Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
I had been stalking my ex all across the Internet for about three years when I decided to stop cold turkey last year. Not as a New Year's resolution (since those are inevitably doomed to fail), but ahead of that, in mid-December. It had become a bad daily habit, like playing with a loose tooth, knowing it will hurt but doing it anyway. The need to peek surreptitiously into his life was so deeply engrained in mine that sometimes I'd find myself on his Facebook page before my brain was even fully aware of what was going on, or my phone’s browser would populate his blog's URL automatically if I typed the right first letter.
He was in an open relationship, so I wasn’t his primary partner, and often, I was seeing someone else as well. But, when we were together, he was the only one in my heart. It was an unusual arrangement, but the chemistry was so strong, it felt right. The way he looked at me, treated me, talked to me was unlike anything I’d ever experienced, so I was willing to work around the logistical issues. We never made any formal commitments to each other, but things between us got intense, fast. We each said we loved each other — and, in some twisted way, we did — but the longer things went on, the less comfortable I became with our arrangement.
I knew I wasn’t his sole partner, but more and more, I felt like he was treating me as an afterthought — because I let him. He knew I was so smitten that I would put up with him saying one thing and doing another. Our dynamic usually involved him contacting me whenever he felt like it, while I clung to his every word. He’d make plans with me, then cancel them at the last minute, and I was always supposed to understand. And, for a long while, I did, because I wanted him to keep liking me, and maybe I’d somehow, someday, magically earn a greater share of his time and attention.
Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza.
Eventually, though, I couldn’t live with the imbalance. It's hard to have a real relationship when you’re holding out for a fantasy one. I’d find myself daydreaming about him when I was supposed to be focused on someone else, wondering what he’d think of a dress that showed off my back. I’d put on a sexy pair of tights and remember him ripping off a different pair I’d bought for one of our dates. I played “Someone Like You” by Adele hundreds of times, fulfilling the cliché but hoping that I’d find someone with his passion for life who’d make my heart pound the way he did.
This went on far longer than it should have. I’d resolve to keep my distance from him, but it never stuck. Eventually, I realized that if I was going to truly get over him, I had to make a clean break. I stopped contacting him, which let me start the process of moving on. But, it didn’t totally do the trick. Even seeing his name would trigger fits of nostalgia and make me wonder if I was being too harsh.
And, that's because he was secretly still in my life. Even though I wasn’t communicating with him, I was still communing with his cyber presence. It was just so easy — not to mention tempting — to check in on his whereabouts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or his blog. I was like an addict looking for a fix, thinking that would satisfy me, but those lone glimpses never did. I rarely looked at only one profile page and instead fell down a rabbit hole, trying to see everything he’d done recently online. I’d even click through to look at his friends and family, eager to hoard any nuggets of information: changes in facial hair, travel photos, and even tender moments with other women, who I’d then compare myself to. I knew it wasn’t fair to be jealous, but since when does fairness have anything to do with emotions and love?
Still, I thought the Internet was an emotionally safe way of keeping up with him; after all, he presumably didn’t know about it, and neither did anyone else. But, I did, and that was the problem. Every time I gleaned something new online — whether it was from a silly Vine video, a status update about a restaurant he’d tried, or even a random news article he'd posted — I obsessed over it, sometimes for hours. I got so good at analyzing his every move online that I knew when he was flirting with someone on Twitter, even if on the surface the words seemed benign. I’d made baby steps toward stopping this behavior in the past, un-friending him on Facebook when I started seeing things there that were a little too personal. Yet, I could still view his profile, which I’d sometimes spend an hour browsing, often more, if it was late at night.
Whenever I’d drop in on this public version of his life, I’d wonder what might have been if we had managed to work things out. Every What if? ended with me berating myself for my choices — maybe if I’d been more accommodating, sweeter, better in bed, whatever, he’d have chosen to lavish more attention on me. Maybe I’d been too demanding, too eager. Every time I looked him up, I wound up feeling just a smidge more unlovable because he hadn’t loved me enough to work things out.
Designed by Ammiel Mendoza.
Rationally, I knew that none of this was true, but seeing him online made the logical part of me disappear. My incessant cyberstalking wasn’t about the real me but about a fantasy I had built. Or, as my friend Samara O’Shea put it in her new book, Loves Me…Not: How to Survive (and Thrive!) in the Face of Unrequited Love, “Obsession is when we wonder about him every other day (and justify it by calling it ‘curiosity’).” She says the very occasional (as in annual) perusal of an ex's page is fine, but when it becomes a constant in your life, “your ego has taken over.”
For her, the breaking point came when she saw her ex’s engagement ring on her computer screen in all its sparkling glory. I can’t say I had one definitive moment like that, but I just grew tired of feeling like a helpless loser.
That's when I took a positive step and stopped with all of the stalking. I knew it would never work if I half-assed it. Suddenly, I found that I had more free time — and, also, more space in my mind. It's amazing how quickly things changed. Within a week, I stopped feeling that compulsive need to check his Facebook page. I knew I could, but I could also choose not to.
It’s been a few months now, and the longer I go without visiting his online haunts, the more mental distance I put between the old me and the new me. It’s not completely an "out of website, out of mind" situation, but it’s close. I’d be lying if I said I don’t wonder what he’s up to about once a week, but that’s a giant leap from wondering the same thing every few hours. I’m proud of myself for getting the ball rolling in a healthy direction. It's not the first time I've attempted this, but success, for me, has been all about taking things a single day at a time.
Now, I focus on my real life instead of some fantasy with this man. Maybe someday we can be Facebook friends — or even, far into the future, actual friends. But, I’m not there yet, and I’m okay with that.