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The Digital Land Mines of Modern Break-Ups

Selective disposal of digital artifacts is the best way to deal with the aftermath, but you might need your friends and an algorithm to help get you there.
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(Photo: blushingmulberry/Flickr)

(Photo: blushingmulberry/Flickr)

“We might be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us.”

Your first real break-up—the true, gut-throttling, ferocious-beast-hiding-in-the-weeds-setting-out-traps kind of break-up—is a transcendent experience. If you're unsure whether or not you've experienced one, you haven't.

Despite the literal blur in your eyes, you see things with, seemingly, greater clarity. The big revelation is that everything ends, so you must cherish what you have. Another worthwhile lesson is that you should trust no one, but this is only valuable if used properly. It's also fun realizing that every song ever written deals with the experience you're going through. (If you want to get into brain specs: The parts that deal with reward, motivation, addiction, and obsessive-compulsive disorder fire like crazy during a break-up.) Eventually, things mostly return to normal. There's a scar you carry around, and that's for good. But you do end up ditching the cast and regaining full motion.

Getting through the “cooling off” period was accomplished through a combination of action (carefully eliminating reminders of the relationship), inaction (the eroding power of time's passage), and alcohol.

I went through one of these years ago, long enough at this point to give it some distance and myself some clarity. Getting through the “cooling off” period was accomplished through a combination of action (carefully eliminating reminders of the relationship), inaction (the eroding power of time's passage), and alcohol. It was not a pleasant period of time, and one I was happy to get past.

But then, several months ago, something happened. A long dormant calendar my ex and I had shared over the cloud suddenly came back to life, and I couldn't find a way to properly delete it from my phone. Emails that had been buried deep within the archives began showing themselves during what I thought were harmless searches. My ex's face began popping into my Facebook feed in a flurry of posts, which showed her smiling in a wedding gown. Emotional corpses, long buried and thought-to-be dead, clawed through the dirt and mounted an attack.

I was lucky. This far gone, the power of that relationship had been weakened for good. But it did get me thinking about those not as fortunate. In this era of social media penetration and digital permanency, things don't go away. You can be minding your own business when some casual reminder of your former relationship surfaces, from anywhere, at any moment.

How are we supposed to navigate the digital remnants of break-ups?

“Digital possessions are very problematic,” says Corina Sas, a lecturer at Lancaster University who specializes in human-computer interaction. These are photos, texts, linked calendars, phone numbers, emails, songs, mutual connections on Facebook, shared Netflix accounts. They are numerous, and because of the cloud and smartphones, they are omnipresent. They are fine when the relationship is going strong and poisonous when it's over. Break-ups are tough enough without having to navigate the double-threat of land mines on your hard drives and networks.

“We are not very well-equipped to deal with this multitude of reminders surrounding us,” Sas says. “And most of them are just a click away.”

Facebook is particularly troubling: “People feel quite motivated to watch over the ex-partner's life,” Sas says. “And sometimes the ex-partner will move on at a different pace.” Another obvious problem is the public component, which puts the break-up on a virtual stage. “It makes it more discussed, more public, more embarrassing,” Sas says. “People demand loyalties, common friends have to be split.” Personally, I remember watching a friend detail—on a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, basis—their emotional state as they went through a divorce; it was cringeworthy for me, and I can't imagine the conflicting feelings I'd have if I knew both parties involved.

In 2013, Sas and her co-author Steve Whittaker, a cognitive scientist at the University of California-Santa Cruz, published a study looking at how people (specifically those between the ages of 19 and 34, with a median age of 23) deal with digital possessions after a break-up. They found that most fall into three main categories, each with varying degrees of success in terms of moving past the break-up.

The first were the Full Deleters. They removed everything they could about the other person: phone numbers, old texts, email addresses, social networking links, personal photos on the hard drive, mutually tagged photos on Facebook. While this may seem cleansing, it was actually problematic. Primarily, by going through those archives, the person is re-experiencing the pain, which leads to all sorts of added heartache. But also, many Full Deleters later regretted the hasty removals. “They realize that the relationship, however problematic it might have been, was an important part of their lives,” Sas says. “They wished to keep some of that.”

The second group was the Keepers. “They try to re-engage with the material,” Sas says. Listening to old songs, reviewing photos, re-reading emails, performing reconnaissance on the other person's life through their social networking profile. “It's all very, very sad.” Occasionally, the respondents placed obstructions in their own path, like hiding artifacts deep within a hierarchical structure of folders, and maybe putting a password on them. But those efforts were easily bypassed when they were in the mood to scratch the scar. “The material is quite emotionally charged, and people are upset,” Sas says. “But they couldn't keep themselves away.”

The group that exhibited the most success used a strategy Sas dubbed “Selective Disposal.” Immediately after the break-up, they didn't look at or engage with the artifacts, which forced a psychological distance. Months later, when the person was capable of looking at the material again, they combed through and curated a small group of digital artifacts to keep. “A treasure box,” Sas says, which contained special photos, songs that were shared, maybe a handful of heartfelt emails. Then, in a ritualistic display not unlike the '80s rom-com trope of lighting a box of an ex's clothes on fire, they ditched the rest. “When they deleted, they were letting go of the relationships, and the resentments that went with it.”

One way to help nudge people into that third group, Sas says, is through algorithms. A program—either installed automatically, or after a break-up—could scan a computer's metadata for keywords, dates, and times, and harvest those into a “Pandora's Box” (her words, not mine) that contains a relationship's digital artifacts. “We can then provide different mechanisms to block direct access,” Sas says. A pre-designated period of time or a password that must be obtained from a trusted friend will be used to keep the heartbroken from making rash decisions. After that period of “cooling off,” people can scan through, removing and keeping whatever they want. Or, rather than having to sift through on their own, Sas believes algorithms can handle that too, perhaps by keeping track of the most-viewed photos, most-played songs, and emails with the word “love” contained somewhere within.

As far as the social media problem goes, one of the issues with Facebook—and other platforms as well—is the lack of a profile page for a relationship. Each user has their own individual profile, but not everyone utilizes it as such. “It might make more sense if there was a relationship profile page,” Sas says. This would allow the relationship to be fully celebrated—or, you know, ignored—when it's in a good place. If that relationship goes south, it can disappear into the ether without either party being forced to undergo that awkward ritual of changing their relationship status and removing shared photos.

Though these represent some technical solutions to the problem, one need only perform a brief search of writers discussing their own digital age break-ups to realize that real relief isn't easy to come by.

“Memories don’t stop when we break up,” says Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist at Fielding Graduate University who studies the relationship between technology and human psychology. “There have always been complications to ending relationships, such as shared friends or coming across a forgotten jacket or old letters and photos. It just isn't online. Social media is just an extension of our social reality.”

We need time to process a break-up, with or without the added intrusion of digital artifacts. Realistically, this means performing the same heart-mending acts in our analog reality (not constantly bothering mutual friends about how an ex is doing) as in our digital one (stop checking out an ex's Facebook page). “You have to be making conscious choices to not self-inflict damage,” Rutledge says. “Set boundaries for yourself.”

And when those boundaries are overrun by digital infiltrators outside our control? Then it's time to break out those tried and true solutions to mending the grief. Go for a long hike, cry it out, talk to friends, learn a new skill, date someone new, rent yourself a private karaoke room for hours at a time and sing that heart of yours right out. Or, simply: Hold onto something, tightly, and let time do its job.

The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.