The Digital Ties That Bind: Love, Loss and Oversharing in the Internet Age

Why saying goodbye to someone you loved is more difficult than ever

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The most serious relationship of my life so far ended last summer without a trace — physically at least. There was no ceremonious “return of the stuff” because there was nothing to return. No boxes of photos and trinkets, no mix tapes, nothing.

There was, however, an extensive virtual trail: thousands of IMs, texts, Tweets, Facebook pictures and Instagram posts. And that’s a lot harder to get rid of than a toothbrush. Love might die, but its digital counterpart never does. There’s just no way to completely scrub your digital self from a relationship in 2014, no quick way to sever digital ties once they’ve been formed and no easy way to tell your social media networks that you’re no longer together.

Of course you can untag pictures and break up on Facebook, but for those who’ve shared a lot, the digital impression of couplehood remains very much alive. That presence has been established so publicly that there’s no way to maintain an “out of this relationship” message proclaiming, “In case you missed it, we are broken up!”

For people who live online like I do, the very lifecycle of a breakup has been redefined. It’s not enough to put someone out of your mind — you must allow for others to notice the slow fade of that person’s presence on your feeds. Eventually there’s the hushed question: “Did you guys break up? I noticed he’s not in any of your pictures anymore.” People almost sound ashamed to have noticed, but perhaps it’s the sharers who are ashamed for having documented the love affair so completely and publicly in the first place.

Our social media trails are an incredibly intimate digital diary that we allow the entire world to click through. So it’s not surprising that for many of us dating has become performance art, and both our closest friends and our most casual acquaintances have a front row seat. This is particularly true for millennials like me who’ve grown up with the idea of having an audience of friends and supporters and expecting instant and constant feedback — whether it’s coming from our mother or a person we once knew at summer camp. It’s part of our DNA. But it’s hard not to wonder whether that craving for approval from all those far-flung friends is changing the way we bond and interact with the people we love. 

We’ve all grown accustomed to seeing others chronicle their personal milestones like proposals, marriage and babies. What would have been a private moment 15 years ago is now a public achievement as well. And the rewards are tangible: Facebook is engineered to elicit an emotional high, but the constant comparisons make us sadder, less satisfied and more sensitized to the lives of others. “Fear of missing out” — once reserved for the party pictures we knew would come if we stayed home on a Saturday night — has progressed to a gut concern over the life stage we think we should have reached based on what our high school and college friends are sharing on Facebook.   

It is in this hothouse of competition that we create a second, vibrant form of ourselves online. We cultivate the image of a happy couple or simply a very happy person with many friends. Every day we declare who we are with a simple retweet or post. Every day we curate our digital personas. And yet it’s incomplete. No one captures their tiffs or disagreements and boasts about them on social media — we keep those skeletons in our virtual closets. We become “Facebook official” as evidence of couplehood, and yet, the mere act of changing that status can feel so painful: a public proclamation of something that no longer exists. (Why does Facebook give you 12 options for changing your relationship status and only one way to like something?)

And while the public-facing relationship, documented day after day, might have looked perfect, a breakup forces us to reconcile our public selves with the private heartbreak. All the Tweeting and texting and posting communication stops and the performance meets reality. All of the supportive likes and “you look so happy together” comments start to feel empty. And the ego-boosting affirmation that came with them turns to a uniquely public form of embarrassment. In fact, some of the moments we regret most on Facebook involve the “emotional” content tied to dating and relationships. Watching our Facebook “Look Back” videos is a reminder of just how much we’ve chronicled, and maybe some memories we “might not want to actually remember.” It won’t be long before we have a presidential candidate whose high school Facebook photos are held against him or her.

But perhaps there’s already a backlash to this kind of performance underway with the rising popularity of anonymity apps like Whisper and Secret or the disappearing documentation of apps like Snapchat.

And while I often preach the importance of online authenticity, I’m left questioning what the digital age can and cannot capture, and what we are even trying to capture in the first place. So much of life is too complicated and messy and complex to be portrayed publicly, and relationships certainly fall into that category. I wonder if it is the braver and bolder decision to hold on to our privacy.