He broke your heart. She dumped you and ran. You're miserable—and you never want to see your ex again.
Except there he is, looking good in that new profile picture splashed all over your news feed. And hey, who's that guy leaving emoticons on her wall? There's no doubt Facebook has complicated modern-day breakups: Out of sight, out of mind? Not so much, these days. And no one's clicking "like" on that.
A study published in September in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking found that stalking an ex on Facebook—or frequently checking his or her profile and friends list—is linked with "greater current distress over the breakup, more negative feelings, more sexual desire, more longing for the ex-partner, and lower personal growth." Indeed, experts say Facebook can prolong post-breakup pain, while delaying emotional recovery.
"When a breakup is still raw and painful, being exposed to your ex-partner through Facebook is like pouring salt on a wound," says study author Tara Marshall, a psychologist at Brunel University in England. "Seeing photos, reading his or her updates, and finding out that he's involved in a new relationship may intensify distress. Distance—online and offline—allows emotions to cool enough to develop a meaningful narrative about what went wrong in the relationship, which facilitates recovery and growth."
Marshall surveyed more than 450 Facebook users, who responded to questions like: How often do you look at your ex's profile? How often do you look at his list of Facebook friends? They were also asked how sad they were when they thought about the breakup, whether they still had sexual feelings for their ex, and how much life change they'd experienced since splitting. The verdict: Continuing to keep tabs on an ex via Facebook was linked with longer-lasting heartache.
It's worth noting that the findings are correlational, and don't prove that Facebook stalking is bad for you. "It's the chicken or the egg issue," says Jennifer Harman, an assistant professor of applied social psychology at Colorado State University. "People who are doing this on Facebook are experiencing greater distress. But is that because of the stalking, or are they stalking because they're more distressed in the first place? It's hard to know."
Other studies, too, have explored the Facebook effect on breakups. In July, researchers from the University of Western Ontario reported that 88 percent of folks used Facebook to monitor their ex, while 75 percent checked out their ex's new (or suspected) partner. "You can't always tell if the other person is a romantic partner or not," says Anabel Quan-Haase, an associate professor of information and media studies who supervised the research. "It's confrontation without information, and what you're seeing may be out of context. People get really stressed out about that underlying surveillance."
Quan-Haase's research also found that 70 percent of respondents used a mutual friend's profile to access information on an ex, while 52 percent admitted to jealousy over an ex's photos, and 31 percent said they posted pictures in an attempt to make their ex jealous. Other common behaviors: Re-reading or overanalyzing old messages or wall posts (64.2 percent), deleting photos from happier times (50.5 percent), and posting a quote or song lyrics about the breakup (33.6 percent).
"People who are anxious, have low self-esteem, or are very concerned about rejection may engage in these behaviors more often," Harman says. "It's also more likely when the cause of the breakup is ambiguous or uncertain, and there's not a lot of trust. Breakups are never easy, but when the cause is unclear, we might turn to Facebook to figure out how and why it happened." When the end of the relationship was straightforward, and both partners accepted it, social networking sites tend to be less problematic, and even a moot point.
Even when it ends badly, defriending might not be the answer. The Ontario research found that those who remained Facebook friends with their ex had an easier time getting over the split—likely because it's particularly hurtful to be cut out completely. Marshall, too, found that remaining friends with an ex didn't incite negative feelings, and sometimes even helped people get over their former flame. "It often resulted in indifference and loss of attraction over time, like if he posted unattractive photos or silly, boring status updates and comments," she says. Being bombarded with the mundane details of your ex's life could kill any lingering feelings or sense of mystique. (That haircut? He's had better days. Her posts still aren't grammatically correct? You're so much better off.) And one more caveat: "It could also be that people who didn't have any lingering hostility or sexual desire for their ex were just more likely to remain Facebook friends," Marshall says.
Indeed, the problem typically isn't being connected as Facebook friends—it's surveillance, which remains possible regardless of friendship status. Maybe his updates are public and visible to the world at large, or you two share mutual friends, granting access to photos or statuses. It's also not uncommon to ask a buddy to monitor a recently-defriended ex's profile. So in the aftermath of a breakup, how should you handle social media?
For starters: Avoid the temptation to trash-talk your ex via status; hide your relationship status rather than alerting your 950 friends that you're now single; and don't overcompensate with countless posts about how wonderful your life is—all in the name of making your ex jealous. (Trust us, he'll see through it.) If the breakup was friendly, there's no need to unfriend immediately; the ugliest splits may call for an even more drastic measure: blocking. At minimum, hide your ex's updates from showing up on your news feed. "Sometimes people aren't even looking for information, but then it pops up—and that can really throw you off," Quan-Haase says. "You're overcoming that relationship, or feeling more stable, and then all of a sudden your news feed is telling you that your ex is dating someone new."
Perhaps the best solution is logging offline and focusing on in-person interactions, says Nancy Berns, an associate professor of sociology at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. "After a breakup, it's important to identify the loss and what it is you're grieving over," she says. "Is it missing a person? Is it missing the idea of being in a relationship? Spend time with people who are encouraging and not feeling the negativity—someone who will listen, face-to-face."