Welcome to Your Online Breakup: How to Handle IRL Heartbreak and Your Social Media Headache in 2016

By Becca Caddy on at

Whether you’ve been together two months or two decades, I think we can all agree that breakups monumentally suck.

Even the most secure people find they can cause a huge emotional and physical upheaval that takes months to recover from. So many of us not-quite-so-secure types find ourselves face down in a tub of Ben & Jerry’s (or a rebound or a bottle of rum or our 90th spinning class) questioning where it all went wrong.

But what makes this challenging hurdle even more challenging nowadays, is how much technology, social media and digital stuff plays such a huge part in our lives and then becomes a sore spot for many, modern day breakups.

Even the most short term relationships have to deal with some social media and digital-related fallout, like deleting your ex from Facebook, blocking their number from WhatsApp or figuring out who gets to keep that shared Netflix account.

But add a few more years and even more of a tech-savvy couple into the equation and you’ve got a minefield. Except the minefield is full of web hosting woes, social media bitching etiquette, Airbnb ratings you don’t get to share and photos here, there and everywhere that you have no idea how to divide up.

It’s a social media-induced headache on top of your heartache. And no one wants that.

Welcome to your online breakup

I recently came out of a three year long relationship and found a lot of the social media headaches hard to deal with, because life generally was increasingly hard to deal with. Our online lives were so intertwined, with photos, memories and each other’s families on Facebook, a shared Netflix account, months of Airbnb ratings from travelling, a shared Amazon account (sure, you’re maybe not meant to share those, but we did), web hosting and domain names bought in each other’s names. The list goes on.

And it’s not just the logistical side of things, but how you should behave. Should you write cryptic statuses about how you’re doing okay? What do you say to their family? What happens when you share a lot of your life online and a big part of that is HEART WRENCHING SADNESS? Cover it up with memes and quotes? For someone already feeling the strain of actual emotional upheaval, this is an extra layer of complexity that was already beyond difficult.

Now months on, I’m feeling like a proper person again. I’m not filled with sadness and don’t want to live tweet my therapy sessions. But I did want to find out just how messy online breakups can get and what the experts think we should do about them.

Welcome to your online divorce

I spoke with lawyer Ayesha Vardag, president of leading law firm Vardags, about the role social media plays in breakups, legal cases and the ultimate in breakups: big messy divorces.

She told me that one of the biggest issues she comes across is people using social media to bitch about their exes. Vardag told me:

“Social media regularly causes issues during divorce, with parties using it to bad-mouth, or even harass, each other. We have had to deal with this on a range of cases, from ordinary families warring in front of fifty Facebook friends to celebrity clients sniping at each other through Instagram and Twitter.”

As you’d expect, when finances, assets and big legal battles are involved everything gets even more drama-filled, “Some spouses have attempted to hide assets in digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, but the courts are getting wise to this and now include the currencies in orders for disclosure.”

Not only is bitching and hiding assets a big problem, but people are caught out by showing off online, when really they should be licking their wounds, avoiding social media and, well, not lying.

“In one recent case a party was pleading poverty and saying that they had lost all their assets and were living on debt – they were betrayed by geo-tagged Instagram posts which revealed the location of an undeclared Caribbean mansion.”

Breaking up your online business and social media stardom

I found my online breakup pretty tricky. But then again I only had a few websites and domain names to get an external developer involved with, the rest could be broken up gradually over time.

So I was really fascinated to find out what couples who shared online businesses had to deal with. Let’s say an Instagram star whose boyfriend has been taking the photos and writing the content in the background. Sure enough, Vardag told me these kinds of problems are becoming more and more common.

“We are seeing the first wave of couples who have built up their wealth through their online presence, be it YouTubers with high ad revenues or Instagram posters who get paid for product placement,” she explained.

“These have to be dealt with like any other business, properly valued and divided up in a way that preserves the earning potential. Where both partners have been heavily involved in the business this can be difficult, but may involve one party keeping the account and paying out a share of income to the other as maintenance.”

Immediately all kinds of social media stars sprung to mind, so I asked Vardag about who owns what when it comes to the murky waters of online content. She explained, “Who owns the account would depend on the site’s term, but photos and videos usually belong to the person who took them, not the one in them.”

“Where one person is the star, and the other makes the videos, it is likely that the latter would sign over their copyright to the photos. They would be compensated for this but, ultimately, it’s likely that the star is the one who brings the earning power to the account and so it’s better for both parties in the long term if they keep it.”

I asked Ayesha Vardag what’s being done to stop stuff like this from causing such a huge headache for couples in the future and to better accommodate our online lives.

