(Facebook)

Breaking up may have seemed “hard to do” when Neil Sedaka first crooned the lyric in 1962. But Neil Sedaka didn’t have to deal with the dreaded dissolution of the Facebook relationship status. Or the awkward unfollowing of the ex’s friends. Or the hourly reminders — on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Vine, Tumblr, Gchat, where have you — that your ex is still out in the world, happy. Maybe happier than you!

In the age of social media, it turns out, breaking up is especially hard to do.

The latest evidence of this incontrovertible fact comes from researchers at the University of Miami, whose paper on how Facebook affects post-break-up recovery, particularly among people prone to melancholy, was published in the journal Computers In Human Behavior this month.

The study was pretty simple: Tanya Tran, now a clinical psychologist at Brown, and a colleague at Miami recruited 37 undergraduates who had gotten out of a relationship recently, but were still Facebook friends with their exes. Tran then asked them a series of questions about their Facebook use, their personalities, and how long it took them to get over their relationships.

Her findings? The students who were prone to rumination already were more likely to spend lots of time on Facebook. And students who spent a lot of time on Facebook after a breakup, moping over things like “what that person’s life is like without” them, had a much more difficult time recovering.

Quoth Tran: “Continued exposure to one’s ex-partner through Facebook may disrupt the process of healing from a prior relationship.”

But in 2015, of course, we aren’t just exposed to ex-partners and friends on Facebook. Their shadows are everywhere, all the time, constantly at hand: via Google search, Twitter mention, on your phone, on Instagram. Whereas changing one’s relationship status to “single” — on Facebook or IRL — was once the primary act of decoupling, our digital lives are now so impossibly entangled that stepping away entirely entails an act of digital self-immolation.


Behold: The percentage of new singles who behave badly on Facebook after a breakup. (Data via Veronika Lukas/University of Western Ontario)

Otherwise, all those myriad points of connection age into memorials for relationships that were, both compulsively tempting — and algorithmically unavoidable.

In one 2012 survey of 100 adults aged 18 to 35, 88 percent of respondents admitted to checking out their ex’s profile after the breakup; 64 percent said they read and re-read old Facebook messages or wall posts their ex left them.

Notably, Tran doesn’t suggest that Facebook or social media are to blame — these sites are the channels, not the causes, of post-breakup misery. And yet, there’s no denying the empirical fact that that social media has complicated, perhaps even amplified, the trauma of breaking up: There are so many new rules, so many new accounts to unfriend and unfollow, so many new places to show-off and/or fake your triumphant recovery.

Last year, for instance, Facebook data scientists found that the newly single tend to use Facebook a whole lot more than they did before they broke up — a sign that they’re seeking “support from their friends,” perhaps, or that they’re policing and pruning their online identity more than they did before. In that 2012 study, almost a third of recently single respondents said they’d posted a Facebook picture just to make an ex jealous, and over half said they purged their profiles of pictures with their ex.


Facebook activity spikes on the day of a break-up — and remains elevated after that. (Facebook Data Science)

An entire dialogue has developed around this idea of “winning” the social media break-up, or convincingly feigning happiness and adjustment better than your ex does: change your social avatars to pictures of you “doing something awesome,” the Internet suggests; unfollow him or her on social media; do not ever, ever, post anything written or sung by Conor Oberst. Two browser extensions, Eternal Sunshine and Block Your Ex, even propose to erase the heartbreaker from your personal corner of the Internet — while still keeping your photos and status updates on his or her radar, naturally.

“In the success theater of breakup grief, ‘winning’ is about reaching stage five, ‘acceptance,’ before your partner does,” New York’s Maureen O’Connor wrote in December. “Even if you’re going on Instagrammable dates just to spite your ex, ultimately you are still, you know, going on dates.”

… contrast that to even five years ago, when advertising your current status to a former partner would have had to involve either a well-timed IRL run-in, or a fallible grapevine of gossiping human people. Now, to borrow an expression from Facebook’s default relationship options, everything is just — complicated.

It doesn’t have to be, of course: As Tran found in this new paper, the people most predisposed to dwell on a past relationship are the same people who tend to use Facebook most. So if you’re prone to moping during hard times — and honestly, who among us isn’t? — the best way to “win” the social media break-up may be to log out and bow out of it.

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