Awkward! How Facebook Complicates Breakups

a woman looking sad at computer
(Image credit: KieferPix/

SAN FRANCISCO — Nowadays, changing a Facebook profile to "In a Relationship" is a rite of passage in dating, more significant than that first date, but less of a milestone than meeting the parents.

But when a relationship goes south, the fallout on social media — from the ability to reanalyze every message an ex sent, to the temptation to cyberstalk a former love — can make it hard to move on, said study researcher Anabel Quan-Haase, a sociologist at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

"We tend to talk about how Facebook, Twitter and social media create relationships, but how about when you need to get rid of someone?" Quan-Haase said here at the 109th annual American Sociological Association meeting. "These technologies don't deal with that sufficiently."

Even so, people have developed several strategies to move on with less drama. [10 Tips for a Healthy Facebook Breakup]

Not 'In a Relationship'

More and more people are finding love online, and they often document every relationship milestone on Facebook or other social networking sites. But that also means a breakup gets broadcast to all of the ex-couple's friends, and that it's more difficult to avoid traces of an ex.

To understand the impact of social media on these breakups, Quan-Haase and her colleagues contacted 107 people, mostly college students, who had broken up with their partners in the previous 12 months. The team then asked the participants detailed questions about how they dealt with the breakup online.

Not surprisingly, those who initiated a breakup tended to be less troubled by social media issues than those were dumped.

About 62 percent of the users said they spent a lot of time reanalyzing wall posts and messages from the ex. About the same percentage said that updating their relationship on Facebook caused a flood of concerned and even tactless responses from family and friends, Quan-Haase said. Comments included everything from "Are you okay?" to "How could you have broken up?" to "I knew this was going to happen!"

Such messages often reopened wounds and put the breakup front and center in the recipients' minds, even if they were starting to move on.

Surveillance ubiquitous

Nearly all of the participants were tempted to keep tabs on the ex online.

"Most say they do not want to go to their exes' profile, but at the end of the day, the temptation is so high that they're constantly going back," Quan-Haase said.

The ability to see a former lover partying or snuggling with a new love can also be extremely stressful for people; some felt that the ex was flaunting his or her newly single status, whereas the observer was trying to "keep a low profile," Quan-Haase said.

About half of the participants removed photos of themselves with the ex or deleted the former partner from their friends' list altogether. Those who had deleted their ex from their Facebook friends reported a much higher level of emotional distress about the split than those who remain friends; the researchers hypothesize that people who wind up unfriending an ex are more likely to have had a stormy split in the first place, Quan-Haase said.

And those who clung to the hope of reuniting with their partners found social media much more distressing than those who didn't want to get back together, the researchers found. Such people were also more likely to Facebook stalk their former boyfriends or girlfriends online. Some, who were unfriended, even took to begging friends to log in to Facebook to provide a glimpse of what the ex was up to, Quan-Haase said.

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.