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Here’s why you keep checking your ex’s social media… and how you can stop

When breaking up with a partner, it’s generally advised to cut off all contact, both in-person and online. EL PAÍS spoke with psychologists about what to do when you can’t avoid the temptation to see what your ex is up to

Woman texting with her phone
It’s normal to fall into the temptation to spy on our ex via social media.

A few years ago, on an episode of Carpool Karaoke – with a lie detector strapped to her chest – model and influencer Kendall Jenner laughingly answered “Yes!” when asked if she had ever created a fake Instagram account to see what her ex-boyfriend was up to.

Creating a fake account – without providing identifying data – allows you to snoop around an ex-partner’s social media anonymously, without fear of appearing among the viewers of a story, or of mistakenly liking a suspiciously old photo at an ungodly hour. Sometimes, it’s not even necessary to make a fake account: in many breakups, partners don’t take each other off of social media. This makes it even easier to give in to the temptation to see what an ex is doing.

According to data from Pew Research, in 2019, 53% of social media users in the United States had used a platform to stalk their ex’s profile at least once. While it’s not a healthy activity to indulge in scrolling through an ex’s social media account – an activity that 70% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 engage in – it’s certainly widespread.

After looking up an ex on social media, nobody tends to feel any better. So, why do we keep doing it?

“There may be several reasons behind this behavior,” explains Gabriela Paoli, a psychologist specializing in technological addictions. The most obvious one is curiosity. By no longer having a person in our lives, a kind of substitute is sought in that virtual presence. “We’re curious to know what [our ex] is doing, or who they’re with… by obtaining that information, a pseudo-connection is produced,” the psychologist notes. She indicates that, in these situations, a certain degree of emotional dependence likely existed in the relationship.

Paoli also mentions the fear of loneliness as one of the reasons that lead many people to their ex’s social media profiles. “Separation can cause a void – this is like an attempt to keep the other person in your life.”

Carmen González Hermo – from the College of Psychologists of Galicia, Spain – agrees that this is a method of trying to fill the void that remains over time. “There’s a void in the things we do [after a breakup] – your habits change. What you knew about the other person previously occupied time in your life. Talking to that person, being with that person… the mind tends to go to what’s familiar, to maintain old habits. It’s as if [the mind wants to] continue occupying that time [with that person],” he emphasizes.

For psychologist Yolanda Medina Mesa, this phenomenon also has a lot to do with how a relationship was and how a breakup played out. “If, during the relationship as a couple, what was built and normalized was a relationship of control – and if the reason for the breakup was due to infidelity or lies – we can say that it’s normal for someone to scroll through [their ex-partner’s] social media to somehow control that person’s life, [mimicking] what occurred during the relationship.”

On the other hand, Paoli adds, sometimes it’s simply boredom that leads to this behavior “[Maybe] you’re lying on the sofa or in bed and you start thinking about that person with whom you’ve just broken up with or separated from. You go see what they’re doing, what they’ve uploaded. Boredom is usually bad company at times like these,” she warns.

When a breakup is in the recent past, this behavior is more common… but sometimes, it’s done when ex-partners are long gone. In these cases, again, curiosity usually has a lot to do with it, Paoli says… although it can also be a sign that things aren’t over.

This activity isn’t always something to worry about. Checking an Instagram profile once or twice – especially when it belongs to someone you were in a romantic relationship with – doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a problem. But how can you tell if this behavior has become pathological?

Paoli – who often sees this behavior in her consultations – indicates that it depends mainly on the frequency with which we find ourselves checking up on an ex, as well as the intensity we feel after doing so. “I think that a person knows perfectly well how to distinguish what is something specific and fleeting, from what is becoming an obsession,” she reflects.

To make a clear distinction, González Hermo suggests examining how we feel afterwards. “If our hearts aren’t calm – if we feel sadness or anger or envy – it’s better not to do it,” she advises. She does admit that this is kind of a vicious cycle, because by not going on an ex’s social media, we return to “feeling anxiety [that] fills the void.” Social media, she adds, has made it much easier to stay informed about an ex. In the past, you had to do a deep search, or ask someone who knew them. When we somehow feel like we’re filling that void – even if it doesn’t make us feel better – it’s much harder to stop.

If the behavior “begins to interfere with our personal, social, family, or work life,” adds Medina Mesa, this is worrisome. The ideal is to stop long before reaching that point.

In a song from the second season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, another aspect of this behavior is mentioned: not looking at your ex’s social media, but looking at their new partner’s social media. This is another version of the bottomless online pit.

Looking at an ex’s social media profiles also makes it difficult to properly mourn the relationship. “You have to do the same as in ‘real’ life. Just as you try not to run into that person or interact with their friends or family, on a virtual level, you should remove them from social media, or even block them if you can’t control yourself from looking them up. Constant contact – even if it’s just seeing that they’re online on WhatsApp, with no interaction – makes it difficult to grieve faster, more effectively and in a healthier way,” explains Gabriela Paoli.

The psychologist has even come up with a formula to keep us away from our ex-partner’s Instagram. “The formula [consists of] acceptance, support and pleasant activities.” In other words, the first step is to accept the situation and keep in mind that, the sooner virtual communication is cut off, the faster and easier it will be to overcome the breakup.

“We’re seeing real anxiety crises in consultations… a lot of discomfort as a result of being connected through devices,” she explains. González Hermo adds that, by constantly being aware of what an ex is doing, we’re giving space and time in our lives to someone who is no longer there. “You have to grieve – like when someone dies – but in this case, you have to take into account that this person isn’t there because they don’t want to be there, or because [you both] decided that it should be that way. It’s not like remembering someone who has passed away,” she clarifies.

The second part of Paoli’s formula – support – consists of “relying unconditionally on friends and family.” The third – pleasurable activities – is all about finding pleasurable activities that keep us active, healthy and distracted.

Paoli also mentions a fourth thing that can be added to this formula: “Seeking help from a mental health professional can help you carry out this process in a healthier, faster way and, above all, offer you resources and strategies to support yourself.”

We must also be aware of how we feel and act accordingly, recommends González Hermo. “[You have to] treat yourself with affection, seek rest and comfort, and the support of the people who love [you].”

“If [you’re experiencing] envy, you must attend to what you have. When someone leaves us, it doesn’t take anything away from us that’s truly important. Everything that I believe that person gave me is really what I already had,” she says.

The ultimate goal is to simply not have any interest in seeing an ex’s profile on social media. “The reasons why the relationship is broken are [the] reality checks… following this reasoning, we won’t have any interest in seeing the profile of our ex, since we’ll be aware of what we want and what we don’t want,” Medina Mesa concludes. Perhaps the most difficult task is making ourselves forget that all the updated information about someone from our past is only a couple of clicks away.

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