Breaking up in a digital age

Relationship reminders are no longer limited to boxes of photographs and letters in the attic. In a hyper-connected world, what impact does technology have on the recently heartbroken?

Breaking up in an internet era comes with a host of complications. Today, couples are often connected through dozens of technological platforms – from Facebook, to Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, Netflix, Snapchat, or even RunKeeper. The difficulties that people face when cutting digital ties with an ex have become so pronounced that Facebook recently introduced new ‘break-up’ settings to protect users from coming into contact with a former partner. These tools limit the amount of activity users see of their ex, and their ex sees of them, plus lets users hide old couple photos without having to delete them entirely. That’s if they decide to stay friends with their ex at all – a very 21st century etiquette question.

The team at Facebook aren’t the only ones to have taken note of the stress and trauma technology can cause for the recently heartbroken. Over the past few years, researchers have increasingly started examining the detrimental effects social media platforms and messaging apps can have on those recovering from relationship breakups. One example is Tara Marshall, a psychology lecturer at Brunei University London who looked into the effect staying Facebook friends had on recently separated couples and found that staying connected on the network did not increase her subjects negative feelings or desire for a former partner.

However, Stephanie Tong, an assistant professor of communication studies at Wayne State University, highlights that those who have uncertain feelings about a breakup tend to be more engaged in ‘Facebook stalking’ their former partner. This is supported by Marshall’s research, which shows that people who regularly check their ex’s Facebook pages report increased negative feelings, longing for a former partner, and decreased personal growth. In many cases, keeping up with updates in an ex’s life appears to make it harder for people to get over the relationship, particularly as it can lead to an almost competitive atmosphere to see who has gotten over the relationship first.

Messaging service Whatsapp may seem more innocuous than Facebook, however the app’s real-time information on when someone is online and whether a message has been received and read can lead to insecurities and complications in romances. Lisa Mai, a media and communications expert from the University of Mannheim, studied the impact that the ‘delivered’ and ‘last online’ features in the app had on relationships, finding that, when a partner had been online but hadn’t responded to a message, the ‘last seen’-status provoked emotions of anger, relational uncertainty, and even jealousy.

It’s likely that the ‘online’ and ‘last online’ statuses may also make it hard for people to get distance from a former partner after a breakup. “If someone is not over the relationship, they might use the opportunity to check when their ex-partner was online to stay informed on their life – even if this is just knowing when they were last active on WhatsApp. In relationships, this kind of information creates a feeling of closeness, and I believe this is also the case for couples who have broken up,” Mai said. The difficulty of getting distance from an ex is likely to lead to negative feelings of desire and longing, particularly as smartphones mean people carry potential reminders of their ex with them everywhere they go.

As the rates of smartphone penetration and social media sign-ups continue to rise, other platforms and messaging apps may follow Facebook’s lead and do their part to help users move on after their breakups. Until then, Mai suggests that those who are obsessed with checking their exes’ updates and statuses should delete them from their contacts entirely.

Image courtesy of Georgie Pauwels