It's an easy trap to fall into. You're harmlessly perusing Facebook, bouncing from profile to profile, when suddenly, curiosity strikes. You scroll over to the site's search bar and warily, after glancing over both of your shoulders, type in your ex's name.
Most people who use Facebook may not admit to having looked up an ex's profile, but chances are they have. It's normal, said Robert Weiss, co-author of Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. "To check in on what's going on with someone you were very close to for a long time is healthy," Weiss said. "It may seem a little creepy ... but when you are deeply attached to someone and that attachment ends, it doesn't just snap like a stick."
But there's a fine line between an occasional bout of healthy curiosity and outright obsession. "Sometimes people get very caught up in this," said Susan J. Elliott, a certified grief counselor, attorney and author of Getting Past Your Breakup. Elliott said she has had clients who created fake profiles to peek around.
Elliott advises clients to create a list of 10 things they will do instead of snoop on their exes' profiles, which they can reach for when they get the urge. Call a friend. Take a walk. Go to the gym. If you still feel like snooping after you've done those 10 things, go ahead, she says — but the odds are you won't want to.
Ending a relationship has never been a cakewalk, but in the era of social media, when people so willingly document intimate details of their lives online, breaking up has arguably become even harder.
Ask Esther Crawford, 30, a marketing professional from San Francisco who met her husband because he frequently commented on her blog. The pair started dating in 2005, the same year they both joined Facebook. "We had the 'in a relationship' post in 2005." Crawford said. "In 2007, we had the 'engaged' status change." And in 2008, when the couple married, they simultaneously changed their Facebook relationship status to "married" as part of their wedding ceremony. "Our entire relationship has been broadcast online."
So it was only appropriate that the couple took to Facebook to announce they would be getting a divorce. On July 19, Esther and her husband both posted notes on their Facebook pages explaining that their marriage would soon be over.
Even though Crawford's Facebook page is blanketed with memories of her soon-to-be-ex-husband, she has decided to leave them in place. She's also staying Facebook friends with him and his family but says she's mindful about what she posts.
"I'm aware there may come a time when there are certain posts I hide from his family," she said, such as those signifying the start of a new relationship. Crawford's not concerned with what kind of message leaving the photos and posts on her page could send to potential new love interests. "Anyone who knows me knows that this is an important part of my life. I don't feel like I need to erase that history."
Whether you should delete your ex as a connection heavily depends on your relationship attachment style, said Jesse Fox, assistant professor at the Ohio State University School of Communication. There are four different types of attachment styles: secure, dismissive-avoidant, anxious-preoccupied and fearful-avoidant.
According to Fox, secure types are comfortable in their relationships and trust their partners. Dismissive avoidant types tend to have trouble establishing a deep bond with someone. Anxious preoccupied people are overly interested in their romantic partner and might be in constant fear that that person will leave them. Fearful-avoidant types are just as needy as anxious-preoccupied, but are too reserved to express their insecurities about the relationship.
People who identify as anxious-preoccupied or fearful-avoidant should without question delete their exes and any photos of them, Fox said. It takes longer for those types of people to recover from breakups if they're still friends with their ex or looking at their photos.
But to delete all reminders of an ex may be sound advice for everyone. If you're constantly confronted with images and expressions of your former relationship, it makes it a lot harder to move on, Weiss said.
Even if you remove all memories from your account, that doesn't mean your friends will. If a mutual friend goes out for drinks with your ex and posts a photo, know that it will probably appear in your feed, without warning, and could trigger unwelcome feelings. "You might have to ask your friends individually not to post photos of your ex," said Elliott. If your friends are unwilling to cooperate? You may need to just block them, she added.
We all have natural coping rituals in the wake of breakups, Fox said. Before social media, you may have burned a photo of an ex or stored photos and mementos away in a box. Now, you must decide whether to delete that person and all the baggage left cluttering your profile.
Post-breakup activities meant to make people feel rejuvenated, like getting a haircut, have also transferred to the digital world. In her research, Fox has found that in addition to deleting photos, one of the most common things for newly single people to do is to change their profile picture, regardless of whether their former partner was in it. "It's kind of like the new haircut," she said.
But that could just be part of a carefully constructed facade. Fox said because everyone's in everyone else's business all the time on social media, people go to extreme measures online to make it seem like they're better off without their exes.
"They might not ever make eye contact with that person again, but their former partner can still look at their profile and find out what's going on in their life," she said.
That often causes people to deliberately post either highly positive or vindictive messages and photos to make it seem like they've already moved on, even if they're hurting inside. "Even if you decide to not block someone, you need to take what they post with a grain of salt," Elliott said. "Otherwise, it's going to drive you nuts."