HASTY DECISIONS

The hidden emotional consequences of de-friending ex-pals and former flames

When my best friend told me that her long-term boyfriend had broken up with her via email, I bellowed a deafening “HELL no.” Then I Ubered straight to her apartment. We consumed excessive ice cream and doughnuts, laughed, cried, and of course, sought delicious social media revenge, unfollowing her ex on all forms of social media—even Venmo.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve gone on a de-friending rampage for myself or a pal, and it probably won’t be the last. In our networked world, unfollowing or blocking people who have hurt us is a common (and sometimes logical) instinct. It can seem like the easiest way to resolve conflict. But psychologists say that, emotionally, to de-friend first and analyze later is to enter complicated territory.

Of course, there are plenty of times when it’s fine to de-friend without overthinking it. Sometimes we’re just channeling our inner Marie Kondo: A Yale study found that we only recognize 72% of our Facebook friends. There’s no need to tell the distant acquaintances you’re unfollowing en masse why you’re giving them the boot. Sometimes we’re not acting out of spite, but would just prefer to our feeds to be clear of a former high-school classmate’s obnoxious rants or excessive selfies. And if the relationship in question is abusive or toxic, you should do whatever you need to in order to protect yourself.

Where things get more complicated is when we’re de-friending as a way to signal our feelings about a formerly close relationship. In some cases, it may actually be possible to resolve the conflict in question. Jen, a writer in New York City, decided to unfollow a once-close friend after feeling hurt by a string of perceived slights. It was clear to Jen that they’d drifted apart, and she saw the act of de-friending as a way to give herself closure.

The twist? A few months later, they had a heart-to-heart and made up. Jen’s friend admitted that she’d been hurt by Jen’s willingness to “throw away” the friendship without talking first—which was how she’d interpreted getting unfollowed on Facebook. As Grainne Kirwan, a psychologist specializing in cyberpsychology, explains, blocking can be “a hasty, emotion-based response to a stressful event, which may turn a difficult relationship phase into a non-salvageable one.”

De-friending during an emotional period can also be bad for our mental health. Scrubbing an ex from our Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat feeds, for example, may feel like a power move in the moment—but we can wind up feeling worse afterward. “Blocking causes us to ruminate about what the other person might be doing (as we no longer have insights from social media), or how they might have reacted to us blocking them (as they might have viewed this negatively),” says David Baker, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Lancaster University. “This could increase the likelihood of us feeling depressed. Furthermore, if we think of blocking in terms of wider psychological theory (not specifically related to online behavior), we know that avoidance or suppression (of a fear, thought, or feeling) is often ineffective and can actually serve to perpetuate that which we are trying to avoid.”

In other words, if the goal of de-friending someone on social media is to think about them less, the plan can often backfire. It’s easy to click “remove friend,” but nearly impossible to forget about someone you felt (or still feel) deeply about. Without updates about that person’s life, you’re inevitably left wondering what they’re up to, who they’re hanging out with, and whether they’re thinking about you. Such uncertainty can easily spin into obsession, and can also taint positive memories of former relationships.

“When you dispense with a person, the problem then comes that you still have this image in your brain about them, and it continually morphs and changes through time, adding negative elements—she was mean, he broke up with me, she cheated—as your relationship ends,” says Larry Rosen, an expert in the psychology of technology, and author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. If your relationship ended on a bad note, negative thoughts of the other person will cause your brain to release stress chemicals—regardless of whether you’ve blocked them on social media.

Sometimes a better alternative may be to mute or “hide” someone from your feed rather than go all out. But what should we do if we really do want to de-friend someone—without all the negative side effects? “The best solution,” Rosen says, “is for the two of you to mutually decide to delete each other on social media.” While the subject can be uncomfortable to broach, he suggests that having a discussion about the decision can be better for your mental health and the quality of your now-distant relationship.

What, exactly, should an unfriending note look like? It can be as brief as you like. But it should explain why you’ve come to the decision without placing blame on the other person and make clear that your intent is not to hurt them. For example, if you’re in the process of unfriending a longtime ex’s friends and family, you might write, “While I appreciated getting to know you while I was dating John, I’ve decided it’s best for my personal happiness if I avoid seeing or hearing about him on social media for the time being. This isn’t meant as a reflection of my feelings toward you, and I wish you all the best.”

By explaining the thinking behind your decision, and performing the act of unfriending openly and without malice, you set yourself up to feel more positively about yourself and your actions down the line, according to Rosen. In some cases, as with Jen and her friend, you may be able to resolve a conflict by openly discussing the emotions behind your instinct to unfollow.

And no matter what, you’ll feel more empowered when confronted with reminders of the other person. Spotting an Instagram post of your ex on a camping trip with a mutual friend may still be painful, but you’ll also be reminded that you made the mature decision to peacefully disconnect. In this way—awkward as it may seem—unfollowing conversations may be the key to a happier, healthier social life, both online and off.

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