Sticking your nose in it: the consequences of breaking up in the world of Facebook

“Breaking up is hard to do” or so the classic Neil Sedaka song tells us. It’s true. Coming out of a relationship is a loss. It challenges our attachment patterns, makes us reassess our lives, crushes our self-esteem for a time, while making us feel pretty raw and awful – even if it was a long time coming. The way in which we attach ourselves to others is one of the most profound things we do as human beings.

It’s old wisdom that we need time after a breakup to recoup, to pull ourselves together. Part of what makes the recovery work is the time we get away from the person that has caused us so much heartache: to stop reminding ourselves of our previous love and subsequent heartbreak. So how might Facebook potentially change this dynamic? Does it make an emotional difference that our ex-partners are “available” to us 24 hours a day (depending on their privacy settings and whether or not you still remain “friends”) through the portal of Facebook?







Tara Marshall of Brunel University has recently published a fascinating study that looks just at this problem. While acknowledging the shortcomings of the study itself, she does come to a rather simple conclusion:

“. . . keeping tabs on an ex-partner through Facebook is associated with poorer emotional recovery and personal growth following a breakup. Therefore, avoiding exposure to an ex-partner, both offline and online, may be the best remedy for healing a broken heart” (p. 6).

The online environment is different from the offline one with regard to an ex because the contact is likely to be indirect and as a result of either active behaviour such as “facebook stalking” (intentionally and sometimes obsessively following all the interactions your ex gets up to) or the passive effect of simply witnessing what your ex might be getting up to (if you still remain “friends” on Facebook and you get news through your regular feed).

Previous research in the offline world has shown that maintaining contact with an ex is associated with poorer recovery from the breakup. Which is why some of Marshall’s findings indicated that we can expect increased distress if we monitor our ex’s online behaviour and that this can “prolong pining for the former partner” (p. 2).

Marshall’s research has further shown that:

 “frequent monitoring of an ex-partner’s Facebook page and list of friends, even when one was not a Facebook friend of the ex-partner, was associated with greater current distress over the breakup, negative feelings, sexual desire, longing for the ex-partner, and lower personal growth” (p. 5).

This news is disturbing enough on its own, but consider this previous research by Lyndon (et. al.):

“monitoring an ex-partner’s Facebook photos and other forms of covert provocation (such as writing a status update to make an ex-partner jealous) is associated with an increased likelihood of engaging in offline obsessive relational intrusion (e.g., showing up at the ex-partner’s classroom or workplace).” (in Marshall, p. 2).

Lyndon’s (et. al.) work begins to demonstrate that our emotional reactions to our ex-partners can be exacerbated so much online that we may take our reactions offline too. The consequences of stalking your ex may not be contained in the midnight stalking occurring between you and a computer screen, but may leak out into the “real” offline world in ways in which, without Facebook, you may not have been so provoked.

Marshall discovered in her research, however, that it is difficult to reduce motivations and intentions by crunching numbers and asking people to fill in surveys. The research also produced some insights that were contrary to the researcher’s expectations:

 “. . . people who remained Facebook friends with an ex-partner were lower in negative feelings, sexual desire and longing for the former partner than people who were not Facebook friends . . . [there is the possibility that] unbidden exposure to the potentially banal status updates, comments, and photos of an ex-partner through remaining Facebook friends may have decreased any residual attraction to the ex-partner” (5).

In this alternative case remaining “friends” with a partner actually aided the Facebooker to feel less romantically inclined towards them. Marshall offers this explanation:

 “Former partners with whom we are no longer in contact . . . may remain shrouded in an alluring mystique, suggesting that remaining Facebook friends with an ex-partner may actually help rather than harm one’s breakup recover” (p. 5).

The research is not exhaustive and we shouldn’t draw simple conclusions about it. However it does begin to offer us some insight. My own previous posts have focused much more on the psychodynamics of social networking – that is, what might be going on unconsciously for its users – information that by its very nature is difficult to glean from research studies such as Marshall’s.

Briefly, what might a psychodynamic reading bring to light on this phenomenon?

In Freud’s (1917) wonderful essay “Mourning and Melancholia” he describes in vivid detail how loss affects the psyche and the ways in which it can be mourned (the healthy way to deal with loss) or in which one can become melancholic (depressed) by being unable to let go of the loss. In this essay Freud states that:

“people never willingly abandon a libidinal position” (p. 244).

This means that when someone has invested their emotions and energy (libido) into another, they find it very difficult to let go of this (this reasoning is backed up by attachment theory and some very good infant research). Freud goes on to say that the you may fight the reality of the loss so hard that a

 “a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the [other person] through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis” (p. 244)

This is an extreme, and you don’t have to be psychotic to hold onto a wishful fantasy. However, maintaining a psychic relationship with your ex on Facebook enables you to not let go, to continue to have a thread of libidinal attachment to the other.

And all this begs the question, if you can still have them on Facebook after you’ve broken up, what’s to gain in really letting them go?


Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. SE, V14. pp. 237 – 258.

Marshall, T. (2012). Facebook surveillance of former romantic partners: associations with postbreakup recovery and personal growth. Cyberpsychology, behavior, and social networking. V15,N10

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“It’s complicated”:




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