Breaking up in the age of Facebook

After a cyber affair destroyed her relationship, this new mom couldn't help but snoop on ex's Facebook profile. Here's help for parents navigating their social networks after a separation.

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In the wake of her separation from her husband, just months after the birth of their first child, Allison Hall* found herself obsessively scanning her ex’s Facebook wall. She was trying to figure out what his life was like since a cyber affair broke up their marriage: Had the online flirtation blossomed into something physical? And who exactly was this other woman? But the more the Calgary mom rifled through his status updates and photos, the worse she felt. “I was at home with a tiny infant, and I felt publicly humiliated in front of every ‘friend’ we both had online. It was awful.”

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Just a few months earlier, Hall seemed to have it all. But while friends were busy “liking” photos of her sweet son, she was trying to make sense of a devastating Facebook message sent by a total stranger. “This women had copied and pasted a month of intimate correspondence between herself and my husband,” says Hall. “It destroyed my trust in him—this man I thought I knew.” The relationship didn’t survive it, and soon after he moved out. But Hall couldn’t help herself from snooping, as heartbreaking as it was.

Shannon Birk, a registered clinical counsellor from Vancouver, says it’s important to create space between you and your former partner after a breakup, both for personal healing and for the fragile new family dynamic. If you’re constantly searching through your ex-partner’s Facebook profile, desperate for a tidbit of information about his or her life post-split, you’re harming yourself more—and quite possibly your kids, too. “These behaviours initiate a competitive cycle and lead to a lot of rumination and hurt,” she says.

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If you can’t stop yourself from clicking on a link or photo that might cause more heartache, there’s another option: log out. “Social media can be a powerful connector, but it can also be an isolating force,” says Kate Trgovac, a Vancouver social-media expert. “We see friends living these impossibly amazing lives, and it can push us into a light funk or even a deep depression.” Consider unplugging and spending time with good friends—go for a long walk or host a movie marathon on a weekend without the kids.

When you’re ready to end your social-media sabbatical, Trgovac recommends giving yourself a few ground rules if you plan to interact online with your co-parent. “‘Liking’ an ex’s status is a nice lighthearted way to engage without being too committed,” she says. And when it comes to commenting, she suggests, “Keep it friendly and breezy: ‘Looks like fun!’ or ‘Love that shirt!’”

Some splits, however, call for more drastic measures. “If I discovered my partner was cheating and we decided to split up, I would unfriend or unfollow that person,” says Trgovac. Even if your separation wasn’t acrimonious, a clean break is often the best way to start moving on.

But what if social-media gossip finds you even when you’re not looking for it? Cal Tinsmen,* a 33-year-old dad from Coquitlam, BC, avoids Facebook and isn’t terribly interested in Twitter. Tinsmen and his wife co-parent his six-year-old daughter with his former fiancée. The relationship between the two households is tenuous at best, so it doesn’t help when he’s fed details about her from friends and family members she’s still connected with on Facebook. It’s hard to be civil when you’re told the mother of your child is posting lewd photos from a boozy trip to Mexico with her new beau, inciting concerns about how she conducts herself when she’s parenting your child.

“Friends should be a support mechanism, not online spies,” says Trgovac. She cautions that you’re never really getting the full picture from someone’s carefully curated Facebook timeline. What’s more, Tinsmen’s pals are doing him a disservice by keeping him focused on the past. She suggests he politely ask his friends to stop reporting back.

So what happens when you or your ex meet the next Mr. or Mrs. Right? When you enter a relationship post-breakup, it’s important to remember your children: Instagramming a photo of yourself smooching a new fling before you’ve introduced him to the kids, for example, is probably a poor choice. Even after everyone has met, it’s still a smart idea to tread lightly when posting about your budding romance, especially if your new love interest is also a parent. Just imagine how you’d feel if you found out your ex’s girlfriend was sharing pictures of herself cozied up to your child. If that does happen, “Don’t freak out,” says Trgovac. Her advice if you can’t resist commenting? “Just focus on your kids and make sure your words are supportive, like ‘Looks like you’re having a good time.’”

Read more: Parenting through divorce — The Dos and Don’ts>

Also, no matter how much you crave the chance to vent, says Trgovac, don’t use this as an opportunity to criticize your former partner. Divorce lawyers can use your words against you. Also, your kids might see it someday. The golden rule? Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in person. And if you do have real concerns, talk to your ex off-line so your friends (and potentially the world) aren’t privy to your private disagreements.

In an instantly accessible cyber world, temptation to snoop and obsess is everywhere. So we need to be clear-eyed in our online actions and be careful that we’re not making things worse for ourselves and our families. The best way to battle those social-media demons is to remind yourself that, really, it’s all for show. “You have a lot of healing to do after a breakup,” says Trgovac. “Social media just keeps opening up the wounds and pouring salt, lemon juice, gasoline and other toxic substances on them.”

*name has been changed

A version of this article appeared in our July issue with the headline “Breaking up in the age of Facebook,” p. 38.

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