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Internetimacy, Part 2 – Breaking up online is (really) hard to do

Internetimacy, Part 2 – Breaking up online is (really) hard to do

By April 17, 2015 Social Nerd No Comments

This is part two of Colin’s “Internetimacy” series. You can find part one here

The funny thing about being in your early thirties and being divorced is the look of confusion on people’s faces when you tell them. You can read it all there – the moment of disbelief, followed by the dawn of understanding, then the restrained judgement. When I say it’s funny, I mean it’s funny – we all have an image of what a divorced guy looks like, and I don’t resemble the guy living in the one-bedroom apartment, eating takeout and thinking about where it all went wrong. Watching people try and mesh their expectations of me with their image of some kind of low-rent Don Draper is great.

Updating Facebook from the hospital bed. Welcome to the future, everybody.

Updating Facebook from the hospital bed. Welcome to the future, everybody.

I got married when I was 26, and I was divorced when I was 30. I met my ex when I was in university, asked her to marry me, and by the time she did she was probably already regretting the decision. There’s a whole lot of messy reasons as to why that happened and how it happened, but the basic parameters are this – I went to Spain with her, and when I was in Spain I got appendicitis, my surgery went terribly and when I got out of the hospital she told me that she wanted to move to London and do it without me. Fast forward through two years of horror and you get a piece of paper that tells you that you get your life back.

When you’re breaking up with someone you’ve been with for a long time, you quickly realize how intertwined your lives are – finances, friends, possessions – and the process of decoupling those things is painful. Everyone knows this! We see it in movie montages and we know the beats – the crying on your kitchen floor, the drinking too much, the endless ruminations on what might have been.

Believe me, I did all the stations of the cross, here – and it was as ugly and painful as it looks on TV, except that you can’t change the channel and you can’t escape what is happening. What is even stranger is the way that social media acts as this inescapable tether that binds you together, despite everything.

The online standoff

There is this incredibly awkward period where you are still utterly connected online, even while you’re separated off it. The game of chicken – the I’ll-unfriend-you-if-you-unfriend-me thing – plays off as another front in the high-stakes hostage negotiation that best resembles what getting a divorce is like.

When you are hurting and you’re built the way I am, you tell jokes to ease the pain. If those jokes have a dark edge to them, it helps you open up about how bad you feel without telling people the real things that are going through your head like “I’m broken”, and “How can anyone love me again”, which are – shall we say – not exactly conversation starters.

If you are also like me and think that other people will find your jokes hilarious and they should obviously be expressed online, you are presented with a problem – do you censor yourself, knowing that your ex will likely read everything you write and take immediate and terrifying offense, or do you let it all hang out?

The problem is that you’re screwed either way – you can exercise total message discipline, but then you are effectively letting another person continue to control the person you are, which – news flash – is the last thing you want after years of codependency. If you let ‘er rip, you’re inviting conflict in full view of everyone else.

Caught in the crossfire

Friends have it even worse, because everyone’s trapped in a completely unfair loop. Even if the couple in question is separated on Facebook, you still get both sets of posts – and by being a “friend of a friend”, many of those posts remain visible so you end up acting as the intermediary. My ex made it easy, in a way, because she moved out of town shortly after we split, but even now, years later, her posts will show up on a mutual friend’s photo or tweet or link share and it acts as one of those jump scares like something out of The Ring. You get teleported back to that time, that place, that person and that pain for just a heartbeat.

Eventually, time marches on, people unfriend and unfollow each other, but finding a way to manage this process formally still completely escapes us. Recently, a woman was granted the opportunity to serve her divorce papers to her ex over Facebook, and this made national news. I had to fill out hours worth of paperwork just to send copies of documentation to my ex over email rather than send through registered mail. Our physical world is once again getting outpaced by the digital one.

A new frontier

My situation is by no means unique – in fact, I think I’ve had it easier than most. Relationships are going to keep ending and starting and figuring out all of this stuff is going to happen on the fly. I don’t know how we learn to cut ties with an ex in the old way ever again – and maybe we need to learn how to live with them in the same way divorced parents are tied together by their kids.

Either way, it’s a new frontier. If we continue to show people some version of ourselves online, we run the risk of showing too much or hurting each other. Finding a way to live with each other online even if we don’t love each other any more is a part of our (sadly still) mutual future.

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