Divorce in the Facebook era

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During a divorce, how do spouses navigate their social network relationships with each other? And with mutual friends and family?

This has emerged as a bizarre new layer of the breakup process, and I recently talked about my personal experience on the June 17 Talk of Iowa show about online etiquette. What follows are a few highlights and expanded thoughts. This post isn’t meant to be prescriptive, but it might provide clarity for someone going through the same thing.

During the separation period preceding divorce, my ex-wife and I set ground rules about many different things. We talked at length about what to do with Facebook and kept coming back to two questions:

Should we stay connected (friends) on Facebook?

We decided to mutually block each other. Blocking, unlike un-friending, means the other individual can’t see any of your posts or content. We felt that if the other person is digitally out of sight and out of mind, there would be less temptation to act on the impulse to snoop into the other person’s activity. Even mundane or innocent posts during the divorce process could be taken out of context, create unnecessary longing or elevate existing stress levels. While blocking your spouse might sound harsh, I believe our reasoning for it was healthy.

Andrew High, assistant professor at the University of Iowa’s Department for Communication Studies, cited research on the Talk of Iowa show which suggests Facebook surveillance of an ex-partner can be “associated with greater current distress over the breakup, more negative feelings, sexual desire, and longing for the ex-partner, and lower personal growth. Overall, these findings suggest that exposure to an ex-partner through Facebook may obstruct the process of healing and moving on from a past relationship.” 1

This is exactly what we were trying to prevent. Healing was necessary.

What should we post about during the process?

Out of respect for each other as human beings, and the mutual friends and family who were still connected to us on Facebook, we decided that posting photos of ourselves with the other gender was not cool. This rule applied to the early months of the separation and wasn’t intended to be permanent. We established it because we’d seen so many other couples behaving in extreme ways online during separation, while the wounds were still raw for everyone, and we agreed it was distasteful and uncomfortable. To summarize: Feel free to act like you’re divorced when you’re legally divorced, not during the separation weeks/months.

Moving forward, every couple will have to face these issues when a relationship ends. Our digital selves are increasingly a part of our whole selves, and the two are difficult to untangle.

(Hey, Geoff Wood, thanks for prompting me to put these thoughts on digital paper.)

Above photo: cbhdesign via flickr.

1 - Facebook Surveillance of Former Romantic Partners: Associations with PostBreakup Recovery and Personal Growth - Tara C. Marshall. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. October 2012, 15(10): 521-526. doi:10.1089/cyber.2012.0125.

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2 thoughts on “Divorce in the Facebook era

  1. “Moving forward, every couple will have to face these issues when a relationship ends”

    Absolutely. Not just romantic couples but also good friends and business partners who see their relationships dissolve for one reason or another.

  2. I think this is solid advice, and my favorite phrase in the post, which Nathan also said on the radio, is “Out of respect for each other as human beings.” Setting these rules is something more and more people need to discuss. If you truly did love or care for this person at one point, you can probably restrain from bashing them online once the relationship ends. The final outcome may be much more pleasant if people followed these simple rules.

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