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'It's complicated': Handling social media when your relationship implodes

By Sarah LeTrent, CNN
updated 9:33 AM EDT, Fri October 7, 2011
What happens when a mobile society meets relationship disasters?
What happens when a mobile society meets relationship disasters?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Popular social media outlets make breaking up even harder to do, and more public
  • Some people use social media as a way to keep tabs on potential partners
  • Source: If you trust your partner offline, you should as well online

(CNN) -- Back in the day, when couples began dating exclusively, they called it "going steady." Now, they're more likely to make it "Facebook official."

But when relationships go sour, instead of simply returning a varsity jacket or pin and letting the news trickle through the gossip grapevine, popular social media outlets make breaking up even harder to do -- and more public.

Enter the dreaded status change, or perhaps worse, the unfollow: an instantaneous way to let your "friends" and followers on the Web know of your relationship woes in this age of oversharing.

A single "what's on your mind" entry or 140-character tweet can quickly turn your Facebook mini-feed or Twitter stream into a virtual episode of "The Jerry Springer Show."

It's an online ordeal that Las Vegas resident Sharon Chayra knows all too well.

In May, Chayra and her boyfriend, who were "Facebook official," called it quits. Aware that her friends would see the split when she changed her status back to "single," she immediately removed the update from her mini-feed.

Despite her attempts to minimize news of the breakup online, Chayra's ex-boyfriend launched a virtual tirade against her.

"I was able to read his page and did so for about maybe a few weeks after our split," she said. "Then I realized reading his wall was like taking a hammer to my fingers every time and rapping them to exquisite pain -- so I stopped."

Manhattan psychologist Joseph Cilona says people are more likely to share aspects of their love life when emotions are most heightened: during the "honeymoon phase" or when a relationship comes to an end.

"The reality is that there is always a very high possibility that any romantic relationship might not work out at some point, so it's really wise to think ahead and circumvent these kinds of problems," he said.

"Sharing information about personal life, particularly details about romantic relationships, is often related to needs for external validation, approval or admiration," Cilona added. "The underlying emotional subtext of this kind of behavior might be stated as trying to communicate the message: 'I am valuable because someone loves me.' "

Users should share personal information with those who are important to them through more direct and private means, he said.

But with more than 800 million active Facebook users, relationship disclosure is nothing out of the ordinary.

In fact, some people use social media as a way to keep tabs on potential partners. The Facebook Breakup Notifier app allows users to choose friends whose relationship status they'd like to track.

So what's a couple of normal social media-crossed lovers to do?

"Our advice to dating couples who break up -- and hopefully the breakup has occurred face-to-face and not from a status update or text -- is to unfriend or block the ex," said Jason Krafsky, who co-wrote the book "Facebook and Your Marriage" with his wife, Kelli.

"We have heard too many horror stories of the one with a broken heart self-inflicting themselves with a longer bout of heartache by watching the every move of their ex on Facebook. By removing them from your Facebook life, this allows the necessary emotional healing to occur ... for both people."

It gets even trickier with location-based apps, Jason Krafsky said, where a virtual episode of "Jerry Springer" can quickly turn into a feature presentation of "Fatal Attraction" -- even if the relationship is still on good terms.

"Where things go south is when they are using the platform to monitor or stalk their mate's every move because they don't trust them," he said. "If this is surfacing in a person's relationship, stop using the feature, have a conversation with the mate to try working on the relationship, and give it some time before you start checking in online again."

Netiquette and relationship expert Julie Spira has the same perspective regarding micro-blogging forum Twitter: Trust is key.

"If you trust your partner offline, you should as well online," said Spira, author of "The Rules of Netiquette: How to Mind Your Manners on the Web."

"If you're not dating exclusively, I suggest taking a digital pass on following him or her. He might say he's at home sick for the evening, while you're gazing at his latest rendezvous in a TwitPic photo. When in doubt, don't. It's not worth a digital fight."

And if you're just an innocent bystander who wants to console your newly single friend, Spira said the polite thing to do is respect their privacy.

"Showing you care can be appreciated," she said, "but people feel uncomfortable when there's a breakup involved."

If you're the newly single friend, Spira suggests exercising your executive veto power over posts from those well-meaning bystanders.

"Any comments on your status change on Facebook that make you feel bad or sad should be deleted from your feed. It's best to send the commenter a private message on Facebook and let them know why you deleted their comment," Spira advised. "After all, you do want to have supportive friends, both online and offline.

"We're developing relationships online and connecting with people from our past," she said. "Our social media friends become our digital cheerleaders, which I believe is a good thing -- in moderation."

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