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How to have a clean breakup in the social media age

by Alexandra Samuel

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Technology made my last breakup possible.

I’d spent nearly a year romancing a man who was brilliant, handsome, and kind, but so emotionally distant that it was clear the relationship wasn’t going to work. Yet every time we came close to breaking up, we backed away; there was still enough affection (and attraction) to keep us hanging on.

When I finally decided that I’d had enough, I knew it would take all of my resolve to end things. I grabbed a box and tore through my apartment, sweeping up everything he’d left at my place over our months together. Then I got in my car and drove the mile to his house. Before I knocked on the door, I set a 45-minute timer labeled “break up”. I knew the prospect of an alarm going off mid-breakup would ensure that I’d be swift in delivering my news, rather than getting sucked into another reconciliation.

Sure enough, it worked. I stunned him with the finality of my decision, gathered up my belongings and made it out the door—ten minutes before the alarm detonated on my PalmPilot.

Yes, a PalmPilot: the mid-’90s forerunner to today’s smartphones. That’s how long it’s been since I last went through a breakup. The tech-enabled tidiness of that termination not only got me out of the wrong relationship, it helped me get ready for the right relationship—the one I’ve been in for the past twenty years.

But social media makes it much harder to achieve that kind of tidiness today. That’s why it’s helpful to have a social media strategy for your breakup. Here’s what to cover:

Manage the news cycle

If your romance was serious enough to make it into your Facebook relationship status, you’ll need to officially declare yourself single again. If you don’t want a wave of consolation messages, you can make your relationship info private (set the visibility to “only me” when making this change). That way Facebook doesn’t blast your relationship news to everyone you know.

If you want to share what happened with a circle of friends, reach out them personally. Keep it short and to-the-point; imagine your message being forwarded to your ex (or published to the world) and you’ll see why it doesn’t pay to spew bitterness or vulnerability.

Take a break

For your first week or so post-breakup, consider taking a social media break. That way you won’t stumble across your ex’s posts while you’re still at your most vulnerable. This will also help you resist the urge to broadcast your heartbreak in a way that may later make you feel over-exposed.

Disconnect from your ex

Even if you take a social media break, you’ll eventually need to create some online distance between you and your ex. That means unfollowing them on Twitter and Instagram, and unfriending on Snapchat. Facebook gives you a non-nuclear option: you can stay friends, but unfollow your ex so you don’t see their updates, and put them on your restricted list so they only see your public posts.

Resist temptation

The most important rule for surviving a breakup in the digital era: don’t look up your ex. Don’t look at their Facebook wall, don’t look at their Instagram feed, don’t read their tweets and don’t Google them. To keep your ex from popping up in your own social media history, stick all your old Facebook photos in a single album, so you can download the photos (to look at ten years from now) and delete them from Facebook itself.

Protect your heart

Breakups are a time to be gentle with yourself, and that applies to your life online as well. Now is not to the time to hang out with people who make you feel insecure or anxious, or to read novels about people who miss out on true love only to curl up and die. So get the depressing news off your online radar, and equally, avert your eyes from people who only share their airbrushed moments of romantic happiness. Seek out sites, people, and news sources that make you feel good.

Create your new life online

As you’re going through the breakup process, as well as looking back over relationship-era posts to clean up any difficult reminders, start thinking about the next iteration of your online life. Are there interests, friendships or communities you set aside during your romance, or which you’ve long meant to explore? Now is your chance to branch out, and to start discovering the kind of person you can be without your ex. The purpose here is not to “win” the breakup by creating an online evidence trail for your fabulous new single life (that’s not only ungenerous but is likely to backfire by looking fake). Rather, you’re creating the profile of a single you, in all your glory.

This process will not only help you heal but when the time comes to start dating again (whenever that is), it will ensure you have a social media presence that feels like a whole person, rather than a presence that feels like a bunch of couple photos with one person’s picture cut out.

Alexandra Samuel

Alexandra Samuel is a technology speaker and writer, and the author of Work Smarter with Social Media: A Guide to Managing Evernote, Twitter, LinkedIn and Your Email (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015). Her work appears regularly in The Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review and JSTOR Daily. Follow her on Twitter @awsamuel.