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By Sherina Harris

Some mornings, Gabrielle Haynes* wakes up after dreaming about her ex-boyfriend, reaches under her pillow and grabs her phone to check his profiles. His Instagram is private, so she can’t see anything. She blocked him on Twitter, but she still views his tweets. He posted a lot about his ex before Haynes, so she expected to see the same grief displayed for her on his social media.

The third-year business student and her boyfriend broke up at the end of December. Initially, they wanted to stay friends but while he was over the relationship, Haynes wasn’t ready to let it go—she wanted to still be in touch somehow.  Even though she knew it was unhealthy, she found herself checking his Snapchat location or score. 

A few days later, she told him she couldn’t move on as long as she felt like she was in a “grey area.” She knew that she wouldn’t be able to move on if he was still in her life.  He told her to block him on every social platform, and she did, but she can’t help but check his Instagram and Twitter almost every day. Once she saw something that made her so upset, she had to leave her class. “It’s really hard to get over someone when you’re keeping tabs on them,” she says.

The internet has unquestionably changed the way we get into relationships—from dating apps to Insta-stalking the cute guy in your history class. It’s also had a profound effect on the way our relationships end. Now, the classic “it’s not you, it’s me” message can be conveyed with the tap of a few buttons, and any tearful or angry, drink-throwing moments are avoided. 

But unlike the days when those words had to be said in person, today’s brokenhearted can’t just avoid the café where their ex worked and move on with their lives. Now we risk running into our exes at every corner of the internet, leaving some Ryerson students feeling like they can’t disconnect. A 2012 study from the Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking journal found that frequently looking at an ex’s page, even if the subject was no longer “friends” with them, was found to increase distress over the breakup, negative feelings, sexual desire and longing for the ex, while lowering personal growth.

Candice Allen, the founder of Toronto Wing Woman, a dating consultancy, recommends her clients block their exes or, if possible, take a complete social media detox after a breakup. However, she acknowledges there is not a one-size fits all solution.

She notes that in relationships where people have a lot of mutual friends, just blocking an ex might not be enough to avoid seeing reminders of the relationship online. She suggests people can signal to their ex that they’d like to have some distance from their virtual profiles, if only for a period of time. “You can probably be friends in the future, if that’s something you both want, but at this point in time you need to work on your healing process,” she says. 

Blocking an ex is easier said than done, as most people who have been through a breakup know. “It’s plain and simple biology,” Allen says. “There’s an addiction.” Allen says that in a new relationship, you get close with a person and develop bonds. Going through a breakup, then, is a withdrawal process—not to mention you’re curious about how your ex is doing. “You want to see, are they hurting as much as you are?”

About a year after Taylor Palmer’s breakup, and a month after she learned her ex had cheated on her, she learned that her ex had a secret way of keeping an eye on her. Lying in bed, trying to wind down before going to sleep, the third-year psychology student saw a post from an account shared by her ex and two other friends.  The  caption referenced writing a book — something she’d recently posted about too. She’d assumed her ex wouldn’t care enough to keep tabs on her, but the post made her realize that she was wrong. She immediately removed the account from her followers.

“It was a little violating, knowing that so much had gone wrong between us at this point—and he was still trying to keep track of what I was up to,” she recalls. 

Palmer and her ex originally ended on good terms, resolving to remain friends and not sever IRL or digital connections. But when Palmer would post about other guys, her mutual friends told her that her ex was reading her tweets and asking why she was posting them. Their relationship gradually turned sour. Palmer actually calls their eventual cutting of ties a relief, because it meant she was able to begin unfollowing his accounts, and stop him from constantly viewing her posts. She felt anxious, frustrated and angry that her ex still felt entitled enough to know what was happening in her life. 

Allen suggests someone in Palmer’s situation first try reminding their ex that they had agreed on having space, if they had that conversation already. But if the behaviour continues, she recommends getting other people involved. “Don’t go through it alone, and make sure you have support,” she says. 

People who view an ex’s Facebook page view the behaviour as relatively harmless, the 2012 study suggests. But people who do this—or engage in behaviour like posting something geared toward catching their ex’s attention—are more likely to exhibit obsessive behaviours in real life, like showing up to an ex’s workplace. While this is more of an extreme example, even people who engage in smaller instances of monitoring online behaviour “may increase distress over the breakup and prolong pining for the former partner,” the study says. The study, which involved a survey given to over 400 people, ultimately concluded that “continued online exposure to an ex-romantic partner may inhibit post-breakup recovery and growth.” 

Allen says checking in on an ex’s profiles is unhealthy when it becomes an obsession that affects someone’s daily life, or if they’re isolating themselves from their friends or family to continually hit the refresh button. She suggests people who find themselves in this position seek professional guidance or talk to a trusted friend or family member to get another perspective on why they feel compelled to check in on their ex’s digital profiles. 

While the opportunities for so-called “online surveillance” have increased with the internet, digital technologies have also made it easier for people to break up with their partners. Allen says breaking up over text gives people the opportunity to ask for feedback on a relationship, or share final thoughts about anything that bothered them. 

“Because you’re not sitting face to face with someone who might be crying their eyes out, or very upset, because there is that boundary of a cell phone between you both… I think that allows people to be more honest,” she says. 

Now that her ex doesn’t follow any of her accounts, Palmer says she hasn’t really thought about him. “That was kind of weighing on me a lot beforehand, knowing that he was…more or less always around,” she says, “But I think that [cutting digital ties was] an important step in the moving on process.”

When Haynes checks her ex’s profiles, she doesn’t find what she’s looking for: he hasn’t posted about breakups, his emotions or her. She’s not exactly sure why she keeps checking, but she describes it as an itch that she scratches before carrying on with her day. But Haynes has also realized that she finds something else by keeping tabs: reassurance. Based on his tweets and other online postings, she knows that they weren’t as compatible as she once thought. 

She looks at his following list and remembers she doesn’t like all of his friends; she sees his hobbies and sees a clear picture of what his life is like, without her in it.

“Now that we’re not dating and I don’t have like the rose tinted like glasses on, I can actually see him a little bit more as a person,” she says. “I just want to confirm that [he] and [I] aren’t compatible so that I can use that to propel me forward.”

*Name has been changed for anonymity. 

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