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Unfollow? Block? And who gets custody of the WhatsApp groups? How to break up in the digital age

Unfollow? Block? And who gets custody of the WhatsApp groups? How to break up in the digital age

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Social media has made finding love easier, but ending relationships even messier. Here’s how to finish things online without losing your mind

When I was 16, back in 2009, I got my first boyfriend. The whirlwind romance began unexpectedly after a school trip and a few too many shots of cheap vodka. (Thankfully, the relationship outlasted the hangover.)

Until this point, I had watched from the sidelines as my friends’ doomed teen romances played out on MSN Messenger. Here, a sign of true love was adding a significant other’s initials to your screen name. Adding a crush to your MSN name was a Very Big Deal and when it, inevitably, fell apart, it would be dramatically replaced with a broken heart or some sad song lyrics.

Suddenly, I found myself participating in these adolescent online rituals. I was newly obsessed with Facebook at the time, and it had already warped my insecure young mind into thinking that the marker of a “real” relationship was one that was “Facebook official”. After I’d badgered my boyfriend for longer than I’d like to admit, he agreed to be “in a relationship” with me. The only problem was, we broke up two weeks later, so I had to declare myself “single” again. Oh, the indignity.

Social media has made it easier to find romantic connections and share them with the world, but it has also made the end of relationships much messier. With so much of our lives now lived online, there are more factors to consider at the end. Should you delete and block your ex on social media? Remove all photos of them from your Instagram? And what about the WhatsApp group chats you’re both a part of – who gets custody of those?

A good friend of mine recently faced this dilemma. Four years into her last relationship, she was finally invited to join her then-boyfriend’s family WhatsApp chat. But when they parted ways three years later, she agonised over the best way to exit the chat. “I felt really sad about leaving, because it was the main connection I had with his family,” she says. “So when we finally agreed that it was over, I composed the most dignified message I could and left.” This goodbye turned out to be a helpful way of making a very drawn-out breakup feel final.

Psychologist Ian MacRae, author of a new book, Dark Social, which looks at the negative side of social media, agrees that severing digital ties can be an important part of moving on. “In the past 10 years, there has been a lot of psychological research about the importance of forgetting as a process for refocusing our minds,” he says. A big problem with social media is that constantly seeing updates can make it harder to forget someone, particularly if we are “fed” memories and photos digitally by apps, perhaps of a special holiday or anniversary.

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“If you’re trying to be in control of what relationships you’re focusing on and what memories you choose to let go of, being fed that stuff externally can be counterproductive,” MacRae says. “So leaving a group chat or unfollowing someone can actually be a really healthy way of moving on.”

But forgetting an ex is not always that simple – as most people who have been through a tough breakup know. British Vogue’s dating columnist, Annie Lord, author of breakup memoir Notes on Heartbreak, says the road towards “cutting ties” digitally is often messy. “Seeing their Instagram story and crying, then screwing up and messaging them, is all part of the process,” she says. When it comes to stopping all contact, Lord thinks this can actually be a way of sending a coded message. “Blocking someone is a way to make yourself feel in control, like you’re doing something,” she says. “But you’re definitely still hoping they’ll notice, so it’s still a way of communicating with them.”

Social media encourages endless forms of this type of covert communication, which are hardly conducive to moving on from a breakup. Purposefully liking a mutual friend’s pictures, which your ex is bound to see, is a popular provocation. Another one is erasing them from your Instagram grid. “I find that horrible: the idea that those memories didn’t happen, or didn’t mean anything,” Lord says. “The scariest thing with breakups is the idea it was all a waste. That’s what someone deleting your pictures can feel like – as if you never existed.”

Deleting pictures of an ex might also be a step towards someone “rebranding” themselves as single. A lot of dating and hookup apps – like Hinge, Tinder and Grindr – have the option to link to Instagram, so it’s useful not to have potential partners seeing lots of coupled-up pictures. When it comes to rebranding, the idea of social media “soft-launching” went mainstream in 2022, when comedian Rachel Sennott tweeted: “congrats on the instagram soft launch of ur boyfriend.” (A “soft launch” is corporate jargon for introducing a new product – shampoo, toy, restaurant – to a limited group, so any flaws can be ironed out before it is made widely available.) Sennott’s joke went viral because it’s true: on social media it has become the norm to see people approach their romantic lives like this. Rather than opting for a big reveal, a new relationship – or newfound singledom – is instead hinted at and slowly introduced. Lord says soft-launching yourself as single is about striking a delicate balance. “Posting hot pics of yourself can feel empowering,” she says. “But if someone was looking at my pictures thinking ‘oh, she’s just gone through a breakup,’ I’d be embarrassed about giving off ‘big breakup energy.’”

