little detail of their current relationship online. Doing so can be problematic for two main reasons:
- After a breakup, people tend to ruminate on what went wrong, what they’ve lost, etc. And if your entire relationship history is right there on your Facebook page, this depressing process is greatly facilitated.
- When you start dating someone new, they’re probably going to check out your social media pages, and do you really want that person to know every little detail of your past (failed!) relationships? If it’s all there for your new love interest to read, he or she is almost certain to pre-judge you based on past problems. (It’s OK to post in general terms – We had a great time at the movies last night – but try to keep super-personal stuff – When we kiss it’s like leaving the planet and entering nirvana – to yourself.)
Modern-Day Breakup Advice
It’s no secret that people misbehave online almost constantly. The seemingly “less personal” nature of digital interactions seems to somehow remove the filters that most people use in face-to-face interactions. Consider Brandon’s story above, where he actually fears a breakup because of the online nastiness that may ensue. Below are a few tips for digital-age clients who are going through a breakup:
- Don’t break up via text or social media (unless your relationship was primarily digital to begin with). If your soon-to-be ex was important enough to date, then he or she is important enough to merit a face-to-face conversation when you’re breaking it off.
- If you want to be friends with your ex, but your ex wants total separation, you need to respect that. People who don’t respect breakup boundaries are called stalkers.
- If you and your ex decide that you want to remain friends, it is still best to have some time apart, perhaps even unfriending each other online for six months or so. Later, after you’ve both had time to heal and to develop some clarity about what you want (and don’t want) from each other, you can revisit the idea of a platonic friendship.
- Do not post nasty comments about your ex or your breakup. This makes you rather than your ex look bad. It is important when going through a breakup (and in general) to remember that social media is a public forum, so it’s best to conduct yourself, even in times of strife, as if your friends and family are watching, because with social media they probably are. If you need to discuss the dirty details, do so in private with a close friend or your therapist.
- If you do remain friends with an ex, even if it’s just online, do not keep this a secret from new people you date. Furthermore, you should be willing to put that friendship on temporary hiatus if your new dating partner is uncomfortable with it. If your ex is truly your friend, he or she will understand the need for this, should the situation arise.
The above tips are not guarantees of a serene dating/breakup life, and they can be difficult for heavy users of technology to follow. As general guidelines, though, they are usually at least relatively effective. And of course this listing is quite incomplete. If you have suggestions you find useful with your own clients, please add them in the comments section below so other readers may benefit.
Weiss LCSW, R. (2014). Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Especially in the Digital Age. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 20, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2014/11/breaking-up-is-hard-to-do-especially-in-the-digital-age/