Quick survey. How many of you like ending romantic relationships?
The results are in--exactly 99% of you said you don’t.
Breaking up is hard. We want to avoid it because it’s painful. We don’t want to hurt our partner’s feelings, and we want to avoid the immense emotional fallout that a breakup can bring. But we all know that the right thing to do is end it when it’s the right time no matter how much it hurts. As Sting--the British god of love--once said, “If you love someone, set them free.”
The right way to break up is in person, but sometimes we’re tempted to skip the face-to-face and go with something easier.
I’m talking about the social media breakup. It can take various forms, but the result is always the theft of your partner’s dignity and emotional closure.
Let’s dig into why social media is the irresponsible path to breakups.
Ending relationships via social media falls into a category I call the distance breakup. Rather than being present when you do the deed, you safely keep your ex at a distance. You don’t have to suffer through the begging and crying. It makes things easier.
But we evolved to interact face-to-face. That is how we had to do things from the early days of human existence when we lived in small tribal groups. Our ancestors could, in a moment of sheer panic, flee from the safety of the group to avoid a breakup, but then they would probably get eaten by hyenas. We don’t have such deterrents today.
The distance breakup wasn’t an option until we developed technologies that extended our communication. Perhaps the first of which was the smoke signal. A common tactic of our Paleolithic ancestors was to waft “It’s over” into the sky when faced with a challenging breakup.
Of course, the perpetrator could hide for only so long before his unfortunate partner found him anyway. And due to our ancestors’ primitive methods of expressing their emotions, he would usually end up with a concussion from a well-placed club.
Much later in our history, we began using carrier pigeons to do our dirty work. The offending partner would send a handwritten note to his former beloved to break ties. To add insult to injury, historical documents indicate that the most common breakup note read, “This relationship is for the birds.” Ouch.
Breaking up via social media isn’t much different than these examples--we fear a face-to-face quarrel and try to distance ourselves. But now there are new ways to end relationships that can do far more harm than a carrier pigeon; and for the unsuspecting partner, there are many more ways to exact vengeance.
A common faux pas of the distance breakup is changing something online when your partner isn’t expecting it. Take for instance the simple “relationship status” on Facebook. One day your ex logs in to check out the newest cat video on your timeline and the relationship status has gone from “In a relationship” to “single.”
Your unsuspecting ex gets hit with an avalanche of emotions for many different reasons: astonishment because she didn’t know it was coming, denial because “he must have made a mistake,” humiliation and rage because everyone else sees it the same time she did.
Or take online photo albums. All of the adorable selfies of you and your ex are suddenly gone. What happened? Was the account hacked with a virus that targeted only the photos of you in it? The humbling conclusion is that it was, except your ex was the virus.
Maybe it’s even worse than that. Maybe you went so far as to post a picture of your new love interest on your timeline. Social media will then automatically broadcast that to your network so that your friends are in on it too.
The lesson here is that the turmoil you could unleash on your partner is just as bad as what you would have experienced if you had broken it off face-to-face, and chances are your ex will seek you out anyway, and the results could be far worse.
So, sure, you’ve ended the relationship from afar and everything is great--you’ve gotten to move on and you’ve avoided the very unpleasant experience of breaking up in person. You’ve also ghosted your ex so you can safely cut contact. All gain, no pain.
But wait a minute--you’ve just logged in to your Instagram account and found that you have fewer followers, and that photo of you from college passed out on someone’s lawn has been distributed to all of your coworkers.
You forgot in all your self-satisfaction that this is the age of social media. There are some negative effects of technology, too. Who’s the loser now?
Vengeance can take many forms, some of them devastating.
Your ex’s friends might have turned against you, and even some of yours.
Or you maybe you keep all of your friends, but you can be sure that your ex will certainly keep her’s, and they will rally around her like the flag on the Fourth of July. Be prepared for a battle to rage Revolutionary War-style; but in this war, you’re the British--and they lost.
Nothing says fun like some good old fashioned relationship drama, except now it’s amplified like a Slayer concert thanks to social media.
I hope it’s obvious to you that a face-to-face breakup is not only the right thing to do but the easier one as well. But even then your social media hygiene can cause unnecessary emotional distress.
First off, be careful about how you communicate your relationship status on any given platform. Facebook doesn’t require that you even list it, and I recommend you don’t. You and your partner are the only ones who most need to know your relationship status, and I hope you don’t need social media to know who you’re together--“Oh my God! I’m in a relationship with Suzy? I wouldn’t have known that from dating her for twelve years.”
But if you’ve already listed your relationship status, don’t change it until you’ve talked about it. There’s no need to take anyone by surprise or broadcast it to the world before you both are ready.
Besides listing relationship status, you can also take a break from social media altogether. If you don’t want to be caught in the noise that a breakup can cause, it might make sense to unplug from your phone for a bit, separate yourself from the online social world, and focus on people in the real world.
And that doesn’t mean that you have to drop distance communication with your friends entirely--calls over the phone, Skype, Facetime, and the like are all good alternatives.
So why not take a little break? Delete those apps from your phone. Many social media services even allow you to deactivate your account without having to delete it, which will prevent others from communicating with you while you’re away.
And of course, if there is any abuse, unfriend and block your partner. Unfriending and blocking can cause drama depending on how they are done, but they are certainly warranted if your ex is guilty of abuse, threats, doxing (distributing your contact info to hostile parties), and any other dangerous behavior.
Breaking up has always been one of the most emotionally unpleasant experiences humans have had to endure--It’s scary, sad, and confusing, and it can upend our lives. But most of us know that ending a relationship in person is the right way to go.
We used to have very few ways to break up at a distance, and even then our media options were very static--letters and phone calls were it (although I’ve been guilty of the occasional smoke signal).
Today, though, we are faced with new communication technologies that have changed how we interact, and they were introduced so fast that we’re still learning how we should and shouldn’t use them.
It’s true that we’ve always known breaking up face-to-face is the right thing to do, but many of us have been blindsided by an honest online mistake like changing our relationship status too soon or archiving our photos on Instagram before our ex is expecting it.
With social media, our ability to communicate with each other is so easy that we can forget how to communicate respectfully. Just remember that there is always another human being across the digital divide, and social media shouldn’t change how we treat each other.