Micheline Robichaud knows herself: After any breakup, the 32-year-old blocks the ex-boyfriend in question from her Facebook profile. If she doesn't, chances are good that, fuelled on wine, she'd go sleuthing online and follow it up with a regrettable text message.
"The reason so many people take the drastic step of blocking an ex is because of the intrusive and in-your-face nature of social media," said Robichaud, an accounts executive in Barrie, Ont. "There was a time when you broke up with someone, you didn't have to see them again. You could convince yourself that they were miserable without you."
Now, says Robichaud, social-networking sites intrude on that fantasy. She's not alone in her kibosh stance: A Pew survey published recently found that 36 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 29 will block or unfriend an ex, with 23 per cent of those age 30 to 49 doing the same. In the younger cohort, 36 per cent will also delete or untag photos that feature a former romantic partner. An August survey from U.K. research company YouGov echoed the Pew findings: 42 per cent of respondents age 18 to 34 unfriended their exes within a month of a split and 31 per cent also nixed all contact online with the ex's family and their friends. Some 34 per cent also deleted all photographic evidence of their former relationships.
Younger people especially tend to prune and edit this way following a breakup, an extension perhaps of the more general manicuring of their online image. Some block people because of a particularly messy end and others do it to avoid the temptation of peering in on a former partner (and their new unblemished life) on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and so on.
For those who block, unfriend, delete or untag after their relationships dissolve, once-private gestures between two people are now public and also more tangible to the other party. Postbreakup etiquette online remains fraught and unclear, says Andrea Syrtash, co-author of the recent book, It's Okay to Sleep with Him on the First Date, a guide that strives to debunk common dating myths.
"It's tricky new terrain that we're all learning to navigate. There's not an etiquette guide yet on this. You have to follow what feels right and what feels healthy for you. You don't want to do things out of spite," says Syrtash.
Kyle Harris, a 25-year-old who works at a financial restructuring firm in Toronto, says that the "only way to really move on is to block everybody." He recalled blocking an ex who Facebook messaged his mother after the breakup. "I felt there was no other healthy way but for us to just stonewall it," said Harris, who is newly engaged.
Leah Balass, a journalism student at Montreal's Concordia University, argues that severing ties in real life includes doing the same on social media. "Once you end the relationship, to see their lives every day is in a sense continuing a relationship with them. It fosters unhealthy feelings." (After both agreeing to it, Balass, 24, and a former partner unfriended each other on Facebook: "It makes me feel more at ease," she said.)
Balass is not a fan of Facebook's relationship status feature, pointing out that it makes for unpleasant housekeeping after a split. She says she finds it odd to flip through the profiles of married friends who keep sentimental photographs of ex-boyfriends posted in the depths of their Facebook timelines. "I know this girl who has a collection of exes that are accumulating on her profile," Balass said. "It's so much information."
According to the Pew survey of 2,252 American adults polled this past spring, 31 per cent of social network users have snooped on an ex online: "Some 21 per cent of Internet users ages 45-54, and 15 per cent of those ages 55-64, have gone online to look up someone they used to date," according to Pew. In the younger cohort aged 18 to 29, the percentage who sleuthed this way skyrocketed to 48 per cent.
Amanda Stark, a 33-year-old living in London, Ont., has remained in touch online with exes from long-term unions but unfriends shorter-term ones – three or four month-long relationships – without regrets. "I only knew them for a short time," said Stark. "These aren't organic connections any more, it's an eye in the sky."
Others take less drastic measures than unfriending or blocking on Facebook. Erin K. Hooper, a Toronto executive assistant, simply filtered her newsfeed so that notifications from a recent ex would not be displayed. This gave Hooper, 29, more control: "That was a protective measure in the early days when it was, 'Oh no! Pictures! Pictures popping up in the morning!'"
If outright unfriending makes more sense than newsfeed filtering, Syrtash recommends informing the ex ahead of time, especially if there's a chance of being on better terms in the future. From an etiquette standpoint, maintaining limited online contact with an ex's friends is acceptable, although Syrtash suggests cutting ties if they hinder your "emotional progress." As for untagging or deleting old photos from your social media accounts, Syrtash is for purging: "It's awkward if your profile picture involves you hugging your ex, last Christmas. It would feel just as strange to keep up as it would to take down. It's not as extreme as burning photos."
Still, some exes remain friends online, leaving evidence of their relationships – photos, milestones and exchanges posted to a Facebook wall, for example – sitting around like a public archive. Unwilling to sanitize the past, Toronto hairstylist Vanessa Nash-Gale is friends with all of her exes on Facebook. "My personal policy is that they were a part of my life. Why am I going to go back and edit my history for public consumption?"
Nash-Gale, 33, is also Facebook friends with her high school boyfriend's mom: "We talk about quilting." But she draws the line at adding exes who come out of the woodwork, friend requesting her on social media after the fact.
"My reply is always, 'Well, we're not friends.'"
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