Washington Post columnist Taylor Lorenz, who specialises in internet culture, thinks soft-launching shows how public relations strategies have become ingrained in our lives. The bizarre phenomenon of influencer breakup videos is another, much more blatant, form of PR. In 2022, YouTuber couple Liza Koshy and David Dobrik announced the end of their three-year relationship in a tearful breakup video.

It was viewed 17 million times in a matter of days, and felt representative of the public relationship that their fans – 20 million combined subscribers at the time – had watched unfold. “We saw them grapple with trying to maintain the openness their audience expects, while still communicating something personal,” says Lorenz. “These videos are also about trying to stop one person’s brand from taking a hit: if their followers think one person is at fault, their brand will suffer.”

Influencers who don’t approach breakups with the openness their followers expect can run into trouble. In 2022, lifestyle influencer Niomi Smart broke up with her fiance, but a lack of information about why sent some fans into a frenzy of speculation. “In the traditional PR world, saying as little as possible after a breakup puts you in a stronger position. That’s why celebrity couples would often put out a statement, then say nothing,” she says. “But in the new social media landscape, if you don’t put your narrative out there, people will create one for you.”

All this may sound far removed from everyday life people, where people are unlikely to post breakup videos. But it’s not unusual to see someone you know calling out their “cheating” ex on Facebook, which is a chaotic attempt at putting their narrative out there. In the past year, two couples I follow – by no means celebrities or influencers – posted short breakup statements on their Instagram Stories.

I’ve definitely found myself feeling oddly aggrieved (and very curious) when a relationship that was heavily promoted on social media suddenly ends. Without any explanation, I’m left to look for clues about what really happened. “Ordinary people are dealing with these pressures on a much smaller scale,” Lorenz says. “But influencer culture absolutely has trickled down and forced everyone to operate this way. There’s a spectator in all of our lives now.”

The minefield of digital breakups is partly why Adam, who contacted me on Twitter, doesn’t share his relationship on social media. “I used to be an over-sharer, probably to compensate for feeling insecure in my last relationship,” he says. “When [my boyfriend] broke up with me, knowing I had created that perfect image [of our relationship] only made me feel worse.” Now, he only occasionally shares pictures taken with his new boyfriend, using Instagram’s “close friends” feature.

This approach goes against the grain in a digital landscape where we’re encouraged to share as much as possible and a society where relationships are a status symbol. It also suggests a belief that if there’s no digital footprint of a relationship, you’re spared part of the breakup. If a relationship doesn’t live online, it doesn’t have to die there either. Although I don’t buy into that philosophy entirely, the fact that I’m still smarting about declaring myself “single” on Facebook 13 years ago proves that the digital side of breakups can stay with us.

Is there a “right” way to break up online? With so many digital curveballs being thrown our way, it’s about striking a balance: holding on to memories but also letting yourself forget things. Setting digital boundaries … and trying to stick to them. Being authentic, without oversharing. What you think is best for you in the moment, versus what is actually going to help you to move on and heal.

Perhaps the most important part of breaking up online is pushing back against social media’s influence. “The paradox here is that the more you deliberately try to forget someone, the more you’re strengthening those memories,” MacRae says. “If you’re likely to click on posts from your ex, these platforms will prioritise notifications about them.” A productive digital breakup will limit these unwanted reminders, at least initially. “If you’re getting into a social media spiral, turn off notifications or uninstall the app,” says MacRae. “This is healthy and can help you to focus on other things, instead of replaying what went wrong.”

But of course, some of this is much easier said than done. To resurrect a vintage Facebook-ism: it’s complicated.

Goodbye to all that … tips for breaking up digitally

Delete the apps
Chris-and-Gwyneth-style cordial breakups are great, but it’s hard to move on from someone if they’re still blowing up your notifications every day. This doesn’t have to be for ever, but initially it’s probably a good idea.

Say your goodbyes
Gracefully bow out of shared digital spaces, like family group chats, on your own terms. This can give you a sense of closure and adds a feeling of finality. Alternatively, create new group chats with shared friends.

Avoid indirect communication
Tempting as it is to post things with your ex in mind, hoping they’ll see you living your best life, it may not be the best thing to help either of you to move on.

Try not to cyber-stalk them
It’s now easier than ever to watch an ex’s every move. Again, it’s not wrong to look at stuff they’re posting, but it’s harder to get over them if you’re obsessing over their every move on Instagram.

Shift your focus
Getting over a breakup is about focusing on different relationships. Social media and messaging apps make it easier than ever to reconnect with friends, start new friendships and, when you’re ready, find someone new.

Topics

  • Relationships
  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • WhatsApp
  • YouTube
  • Social networking
  • features
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