Be Kind As You Unwind

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Question

After about 10 months, my boyfriend and I have decided to call it quits—mostly at his behest. Needless to say it's been painful and though we've agreed (cautiously) to be friends, there are a number of things making this transition difficult for me, a glaring one being, I'm afraid to say, Facebook. I am both eager and reluctant to unfriend him. Eager because looking at his status updates, photos and wall posts has become an unhealthy obsession and reluctant because in the world of being-friends-post-break-up it seems an unnecessarily harsh step. I don't really want to have the conversation with him because I'm not interesting in continuing to gnaw at fresh wounds, but I also don't want him to be confused by this sudden, "unfriendly" gesture. What should I do?

AG

Answer

It is interesting how these online social networks have created, with our complicity, these new and unreasonable pressures on our personal lives. We have always socialized and loved publicly by declaring ourselves in relationships and creating contracts and rituals around them, but now we have established these additional records (along with a new language and a wider ranging audience) and the next thing you know you have a whole new set of concerns when you must disengage. Changing your relationship status and dealing with that fallout, wondering if an ex is looking at your updates and making them amusing and vivacious in the hopes that you are being observed, checking their new friendships and events, scrutinizing photographs of people they've been tagged with, worrying about all the friends you have in common and those they've made through you and if they continue to socialize with them online and otherwise. We invite these virtual networks into our intimate lives and suddenly the connections they create become very real and occasionally very distressing because we've compromised our right to grieve privately when one of them falls apart. And just to torture ourselves further, we continue putting on brave and upbeat faces on our own profiles. It's exhausting.

Unless you are really into challenging the strength of your resolve, it's probably best not to be privy to the ongoing details of your ex's life. Though they are made easily accessible to you (and are potentially being tailored dazzlingly for your benefit) it is unkind to yourself to snoop. And while agreeing to be friends after a relationship ends is commendable, it also implies that you are ready to behave in a way befitting a friend. That is hard enough to do when you're a big sloppy mess to begin with, never mind apoplectic over a photo of your former beloved at a party with some writhing chorus girl in his lap. To be friends with someone when you were recently lovers requires delicate footwork and forcing yourself to learn it while you are feeling clumsier and rawer than ever is not always what's best for you—or the potential friendship for that matter.

Perhaps you recall an earlier column when I mentioned "overshare" being the 2008 New Oxford American Dictionary word of the year. Guess what 2009's is? You got it, Facing: "unfriend". Intellectually and culturally we have acknowledged how prevalent the conventions of these networks have become in our lives but it doesn't mean we've had time to catch up to them emotionally. We want revel in our joys and accomplishments and these social networks allow us a place to do that but then we are stuck living out our disappointments and heartbreaks in equal measure.

Negotiating a friendship after a love relationship at your own speed and with your own limitations in mind is key—you are under no obligation to do this at a breakneck pace and with troubling boundaries. And while it may be gracious to offer some gentle forewarning when "removing a connection", you are also free to do this on your own terms and without revealing your reasons. You are simply allowing yourself a little space and compassion so that you can heal. I think he can understand that without having to get a personal status update from you. And if he doesn't, well, you've broken up. You don't need to run all your decisions by him if you don't want to.