Heartache 2.0: Facebook, Your Ex and His Mom

When a relationship comes to an end, how do you cut ties on Facebook?

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Corrections Appended: July 12, 2013

The original version of this article included several quotes or statements that were not clearly attributed to the original sources.

You know how to get over a breakup: reconnect with friends, explore new interests, keep busy — and don’t text or call when you’re drunk. But how do you deal with Facebook? Should you stay friends? Untag all your photos together? Change your status to “single”?

Your extended circle mean extensive problems, too — should you defriend all of your ex’s friends? In an age where Facebook markers are relationship milestones, social media has become a major obstacle to breakups and emotional resolutions, adding unexpected wrinkles to an already painful process.

Take my friend Cher, for example. She recently broke up with her long-term boyfriend — let’s call him Sonny. It ended on amiable terms, and they worked out the custody of the dog and took a few weeks to divide up their music and book collections. There’s just one problem: Sonny’s mom. Or more specifically, his mom and Facebook.

Over the years, Sonny’s far-flung family added her to connect with one another. But when they broke up, they kept things quiet on the network. When they started dating, they didn’t change their status to “in a relationship,” so they never saw a need to point out they were “single.” Or so Cher thought. A week after they called it quits, Sonny’s mom sent her a video of a shark-costumed cat chasing a duck while riding a Roomba, paired with the comment, “Just thought I’d share.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Of2HU3LGdbo?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent%5D

She was startled. It dredged up sharp pangs of pain, so she called Sonny, asking why he didn’t tell his mom. He mumbled some apology, and agreed to handle it, but a week later, another article from his mom popped on her wall. And a day later, another goofy cat video. Annoyance turned to agony.

Cher called Sonny again, but he didn’t pick up — he took a surfing trip to Costa Rica for some “alone time.” Helpless, she watched as his mom continue to share articles, photos and videos. “You’ve been quiet on here! Hope you’re having a good time in Costa Rica with Sonny!” she wrote.

Cher was miserable. Sure, she could send a message explaining they broke up. Or she could she lock her wall. Or deactivate her profile. Breakups often bring out irrational behavior, but Cher did nothing — she shut down, traumatized with each post from Sonny’s mom. Never did a cute kitten make someone so miserable.

There’s no doubt: Facebook makes breakups harder. “Back in the day, you’d break up, and you could take everything from that relationship, stick it in a box, and burn it,” said Kevin Lewis, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. “Now, all that stuff can’t be kept in a box. It’s out there on the Internet for everyone to see, and breakups have gotten much harder to control.”

To start, how do you break the news over Facebook? You can defriend your ex right away. You could delete all vestiges of your life together — and friends that track newsfeeds like a hawk will notice the drop in cutesy posts between the two of you. Some use relationship statuses to communicate their love life changes, either by switching it to “single” or more subtly removing “in a relationship” altogether. If you feel really torn up, you may even post pictures of a party, accompanied by an emphatic “free at last” caption.

Just don’t break up over Facebook. Face-to-face is the best way to end a relationships, Ilana Gershon, assistant professor at Indiana University, who studies social media and breakups, told the IU Newsroom. “It allows for the broadest bandwidth of information.”

Not all breakups have to be melodramatic, angst-filled affairs. One Brooklyn-based couple — Jonathan Mann and Ivory King — announced the breakup with a catchy song. The video went viral. In an age where Facebook can turn you into equal-opportunity tabloid stars, everyone’s fascinated by a glimpse of private trainwrecks.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoXtkK9d33o?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent%5D

Breakup Protocol 2.0

Cher’s breakup started to feel distinctly like a trainwreck, despite her attempts to follow typical post-breakup advice about social media. They agreed to defriend each other for the time being, turning an often hostile gesture into a mature discussion. She even installed theĀ Dignity app, which temporarily removes contact information from your address book. Mutual friends avoided talking about the breakup with her. But there was still Sonny’s family, and especially his affectionate, clueless mother, who continued to send messages, complete with emoticons and exclamation points.

Finally, Cher took action. She e-mailed his mom, thanking her for being so warm and welcoming, how much that meant to her and how she would always think fondly of her. “It was almost worse than the breakup,” she said. “I hit ‘send’ and tears just poured out of me — as if I finally realized this chapter of my life had come to an end.” She then did the digital equivalent of staying home with ice cream and some DVDs — avoiding Facebook for a few weeks and playing all the Angry Birds games on her iPhone. Sonny, meanwhile, stayed in Costa Rica.

When she felt ready, she logged back on and systematically untagged Sonny, his family and herself — years of birthday parties, reunions, holidays and family events. She also hid mutual friends who posted pictures of Sonny’s now-infamous Costa Rica sojourn. She was practicing a healthy distance from Facebook to help her move on more quickly.

Sonny’s friends and family got the memo. Some dropped her, others kept her as a friend but stopped commenting on her posts. Some even sent messages saying goodbye before defriending her. Through it all, Cher kept a remarkably even keel, and felt rich in a hard-earned wisdom to never connect so much of her personal life on Facebook again.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. You can’t control your circle’s actions, and even if you could, Facebook’s byzantine controls make that impossible. Even if you did have your act together, and your boundaries firmly established, there’s always a way for someone to reach you.

A few weeks ago, Cher had her birthday. She received hundreds of birthday wishes on her wall, a text from the prodigal ex Sonny and even a few actual birthday cards, including a kitten-festooned one from Sonny’s mom. “Wherever you are, thinking of you,” it said. Cher had to smile… she’d come through to the other side. It was good to know some affections remain, even after a Facebook breakup.

This article was written by Kat Ascharya and originally appeared on Mobiledia.
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