BREAKUPS IN THE TIME OF FACEBOOK

September 29, 2012

I’ve never been good at not looking at pictures of my ex-boyfriends.

I’m a Facebook lady, dyed-in-the-wool. Listen, I know, KNOW, that it’s taking up too much of my time. I know that looking at pictures of random near-strangers or girls who I once went to camp with is not proven to get me anywhere in life. But it is no exaggeration that since the day the Book (as we lovingly called it) arrived on my college campus in October of my freshman year, I’ve been hooked.

When I broke up with a boyfriend after college, I kept steady, steady tabs on him via Facebook. At first, I tortured myself by reading into every wall post, but as the years (yes, years) passed and the sharp feelings grew dull, I still kept it up. It was just part of my routine — newsfeed, pictures, events, ex’s profile, my profile. Just something to do. Of course, in moments of loneliness I would also look at the pictures of the two of us together, and that never felt good. Not good, no, but it did feel like a validation that the relationship had existed, and sometimes I felt like I needed that.

Recently, I broke up with another boyfriend after a year-long relationship. I was already in the habit of checking his page daily while we were together, just to see what funny things he’d posted or what new pictures he was tagged in (it was a LDR, so in a lot of ways it helped us to feel like part of each other’s lives). Post-breakup, though, my viewing of his profile didn’t wane — like with my previous ex, it became even more of an ingrained habit.

One day, as I was performing my usual Facebook routine, I was met with a surprise: his name didn’t come up. I refreshed the page and tried again; nothing. I figured I’d give it a little while, maybe something was just off. But the next day, the profile was still un-findable. I know that he must have quit Facebook, because that was something he’d talked about wanting to do while we were together. And I know that, ultimately, it’s probably a very good thing for me and will help us both to move on. But here’s the weird thing –

It’s a strange little twinge. Everything that was us on there is gone. He’s not tagged in the pictures of the two of us together. The sweet comments he made on them — “Like. This.” — don’t exist. It’s like I’m in the picture by myself.

So now I’m confronted with this: if the evidence is no longer on Facebook, what does that mean about the memories? Of course I know that just because he’s not tagged in the picture anymore doesn’t mean we didn’t stand next to the Lincoln Memorial together and make faces. We did; I remember it. He remembers it too. But now that he’s taken away his online presence, that version of us together no longer exists. My arm is around someone who’s not participating in the level of remembering that I am. He’s gone.

It’s a good lesson in real life versus life online. My best friend — who has been my Facebook wife since 2004 and who I never plan to divorce — has hardly been on the site at all since those early days when we initiated our FB-nuptials. She has her own online addictions, like recipes and fashion blogs, but she’s not constantly plugged in to this whole society of people we know and vaguely know and where they’re moving or who they’re dating. If she and her boyfriend were to break up, it would happen much more on earth than on the computer. One of them quitting Facebook wouldn’t leave the other floating alone in one half of a picture for all the world to see.

In a lot of ways, I envy her that. But she’s in the minority — on a grand scale, the nature of breakups in our society has changed. You can’t just cut a picture in half; you have to actually dismantle an online universe in order to avoid the temptation to get sucked into memory after memory. It’s harder to move on with that temptation so present. It’s harder to let go.

In the end, I know my ex-boyfriend has done us both a huge favor. He’s granted us space from each other in the old fashioned sense. Now, when we’re ready to be friends, I will ask him how he’s been and what he’s up to, and whether he’s dating anyone, and I will genuinely want to know. I’m released from the torture of knowing but not REALLY knowing, of constantly being granted permission to spy on him.

But it still stings a little to see him next to me, un-labeled. The history of us is harder to access. I have to carry it alone.

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