For Valentine’s Day, we’re celebrating the breakups that shaped us, in all their messy glory. Because love is just as much about heartbreak as it is about romance. Read all the stories from our Love Bites series here.
Breaking up is hard to do, and it’s a million times harder in the digital age, where we are faced with such dilemmas as: Do I unfriend my ex’s parents on Facebook? What do I do about the guy who ghosted me but continues to look at all my Instagram stories? Is “blocking” her on Twitter too aggressive?
As a seasoned relationship advice columnist and person who has gone through quite a few painful break ups herself (including two in the last six months—yay, polyamory!), I’ve experimented with all kinds of coping mechanisms for all manner of heartbrokenness. But because everyone learns from the specifics of their own past relationships, I also asked a host of friends who feel they’re mastered the art of breaking up gracefully. Together, we came up with tips that will help soothe your achy, breaky, heart emoji.
First, a reminder: Different breakups call for different actions. The most important thing you can do is be honest with yourself. If seeing an ex’s Game of Thrones memes and eggs benedict photos doesn’t bother you in the slightest, then you may not need to do much of anything. But as my wise friend Ammie put it, “If it’s hurting you, stop doing it.” (This was after I saw an ex’s Instagram post that talked about me in the caption and felt like I had been physically stabbed.) So, listen to yourself first and foremost.
When to mute, unfriend, and unfollow
Depending on the severity of the breakup, you will definitely want to unfollow, mute, or outright unfriend your ex on all social media platforms—for a minimum of a month, but possibly much longer if you get to the end of it and seeing their face still makes you feel like your heart has been spanked (not in the fun way). If you have a lot of mutual friends with your ex, you may need to unfollow/unfriend them as well. As Kyra Kyles, former Editor-in-Chief at Ebony magazine, told me, “When freshly broken up, distance is key. Later, if they are a legit friend, you can engage. I would unfollow or mute first if possible, as it is less aggressive.” If you’re afraid that taking digital space will be met negatively, just be honest and let them know it’s because you need the distance now in order to have them back in your life later, and that you’re not trying to erase them.
A few years ago, I stubbornly refused to unfriend a girl on Facebook who broke my heart. Instead, I changed the settings on my feed so that only the “most important” posts of hers showed up, which ended up really backfiring because then the updates I saw were like, “[Girl I dumped you for] proposed to me! We’re getting married even though I claimed to be afraid of commitment!” (I’M SUPER HAPPY FOR YOU, SANDRA.) So, keep that in mind when deciding whether you want to just rip off the band-aid or not.
While you’re at it, you probably want to go ahead and disable “On This Day” and “TimeHop” on Facebook, so you won’t get daily, surprise memories of how happy you were last year with this person.
On Instagram and Twitter, the “muting” feature is your friend if you don’t want to hurt your ex’s feelings by unfollowing. Plus, muting works not just for exes, but also for people who don’t want to date you, as Tristan, a photographer in Oakland, notes. “I now mute every unrequited crush because Instagram is amazing at showing me photos of people who've rejected me.”
How to keep yourself away
Muting/unfollowing, however, does not stop you from post-breakup stalking. If you’re afraid you might do this, try a trick I learned from the Multiamory podcast episode “How to Get Over an Ex”): modify your browser to reroute the/ URL of your ex’s social media pages in to somewhere else (like, perhaps, a Google Doc listing the reasons why you broke up).
On mobile, the only sure-fire way to keep yourself from obsessively stalking your ex is blocking them. (But, of course, you could always still see their account while logged out or logged into a burner account, if it’s public). Blocking can feel extremely harsh. If you’re worried about burning bridges, Zoe, a yoga teacher, says, “Tell them you plan to [block them] and that it’s not exactly personal—I mean it IS but it’s not meant to be vindictive—but rather for emotional survival and a need to separateness and privacy.”
When it's time to block
Most people I spoke to suggested full-on blocking an ex outright. This prevents them from seeing your posts, as well as prevents you from stalking them when you start feeling nostalgic or sad about the breakup. Robert, a queer, nonbinary writer in Nebraska, said, “Don't just unfriend. This is really important. Especially if you think that you can just be a ‘tourist’ in their life whenever you log on to social media. This doesn't mean you can't ever be friends again but you MUST give each other emotional space for the first couple months/years. If you are connected via social media then you risk blowing your recovery from the breakup.”
Another benefit of blocking (on Facebook and Twitter, anyway), is that your ex’s comments and replies on posts will also be hidden, even on posts by mutual friends.
And, if blocking is not hardcore enough, some people suggested deleting your own social media accounts altogether. As Anna, a doula in the Chicago area, put it, “Delete Facebook. It ceases stalking said ex and their hoe's.” There’s also Killswitch, a mobile app that removes pictures, videos, and statuses on your Facebook profile that are tagged with your ex in a mere push of a button. (A portion of the proceeds from Killswitch goes to the American Heart Association, which is a nice touch, breakup app!)
Remember, also, that people can be re-friended, re-followed, unblocked, and unmuted. It doesn’t have to be “forever.” (Even Killswitch stores your stuff in a folder that can be retrieved later.)
What about relatives?
What about your ex’s friends or relatives? Again, check in with yourself. If seeing Uncle Steve’s handmade bedazzled Etsy fanny packs on Twitter does not upset you, then you probably don’t have to unfollow him. But if seeing an ex’s family member online hits too close to home, then take the precautions you need to to keep yourself happy and sane. Some relatives might find it weird that you unfriended them and ask you about it. If they do, you can tell them a similar version of what you told your ex, that you’re taking space. But most, especially those who aren’t on social media very often, probably won’t even notice.
If you want someone—your ex or your ex’s mom—to stop following you on Instagram or Twitter, you can try a “soft block.” That means blocking them, which automatically makes them unfollow you, then immediately unblocking them, so that they don’t get all offended.
What's OK for you to post?
If you do decide to go the blocking route, one benefit is that you can use social media for catharsis. I’ll be the first to admit that I have written some Instagram poetry that my exes would definitely consider “vengeful,” even though it helped me process our breakup. I’m not alone in this. As KD, a queer poet in LA, noted, one of her coping mechanisms was “writing passive aggressive poetry about the last time we slept together and then posting the fuck out of it.”
If you think you might later find such posts embarrassing or inappropriate, I recommend waiting 24 hours. If you still feel okay posting it, then you’re probably fine. Also, check in with yourself and make sure not to post anything when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or drunk (HALT’D, as the acronym goes).
But don’t forget social media’s intended purpose: connection. Shana recommended using social media for self-care. She suggests that folks, “Follow all the queerest/dykiest meme accounts to get a laugh and feel clicked into a network you are or can be a part of.”
Robert also tries to “do something that gives me control, like make a meaningful post each day. Something long-term until it becomes a ritual. I basically replace SOs with new daily rituals and creative projects, and honestly it helps me recover from that loss.”
If you really feel like you need to make a personal dig at your ex’s expense, text it to a friend (or several) instead of making it a public post you might regret later. Also, don’t over-post on social media just to make it seem like your life is JUST FINE THANKS. It’s okay not to be okay!
And there’s nothing wrong with posting flattering photos of yourself post-breakup, as Jolie, a dating veteran and opera designer and director, suggests, “Post hot selfies asap. Just in case their friends see. Hi, I'm petty.” Petty or not, we could all use the occasional social media validation when going through a heartache.