It used to be that when you broke up with someone you'd mostly be able avoid all traces them while you allowed yourself to heal from the heartbreak.
But social media has changed the game when it comes to the end of a relationship. With our lives all documented online, it's more than a little tempting to sneak a peek at your ex's accounts to find out what they're up to.
So tempting in fact, that recent research, by Digital PR agency Reboot Online, found almost a quarter of Brits admit to checking their ex-partner's social media channels weekly, while an even more dedicated 13% admit to doing it daily.
While it may seem harmless having a scroll of your former flame's recent pictures and likes, social cyber-stalking an ex can actually have a pretty significant impact on your mental wellbeing. What's more it can actually compound the pain of the breakup and lengthen the time it takes you to get over it.
"Navigating through the intricacies of post-breakup dynamics in the digital age reveals a curious phenomenon: the compelling urge to cyber-stalk an ex-partner," explains psychologist and relationship advisor Barbara Santini.
"This behaviour, as research suggests, isn't merely a fleeting act of curiosity but a manifestation of deeper emotional undercurrents that merit a closer examination."
Santini says behind the compulsion to cyber check-up on your ex lies a spectrum of emotions, ranging from nostalgia and love to hurt and betrayal.
"The digital echo of a past relationship offers a peculiar form of solace as well as torment," she continues. "It's akin to keeping a wound open, where the pain is both a reminder of what was lost and a distorted connection to the person once dearly held."
The ease of access to snippets of an ex's life fuels this behaviour, Santini says, offering a false sense of proximity and insight into a world where one no longer belongs.
But where does this desire to keep tabs on a former flame come from?
"The psychological underpinning of cyber-stalking stems from an innate human desire for narrative completion," Santini says. "Our brains are wired to seek stories with a beginning, middle, and an end; when a relationship concludes abruptly or unsatisfactorily, we're left grappling with an open-ended narrative. The quest for closure, thus, drives individuals towards their ex's online profiles, in hopes of finding answers or piecing together a more coherent ending to their story."
Unfortunately, however, this former love voyeurism can have far-reaching consequences for our mental health.
"Engaging in regular cyber-stalking can significantly impact one's mental wellbeing, creating a vortex of negative emotions," Santini continues. "This act, often done in secrecy, can lead to increased feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
"It perpetuates the idealisation of the past, hindering the emotional processing required to move forward. Moreover, the curated nature of social media can evoke feelings of inadequacy and jealousy, presenting an illusion that the ex-partner is thriving without you, regardless of the reality of their situation."
Santini says social media stalking can also fuel a cycle of comparison and self-doubt, shifting the focus from self-healing to an obsessive analysis of an ex's perceived happiness.
"Such a cycle not only delays the healing process but can also erode one's self-esteem, as the person engages in a silent dialogue with a past that no longer exists in the present context," she adds.
Thankfully, there are some measures you can take to get on the path of healing.
How to break the cycle of ex cyber-stalking
Confront the root cause
Understanding the emotional void that cyber stalking attempts to fill is crucial, Santini says. "Acknowledging and addressing these underlying feelings through therapy or self-reflection can pave the way for healthier coping mechanisms," she explains.
Reclaim your narrative
Instead of seeking closure through an ex's social media, focus on creating a narrative that centres on personal growth and future aspirations. "This shift in perspective empowers individuals to reclaim their story, emphasising resilience and self-discovery.
Do a digital detox
Temporarily or permanently stepping away from social media can be a transformative step towards healing. "It allows for a break from the triggers that fuel the urge to cyber stalk and offers a chance to reconnect with oneself and the immediate physical world," Santini explains.
If you choose to return to social media you could also consider erasing all digital traces of your ex from browsers, social media, and even camera rolls.
"Breaking up is tough, but letting go of digital ties should be straightforward," explains Naomi Aharony, managing director at Reboot, which offer an Ex-IT service.
“We're erasing the traces of past relationships from your digital footprint, giving you a clean slate online. No more unintentional encounters or awkward reminders – just a precise, data-focused breakup."
Callisto Adams, dating and relationships expert says removing all ties with an ex partner can have positive benefits for wellbeing.
"To grow, we need to create the optimal environment," she explains. "When we continuously seek comfort in places that no longer exist we get lost, or worse, we get used to the pain because it once made us happy, and social media is huge in helping to worsen this pain.
"Things won’t change even if you continue to follow your ex on social media," she continues. "People spend years cultivating a loving relationship, and you’re absolutely allowed to grieve its loss. But surrounding yourself with things that remind you of your ex-partner is only hurting you and constantly causing you to take a step back."
Cultivate new interests
Engaging in new activities or hobbies can redirect focus and energy towards self-improvement and fulfilment. "This not only aids in building a new identity independent of the past relationship but also enhances self-esteem and joy," Santini adds.
Build a support system
Surrounding yourself with friends, family, or support groups who understand and support your journey can provide the emotional scaffolding needed to move past the urge to cyber stalk.
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