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The ‘Voldemort syndrome’: When a breakup is so painful that you erase your ex

The digital realm makes it harder to pretend that someone you used to love does not exist. Still, people try

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Getty Images / Blanca López (collage)
Eva Güimil

At this point, we are used to all kinds of celebrities airing and monetizing their romantic misfortunes. The last quarter of the year, however, has brought a slightly different kind of breakup. As Vulture reported, actress Lupita Nyong’o has chosen to treat her ex as if he was Lord Voldemort, and his name shall cross her lips no more. For the uninitiated in all things Hogwarts, allow us to explain: Harry Potter’s archenemy is known as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” because saying it triggers untold evils.

Nyong’o confirmed the breakup with television host Selema Masekela, referring to said person on her Instagram account as “someone I can no longer trust.” She was tempted to “hide” until she felt stronger, but ended up sharing her experience on Instagram in the hope that it might help someone who is also going through heartbreak. The next thing she did was delete all the photos of the unmentionable from her social media accounts, before completing the rite of passage of every devastated individual who is convinced that they will never find love again: she adopted a cat.

Total erasure is such a common technique to overcome a breakup that it even has a name: sanitizing. In other words, completely cleaning up any virtual trace of your ex. People already did this since analog times, but instead of a digital recycling bin, a garbage can, or purifying fire, was used. “Out of survival instinct, after the relationship ended, I decided that I no longer knew my ex — not figuratively, but literally,” confesses Catalina, a 33-year-old journalist. “I got to the point that if I ran into him I pretended I didn’t know who he was.” She is aware that it was excessive, but claims that it served as shock therapy. “I tore up his photos and never named him again. I even changed my habits. I stopped doing everything we did together.”

Lupita Nyong'o
Actress Lupita Nyong'o in 2019.

The complicity of the inner circle is essential to carry out a kind of self-intervention, but sometimes not everyone cooperates. “My mother loved my ex more than me, and I know that it is hard for her to understand,” explains María, a 45-year-old public worker. “A breakup implies a change, a loss, even if it brings gains,” says psychologist Beatriz Cuervo. “Thus, we need to work on that mourning.”

Angélica, a 43-year-old editor, had already gone through a divorce, but it was a relatively short relationship (“it lasted less than a school year”) that made her change everything she thought about relationships. “Maybe because it was abrupt I had to try to erase him, at least in my material life, because he was still in my head. I asked the circle we had in common not to mention him and avoided the places where he might be. I began to act irrationally; I took detours to avoid places where it was almost impossible for him to be.” She admits that hearing about him, even inconsequential things, affected her. “I needed to build a moat between the two of us. I was stuck, obsessed, I thought about him all the time. I became a widow.”

The ubiquity of social media has contributed to making the longed-for oblivion difficult. The classics of romantic literature taught us that in the olden days, when faced with heartbreak, one could embark on a whaling ship heading to Newfoundland, or perhaps enter a convent, to create some distance and avoid unwanted encounters, but today the tentacles of the internet reach every last corner of the world – even whaling ships.

“Disassociating myself from her universe was easy because we didn’t live in the same city, but the damn digital footprint remains,” laments María. “Despite having her blocked on all social networks, I was recently scrolling on Instagram and came across a screenshot of something she had said on Twitter. How can you protect yourself from something so random? I immediately deleted my Twitter and Instagram accounts.”

The anxiety caused by the impossibility of accepting the pain can be incapacitating, but it is not always easy to find the tools we need to get out of the loop. “When the pain prevents us from moving on with our life, enjoying it and living the way we want instead of just surviving, it is time to ask for help,” says Cuervo. Angélica did it, although she first had to convince herself that it was not just a spoiled girl’s whim, something that an obnoxious television character would do. “My sister recommended therapy, but I ruled it out. I have a good job, a family that loves me, friends that take care of me. I believed that I had the tools to get out of the hole, until one day I suffered an anxiety attack after someone mentioned him, and I became so distressed that I thought I was going to have a heart attack.” Then she thought: “I’m not going to make my daughter an orphan because of that asshole.”

After four years of therapy, she can only be grateful to the people who recommended it. “It was essential to get over him. One day that I had to see him for a work-related issue, I was prepared, as if it was an exam; I was strong enough to face the situation. There are little flashes left, but now I know how to rationalize them.”

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