Facebook may soon be helping you manage your relationships with your exes. According to recent news reports (link is external), the social media website is testing new tools that will allow those who have recently broken up with an ex to control how much they see of their partner’s Facebook activity without having to unfriend the ex. These features include not having your ex’s updates appear in your feed, and the option to un-tag yourself from posts with your ex. Unfriending or blocking someone can be hurtful to him/her, so you may be reluctant to do so, even if you feel it would be in your best interests to see less of your ex as you scroll through your newsfeed. These new features could allow people to avoid reminders of their exes without the awkwardness of directly blocking or unfriending them. Research on coping with break-ups suggests that Facebook has the right idea about how to deal with your ex.
First of all, constant reminders of your ex can be painful… sometimes literally. In one study, researchers found that those who looked at photographs of their exes while thinking about their break-ups showed greater brain activation in the same regions that were associated with their experiences of physical pain.1 If you’re still attached to your ex, but want to let go of the past, constant reminders will only make that harder. Contact with an ex is related to sadness and love for that person.2 Similarly, keeping tabs on your ex via Facebook is also related to that combination of negative feelings and longing.3 While those feelings of attachment to an ex may motivate the contact in the first place, it is likely part of a cycle where the contact itself also increases those feelings. In fact, studies on brain imaging suggest that these reminders keep us in that conflicted post-break-up state, where we know the relationship caused us pain, but still long for our ex-partners.4
And even if you do harbor hopes of getting back together with your ex, on-again/off-again relationships tend to be plagued with more problems than their stable counterparts.5 Sometimes it can be hard to stop yourself from reading your ex’s updates or looking at their photos, so these features make it a little easier to exercise self-control, since once you’ve enabled the features, you’d actually need to go to a deliberate effort to seek out those reminders of your ex.
Contact with ex-partners can also have negative consequences for our relationships with new partners. In one study that examined feelings about ex-partners and current partners over time, participants who longed for recent (but not distant) ex-partners were less satisfied with their new relationships 3 and 6 months later.6 This suggests that hanging onto feelings for a recent ex can hold back new relationships. If constant reminders on Facebook make it harder to get over your ex, as I just described, then those reminders will also make it harder for you to thrive in your new relationship. And to add to those difficulties, research has also shown that continuing contact with exes on Facebook can make current partners jealous.7
Often, the most destructive outcomes that come from Facebook contact between exes involve Facebook stalking behaviors and even harassment.8 But those inclined to harass their exes on Facebook clearly would not be using these features to see less of their exes. So if your partner is using Facebook to monitor or harass you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, then blocking or unfriending them is likely the best option for you.
So, if you’re trying to get over your ex, these Facebook features could help. If you’re still attached to your ex, you might find it hard to resist the urge to see what they’re up to on Facebook. But these new tools could help you give yourself the tough love that you need to move on.