Breakups in the Age of Social Media
As Seen on: Bloom
“Instagram tells me B is in Rhinebeck… is that where all the cool kids hang out now?” read the message on my phone.
Seconds earlier I’d wrapped a deeply nourishing yoga class and now—without a moment’s notice— an ex-boyfriend’s weekend activities was now part of my weekend activities.
The message came from one of my college besties. Knowing I was just settling into my new home in Rhinebeck (a country retreat for many New Yorkers), she found it intriguing that my former college boyfriend of seven years was now doing the same. I did, too. And I didn’t just find it intriguing, I found it unsettling.
When I’d brought that relationship to a close back in 2014, I’d worked hard to set digital boundaries to protect myself emotionally. We’d unfriended each other on Facebook and he’d gone private on Instagram. I hadn’t asked friends to block or unfollow him because, well, it wasn’t about them. It also was a very amicable breakup, so enforcing that kind of limitation on other people didn’t feel right, or frankly, needed. I didn’t even ask my own brother to unfollow him.
In the five years since we’d separated, I’d never once asked a friend to let me view his profile. This wasn’t an act of courage, it was an act of protection. I knew whatever I saw, I’d be triggered. I didn’t hold myself responsible for not being triggered, I held myself responsible for knowing my triggers and acting accordingly.
But that Saturday morning, it felt like I’d been unexpectedly slapped in the face. It was not only upsetting, but it was also infuriating. I’d done all the things! Set all the boundaries! Taken all the steps! This wasn’t supposed to happen to me, Instagram. I’d made all the effort to let it not. Or so I thought…
Social media adds a real layer of complexity to breakups these days. Try as we might, it’s almost near impossible to escape it. As a modern dating and relationships coach, this is something I work on with clients all the time. We aim to find that sweet spot between processing the past and having it inform future relationship decisions while setting key boundaries to protect our heart as much as humanly possible.
Below are a few things we work on together:
Full stop. You must, must, must set boundaries. The first step is understanding the nature of your own boundaries. Often times we think “Oh I’ll just unfollow them,” or “I just won’t look at their profile,” but it goes beyond that. Those strings of old texts you can’t stop reading and picking apart? The ones where you look for some hidden meaning or think “What if I had just said X? Would it have worked out?” Those also reflect a key need for a boundary.
When it comes to your phone, you want to remove anything which is going to hinder your own growth (i.e. the ability to move towards the right relationship). This isn’t about angrily wiping your ex’s entire being from your life. Rather, it’s about identifying the digital connections (be it Instagram, straight up texting, or video exchange via an app like Marco Polo), that present an obstacle to your healing. If the idea of deleting their number or blocking them on social media feels terrifying, or if you find yourself thinking “But what if we get back together?!” know that’s actually a sign for an even greater need to set the boundary. If you’re truly meant to get back together, an Instagram block will have no bearing.
There’s also no need to conjure of false triggers. I’ve yet to delete any of the photos from my last relationship purely because I’m making a dedicated effort to spend less time in my phone. And when I happen upon one unexpectedly, I don’t feel triggered. At some point, I’ll gather up the ones I want to keep and tuck them in a buried folder (or not!), but for now, I don’t feel pulled to do it.
When it comes to setting boundaries, see what you feel pulled towards. You’ll know in your gut what you need. And remember, if it feels extra daunting, that’s a clue! Set the boundary and give yourself the gift of a clean social slate.
Be Mindful of Context
The morning I received that text I was also in the throes of a more recent breakup, so admittedly, my reaction was heightened by my already heavy heart. It suddenly felt as if the whole world was conspiring against me.
While it stung, knowing that I would have had a completely different reaction had I still been in that previous relationship, actually made the hurt and angry feel less permanent. It was entirely based on context, and while the context wasn’t great, I knew it wouldn’t last forever. Often times just being able to name the cause — I’m feeling this because of that—helps lessen the emotion.
So for example, let’s say one Friday evening post-breakup you find yourself relishing in your singleness. You’ve got a great movie, a glass of red, and Netflix all to yourself. You’re all ready to settle in with your rom-com of choice when a photo of your ex out socializing crops up on your feed. You heart sinks. Your relaxing evening at home went from being pure bliss to a complete shame spiral. Suddenly you feel super shitty for being left alone at home on a Friday night.
But do you see how quickly it changed? The night at home isn’t technically any less blissful— Netflix is still functioning, you’ve still got Julia Roberts— but the context has changed. Now you have some information about your ex that you didn’t have before. Say you’d set your phone down for the night and not looking at it? The context, again, would be completely different.
So when you’re “hit,” so to speak, check in: where am I at right now? Did I not sleep well last night? Did I have a shitty day at work? Take note of what else in your life might be heightening your reaction to your ex’s social media activity.
Find the Lesson
As angry as I was that my ex was exploring country properties a mere six miles from my new home, I knew my reaction was pointing to something bigger. Something I hadn’t fully dealt with in our relationship.
In life, when an occurrence is that triggering, it’s truly there to teach us something. The timing of this social media snafu with the nature of my latest breakup wasn’t coincidental. Back to boundaries, both were there to really wake me up to the even greater boundaries I needed to set when it came to past relationships. The whole experience ultimately pushed me more forcefully towards the life I was pursuing. It took several days to get to that realization, but I ended up feeling grateful (yes, grateful!), for the experience. And a good cry was a key element in helping it move through me :).
So when you find yourself deeply triggered— be it from the social activity of your ex or something else— turn the focus back on you. What’s really going on there? What’s really behind the anger and upset? What might this be here to teach you?
And with all of it, be sure to practice endless, endless self-compassion. Breakups, in the world of social media or not, are brutal. Give yourself space and grace to grieve and process fully. Work to drop expectations on when you should be “over it” or feel a certain way. You’ll reach the other side much more quickly if you go at your own pace.
Clara Artschwager is an NYC based Modern Dating & Relationships Coach who specializes in helping career-driven women shift their approach to dating. Her work has been featured in The Cut, Well+Good, Man Repeller, Girl Boss Media, and more. You can follow her on Instagramhere.