Commentary: Why breaking up in the Facebook era is hard to do

Commentary: Why breaking up in the Facebook era is hard to do

Social media has become an irrefutable part of the way we live. It has also changed the way we love, says one observer at the Financial Times.

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(File photo: Xabryna Kek)

LONDON: Last autumn, I logged on to Facebook to find a “memory”. 

That is what the site calls it when it surfaces a photograph posted that same day, years before. It acts like a micro-time capsule, a snapshot of happy days (and hazy nights) with school friends.

More often, it is a reminder of how long it’s been since I was a student.

But what struck me about the Facebook memory was the suggestion: “We thought you might enjoy this picture from five years ago.”

It was from an October I remember well. A photo of me and my boyfriend, grinning wildly into the camera outside a party. I can still hear the live fraternity band, deafening in the background.

In two weeks, we would break up. In three, he would erase our “in a relationship” status from Facebook, decisive and sharp. In a month we would exchange letters saying that we were sorry, that we would always be best friends. In four, we would speak in person for the last time.

Two years later I would have the novel experience of finding out that he got married to another, much younger, woman, via a post on Instagram, the popular photo-sharing app also owned by Facebook, and then the very familiar sensation of suddenly needing to eat an entire tub of chocolate ice cream for dinner.

Years have passed and though he has, like my grandma said he would, aged very well, the sight of him no longer sends me running for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. 

But looking at that picture, I was struck by the sudden realisation that it had been five whole years since somebody told me that they loved me.

It is right there in our final text messages, embalmed in my iPhone. From 12.05am that October morning:

I love you … please think about this.


In fact, every text, and every photo, from each one of my wilted relationships live there at my fingertips, preserved whole and open for autopsy. Sometimes, when it’s too quiet, I accidentally-on-purpose revisit an old text thread from a past relationship.

I scroll upwards into the past, and like an archaeologist chip away into the layers of shale. I carefully scroll over the end and into the softer earth of our time together, when things were good, and wonder how it all slipped sideways. It’s strange, what memory snips from its branches. Inside jokes you forgot to remember.

Without context, it is easy to linger over kind words and neglect everything you were so unsure of at the time. And messages you remember as perfectly rational explanations for grumpiness now make pretty clear that you were actually nuts.

I was considering this after a friend’s fiancé gave her a photo album charting the course of their relationship, replete with screenshots of their first flirtatious text messages after exchanging numbers at a bar. Texts are now an undeniable part of the record, a firmament that would, in another time, blur into memory.

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A woman uses her smartphone. (Photo: Xabryna Kek)


There is precedent, of course. Many of us have letters from adolescent heartaches stored in boxes in parents’ attics. But text has the capacity to create a digital archive of conversations, meaty or innocuous, that strips away all the (metaphorical and quite possibly literal) red tape preventing us from falling back into a happy past devoid of context.

Text has become an irrefutable part of the way we live, but has also changed the way we love. We agonise over four-word messages, lest the banter flag and the relationship with it. We construct universes of meaning out of words devoid of tone and touch.

In response to an “I miss you” message, an old lover texted me “likewise”. With fresh memory of how it ended, it feels absurd.

We increasingly meet online. Twenty-seven per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds use online dating sites, according to Pew Research.

Our relationships begin with a text long before we hear the other person’s voice. We first fall in love with an idea. An entire relationship of witty banter and choice details, aided by a few carefully curated profile pictures, is constructed before you meet.

There are plenty of happy endings — in the past year I have been to two so-called “Tinder weddings”. Nearly half of all college graduates know someone who met their spouse or partner online.

I am a member of the earliest generation of digital natives, a group who first received mobile phones and joined social media in middle school. We grew up on all-night Instant Messenger chats and find it jarring to receive voicemails. We stalk a potential partner’s social media back to time immemorial before we learn how they take their coffee.

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A smart phone with icons for the social networking apps Facebook, Instagram and Twitter on the screen. (Photo: AFP/ Kirill Kudryavtsev)


Our lives play out online in ways we don’t yet fully understand. Data breaches on Facebook by Cambridge Analytica have forced a reckoning about how much of our online selves are exposed.

But possibly more corrosive than embarrassing photos that will likely preclude me from a run for the presidency are the ways the digital tethers we weave around our relationships are so hard to untangle.

If dating apps and texting make connections simpler to forge than ever, our break-ups are messier and less easy to define. We drop breadcrumbs, or non-committal messages just to say hello, part of the new and growing lexicon of text-message heartbreaks.

Exes are whitewashed from Instagram feeds, and must be blocked on social media to prevent our receiving notifications that they’re looking very handsome teaching life skills to ex-child soldiers in Rwanda. 

We post flattering photos in the hopes they will also sting. They continue to use your Netflix account and mess up your recommendations.

Still, you never know when Facebook may decide to remind you of a time you’d choose to forget, or which ex, one sleepy Saturday afternoon, might decide to slip back into your text messages and ask if you want to catch up.

Some texts don’t require answers. At least not right away ...

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Source: Financial Times/sl