Facebook: Keeping up with the exes

Sometimes, taking a ride on the information superhighway leads to an emotional crash.

Allison Fingerett

I couldnâÄôt bring myself to do it. All I had to do was click the little âÄúXâÄù next to his name and deletion would be complete. But I tried that. And Facebook asked me, verbatim, âÄúAre you sure you want to remove your connection to [your ex-boyfriend]?âÄù At which point I sat and pondered the enormity of that statement. No clicks were made. Better luck next time. It all started with a thirst for knowledge that I would classify as shameful. When he moved away some months ago, IâÄôd made peace with his absence. But when I found out he was living with a girl whoâÄôd recently changed her relationship status to a fully intact heart, I became a private investigator. Before I continue with this self-deprecating story, letâÄôs argue semantics. âÄúStalkingâÄù is a term that is commonly used tongue-in-cheek in reference to activities on Facebook. But itâÄôs rather misinformed. Stalking, in the true sense of the word, involves âÄúintent to instill fear or injury.âÄù Those of us who wish to put off homework by reading a succession of status updates from a long-lost love donâÄôt often fall into this category. But if our exes knew we were looking and attaching weight to what we find, itâÄôs likely theyâÄôd be sufficiently freaked out. Dr. Colleen Sinclair, assistant professor of social psychology at Mississippi State University, informed me of the term âÄúobsessive relational intrusion,âÄù which fits much better. ItâÄôs defined, in this case, as repeated invasion of symbolic privacy. Unless your ex is pure evil, those pictures of him or her arm-in-arm with someone else were not meant for you. So if youâÄôre waiting in the wings as an item on their âÄúfriendsâÄù list, it may be time to wonder why youâÄôre still there. Before I committed to a topic that would effectively out me as having obsessive tendencies, I had to make sure this was a common experience. So I went to my favorite captive audience: the passengers on the Campus Connector. âÄúHave you ever âÄòstalkedâÄô an ex on Facebook?âÄù I asked, sure to include air quotes around the most succinct term I knew at the time. Throughout several days, I was met with only three âÄúnoâÄù responses in a sea of resounding âÄúyes.âÄù Almost every student I posed the question to felt the need to follow their answer with, âÄúsometimes you just want to see what theyâÄôre up to, you know?âÄù Which is when I had to intervene and probe them as to whether that was their actual intention or the one they comfortably told themselves when they engaged in such behavior. âÄúWell âĦ thereâÄôs a fine line between curiosity and masochism,âÄù said a female in response to my reality check. So why do we do this? It hurts. And many of the pin-pricks are based on nothing more than inference. Truth be told, IâÄôve invented a fantastical relationship for my ex and his new lady love. In my mind, theyâÄôre blissfully happy, and he tells her heâÄôs never felt this way about anyone. All that from a status update of his that said simply, âÄúDefinitely not bored.âÄù According to Sinclair, approximately 35 percent of people engage in behaviors that fall under the broad umbrella of obsessive relational intrusion. Surely there must be a reason why so many of us sheepishly visit places on the Internet that we know may behold landmines of inconvenient truth. âÄúWe have a social norm that recommends persistence in the face of adversity,âÄù Sinclair said. Romantic comedies are rife with protagonists who refuse to let go, and by the time the end credits roll, their determination proves useful in convincing the other person that they are meant to be together. Such persistence can manifest in indirect tactics, like surveillance. Knowledge is power, after all. What I sought to understand were the psychological processes that underlie these actions and why it is that I can keep clicking, even when I know IâÄôve gone too far. Dr. Tai J. Mendenhall, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, pointed to something called the âÄúreverse placebo effect,âÄù which he described as similar to what people do when they research new medication on the Internet. âÄúTheyâÄôre not satisfied by finding good things; they often keep going until they find something bad,âÄù Mendenhall said. When I asked him why the human mind is wired in such a way, he spoke of the evolutionary function of anxiety and pessimism, citing the paranoid cavemanâÄôs ability to spot a true threat, stay alive and pass along his genes. So what can you do if you find yourself picking at the scabs of heartbreak, even though you know you shouldnâÄôt? All the professionals suggested replacing the behavior with something healthier, which can sometimes involve self-imposed barriers, like deletion, blocking or full-on Internet abstinence. Yesterday was ValentineâÄôs Day, and by the time you read this, the pictures will have already started to roll in. If you havenâÄôt deleted your exes from Facebook, you may be met with pangs of unease. Why subject yourself to that, even if the pain is fleeting? We can do this. All together now. I made a list of all the reasons why I was unwilling to sever our digital connection. And lo and behold, none of them had any bearing in reality. So I have to do it. I have to delete him. He knows how to find me if he needs me, and hopefully, if and when that day comes, I will have allowed myself to heal. ItâÄôs just an âÄúX,âÄù but it represents the eradication of my self-sabotage. So here we go. Facebook canâÄôt faze me now âÄî IâÄôm quite sure this time. Allison Fingerett welcomes comments at [email protected]