She told me, “We now often include social media clauses in prenuptial agreements to prevent this from happening – in fact, my husband and I have one in our own agreement.”

And when it comes to Instagram stars and those keen to build a business online, she suggests, “Couples in these industries should behave like any other business and have a formal legal structure for profiting from their fame. It will make things much more clear cut and easier to divide.” And they say romance is dead, right?

Is there a right and wrong way to deal with your online breakup?

The thing about online breakups, is they can be really different depending on how you split up. The more amicable and less driven by hate and revenge, the better. But if one party feels cheated or betrayed then people can start acting in really emotionally-fuelled and erratic ways.

I spoke with Chloe Brotheridge, a therapist at easywaytochange.co.uk, about how she recommends dealing with your online breakup. As you’d probably expect, her first piece of advice is to unfollow — which was the same advice I heard from everyone I spoke to for this article.

“I’d strongly suggest unfollowing them on social media - it's possible to unfollow someone so that they don’t pop up on your feed without necessarily unfriending them - if that seems a bit harsh,” Brotheridge told me.

She continued, “Although if you’re prone to a bit of Facebook stalking, unfriending them might save you from accidentally ‘liking’ a picture of theirs from five years ago, or being filled with angst at seeing pictures of them having fun with someone else.”

She told me that as strong as people may feel when they come out of a relationship, they can never guarantee they won’t hit a low moment and seeing your ex’s selfie is likely to make that low moment even harder to deal with. She said, “Having regular visual reminders of the other person can act as a trigger, bringing back painful feelings.”

Given we all have such easy access to the intricacies of our exes lives — even if we unfollow them or block them — I asked her what she suggests for someone who can’t get a handle on their snooping.

“If you really can’t help yourself but to spy on your ex, it might be time for a break from social media so that you can recalibrate and heal without being temping to check up on them. Change your passwords to something impossible to remember and give them to a friend to keep safe for you for a couple of weeks at least, or delete the apps from your phone.”

And just as Vardag suggested bitching wouldn’t be good for legal reasons, Brotheridge said it’s unlikely to make you feel good in the long run too. And the same goes for deleting their accounts or revoking access to things straight away. She told me, “Resist the urge to bad mouth them on social media or try to get revenge; that stuff will come back to haunt you (hello screen grab!).

“It might feel good to do it at the time, but you’ll regret posting later on and could be left with a revenge hangover.”

The same goes for other knee jerk reactions. Although unfriending your ex might be a good idea from the word go, you don’t have to delete everything associated with them. Chloe Brotheridge told me:

“It might seem like a good idea in the heat of anger or heartbreak to delete the digital memory of your relationship - but don't be too hasty. You may look at on your relationship as an important part of your life. After the wounds heal, you might regret not having memories of that time together to look back on.”

But just as you shouldn’t be too hasty, you should also make a solid effort to move on as soon as you can. And dividing up online accounts and cleaning out your social media of your ex and their family is probably a good way to begin. Marian O’ Connor, a counsellor and psychotherapist specialising in relationships at Tavistock Relationships told me:

“Separating couples need to be able to understand and mourn what has been lost in order to move on fully into new lives.”

“Working out what is 'mine' and what is 'yours' psychologically as well as materially is the key to this. In many cases, where the couple have children or a shared business, a new sense of 'us' has to be created. That's a lot to deal with, while at the same time dividing up the photos and sorting out custody arrangements.”

And it seems this is the crux of it. Dividing up social media and digital shared accounts might seem trivial and silly to some of you. But the reason they’re messy—and dealing with them is sometimes painful—is because they’ve created an ‘us’ beyond emotions and physical surroundings. There’s a digital ‘us’ too that you need to break up healthily to be able to fully move on. But obviously that’s often easier said than done and no one is going to judge you for a snarky GIF or a sub tweet or nine.

How to survive your online breakup — an easy guide

  • Unfriend sooner rather than later. You’re only delaying the inevitable.
  • You’ll regret knee-jerk reactions and vengeful scheming in the long run. (Although a sub tweet or two won’t hurt.)
  • Don’t rush, but know emotional ties won’t help you to heal either.
  • Be as kind as you can to your ex’s family, friends and anyone else connected to them. (But unfriending still might be wise, and they will understand.)
  • Don’t do anything you don’t feel comfortable with.
  • If you have to talk about dividing things up, try and do it as openly, calmly and honestly as possible. (This is true even if you’re hurting and would rather stab forks in their eyes.)
  • Take a break from social media if you can’t help but look at photos of you and your ex from years back.
  • And next time? Get a social media prenup. It’s clearly the future.