How to survive the existence of social media after a break up

Imagine bumping into your ex, your ex’s ex and your ex’s new partner, every hour, for the rest of your life.

by Bertie Brandes
03 May 2017, 8:05am

"Everywhere I turn he's right there. I feel like I can't escape." This is a conversation most of us have had with friends who have just come out of relationships. Romance is brutal, relationships can burn out slowly or end abruptly and pulling yourself back together after they do is never easy. But there is one thing, always present, which affects the process more than we give it credit for. As we fidget, play with our sleeves, pull rings on and off or shrug our shoulders in bleak acceptance, we tend to ignore the presence of our phones.

Commuters checking their phones on a train
Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

Your phone might be face down on the table if present company is lucky, but it's more likely standing to attention by your elbow or gripped in one hand. And your friends aren't imagining it, he is "right there"; he's sitting at the dinner table with us and he'll be on your bus home and there's a 100 percent chance he'll be sleeping in your bed tonight.

We continue to underestimate the actual impact of the culture of surveillance and self-surveillance created by social media, but we are all victim to its repercussions. You can jokingly work out who's most depressed in your friend group by who's posting the most vacant selfies, or Instagram storying so much the top of the screen looks like a "cut here" mark. Regardless of how well you can cope with it on a good day, when it comes to relationships no one is getting off scot free. The connections we nurture in order to suspend loneliness are being colonised, undermined and overwhelmed by the other world inside our phones. Relationships are born, live and then perpetually die on social media, haunting us with the ghosts of our failures for as long as we continue to log on.

Imagine for a moment that you've fallen asleep and woken up inside your Instagram account. You are surrounded and suffocated by the deafening lives of an extended group of tenuously connected acquaintances. Prowling amid these ephemeral almost-friends, interacting with them, sharing the same political views or cultural experiences, exist the eyes and bodies of people you truly, deeply, often painfully love or have loved. What does it mean when the detritus of virtual strangers' insecurities float thickly around the most precious and excruciatingly intimate parts of our lives?

Social media after a break-up is a minefield -- if you aren't going to delete it make sure you're aware of it. Water a few seeds of cynicism and self-care when it comes to your hourly digital interactions and experiences. You don't have to exclude yourself, but try a little tenderness. Here's why.

You're looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place
There are times when this is less significant and times when it is so fundamentally, destructively true. The fact that we are all addicted to social media is not something either up for discussion or really worth lamenting, but it's equally not something that draws enough consideration. In a period of mourning or confusion, we almost always turn to our phones. Our thumbs scroll vacantly until we find something that appears to somehow re-affirm a fear or suspicion. We absorb miles of superficial information in the search of one epiphanic secret hidden in a coded image. When doing this, we should ask ourselves: what are we here for? What information are we seeking, and are we likely to find it? You wouldn't walk into a library looking for a sandwich, so don't hunt for comfort and confidence in places you know it won't be.

Social media is too boring to heal you
Facebook is for friends, Twitter is for current affairs and Instagram is for self-promotion, but these columns all hold up the same platform for what are largely meaningless interactions. Obviously we don't have the time or inclination to digest every single thing we see on social media. Instead, our brains have trained themselves to scan these pages of information until they alight on something apparently useful or relevant, sort of like searching for a word in a dictionary - except you don't know what the word is, you just have a feeling it might start with the letter "p". When you feel rejected or vulnerable it's all too easy to retreat into the painlessness of repetitive boredom. But this is not a safe place to distract yourself and your mind isn't really switching off, it's just coasting as you're looking for something to remind you of that person.

It will almost certainly have long-term negative effects
Instagram is going to affect the very formulation of our adult identities. It creates a hyper-stressful environment in which the most important thing to do is project that you are better than fine. As we get older we will upload and archive more and more images of people we have loved, reducing them to photographs, immortalising our failures in likes. These serve as a constant reminder that we were not beautiful or sexy or stylish or busy enough to hold on to them. That we did not spend enough time grooming the perception of our body for perusal by an online audience of at once very many and very, very few. Imagine bumping into your ex, your ex's ex and your ex's new partners, every hour, for the rest of your life. Fun fact: you already are!

If you've just stopped seeing someone, it's probably a good time to take a breather from social media too. At first you might feel stifled and isolated but as time passes you will be swept up in little ripples of liberation. Your mornings do not see you reach immediately for your phone. Your nights out don't revolve around who's watched your story. Give yourself a break, build your confidence back up to where it was and take a selfie for yourself, for once.

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