Breaking up in the Digital Age
Reflections on loss, mourning, closure and social media.
Breaking up is difficult—and in our 24/7 digital world, mourning losses is even more messy and complicated. Allowing proper time and space to fully mourn is crucial to our psychological wellbeing. Halting the process by denying it, minimizing its significance and avoiding feelings associated with it puts us at greater risk for experiencing other emotional setbacks.
Social media can compound our misery. Regularly visiting an ex’s status updates, reading posts or revisiting past texts can prolong and complicate the grieving and mourning process. Social media can even trigger unexpected emotions from losses suffered long ago.
A young woman in her mid-20s recently came to me for help in dealing with the breakup of a five-year relationship with her boyfriend. They’d been together since high school, and with the help of social media, they maintained their relationship while attending different colleges. “Texting and Facetime was key for us staying together,” she told me in one session. “Scott was my first boyfriend, so this breakup is really hard to accept. I know I shouldn’t do this, but I can’t help checking his social media feeds daily. Sometimes it’s like 10 to 20 times a day.”
Karen’s social media obsession with her ex was interfering with her sleep, her eating and her concentration. “I feel like I’m on the slippery slope of developing a social media addiction,” she confessed. “I’m even sleeping with the phone right under my pillow, because I’m afraid I may miss a text from him in the middle of the night.”
Over time, the patient gained control of her urges, and she began to realize how much her behavior was prolonging her sadness. As she became more mindful of her social media habits, it helped her move through the mourning process.
According to psychiatrist and grieving expert Elizabeth Kubler Ross, we process our feelings in the following five stages:
It’s also normal to move back and forth between stages—for example, from bargaining to anger and back again. Mourning is not a neat process. The light at the end of the tunnel is acceptance. It’s the antidote to not getting stuck— and it promotes feelings of hope.
Here are five tips to help you gain closure in the digital age:
- Take a break from all social media. Even if it’s just for a day, creating some emotional distance helps cool anger, sadness, disbelief, denial and hopelessness.
- Cultivate virtual boundaries. Just as you might want to avoid seeing an ex in real life, the same applies to your virtual life. Consider unfollowing your ex temporarily or, if need be, permanently.
- Stay connected with your friends. Start a new group text with your closest pals or a “best friends only” Facebook group. This should help minimize feelings of isolation.
- Identify which social media habits are triggers. Be prepared to see images and postings from your ex that might trigger strong feelings, and be mindful of the time of day you use social media. If you’re facing an especially stressful day at work or school, avoiding it in the morning could spare you the sort of heartache that interferes with your ability to focus throughout the day.
- Remain hopeful. You won’t feel this way forever. For various reasons, not all relationships are meant to be. By accepting this fact, you can better forge healthier, more loving relationships.