Why Facebook makes breaking up even worse

The Week
Are you a deleter, or a keeper? Or somewhere in between?
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Are you a deleter, or a keeper? Or somewhere in between?

Don't underestimate the emotional pain of going from "In a Relationship" to "Single"

Before you gleefully change your status to "in a relationship" and post photos with your new love for all of Facebook to see, consider this: A new study suggests that photos, posts on Facebook, and other digital reminders of an ex-love may prolong the pain of a break-up. Corina Sas of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom and Steve Whitaker of University of California Santa Cruz have researched how having to "dispos[e] of digital possessions" — posts, blog entries, videos, photos, even songs — hinders people's ability to move on after a relationship.

The authors interviewed 24 people aged 19 to 34 about their digital-breakup habits and found that they fell into three categories: Deleters, who immediately erase all texts, untag all photos, and defriend their exes; keepers, who hold onto everything and continue to follow (let's be real... stalk) their exes on Facebook; selective disposers, who hang onto just a few special physical and digital possessions and are "more adaptive" (healthier). Unfortunately, only four of those interviewed fell into that last category.

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The other two approaches come with their own emotional turmoil that is exacerbated by social media. For the deleters, their actions are often impulsive. How many of us have sat with our laptops open and a glass of Merlot and quickly de-friended an ex on Facebook or erased their texts? This is "beneficial on a short-term basis," say the authors. However, "deleters sometimes regret failing to save mementos symbolizing a chapter in their lives." Moreover, total deletion isn't even always an option on Facebook. As Nick Collins at The Telegraph writes "pictures and messages posted on social networks are not so easy to erase, especially if they have been posted online by someone else."

For the keepers, it's extra hard to say goodbye to an old boyfriend or girlfriend. One participant admitted: "I try to get his information through social networks in a quiet way." According to the authors, keepers' behavior "leads the romantic attachment to persist, which prolongs the grief process." Facebook, in particular, is "very problematic," Sas told Today. "The other person is just a click away. There's almost this continual contact which is very compelling." While we can cut people out of photographs, donate exes' sweaters to charity (or burn them), and even delete phone numbers, finding the most up-to-date info on old flames is just a matter of one tempting search on Facebook. Furthermore, since there is such an abundance of digital memories in 21st Century relationships, Sas adds that locating and erasing them all is "very, very emotionally taxing."

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So, what are the impulsive and weak-willed Facebook users to do? The authors suggest the creation of "Pandora's Box" software that "scours online profiles for any trace of a former loved one and stores them in one place." Then, people can later erase or keep whichever digital possessions they choose... when they're in a better state of mind.

"Deleting, defriending, and signing out of an account can be done quietly and with dignity," writes Daisy Buchanan at The Guardian. "And when you're newly single, preserving your dignity should be your top priority."

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