Losing You is a weeklong series investigating heartbreak. According to Facebook data, December 11 is the most popular day for couples to break up. So what better time to look at relationship breakdowns, why they happen and how they affect us. We’ve all been there: you feel sick, can’t eat, can’t sleep as you begin to contemplate a future without your ex. It feels like there isn’t a language to explain just how apocalyptic a broken heart can feel and, unlike a bereavement, you’re expected to carry on as usual. What if we took heartbreak more seriously? Above all, what would happen if we looked at what we gain from a relationship, however long it lasts, as well as what we’ve lost?
It was midnight. Anastasia, a 25-year-old from Pittsburgh, was crying in her bed over a breakup that had taken place around a month earlier. "I can’t say I’ve ever felt that way before," she remembers. "I felt very isolated; like I was at rock bottom." In a desperate bid for comfort, she decided to upload a TikTok of herself weeping down the camera lens. She captioned the video thus: "Embarrassed to show myself crying like this but pls share what got you through ur own breakups."
She’d thought that maybe a handful of her 50 followers at the time – made up mainly of close friends – would see the nine-second video and lend some support. But when she woke up the next morning, she was stunned to see that the video had thousands of views and a deluge of comments.
"At first I freaked out, thinking that my ex and his family would see it," Anastasia says of the video, which at the time of writing has been viewed over 109,000 times. "For a split second I considered deleting the video. But then I opened the comments and saw hundreds of people sharing their advice, connecting with each other and sharing their healing journeys." This was almost six months ago. Since then, Anastasia has made a name for herself on the app as a self-described "breakup bestie", documenting everything from how to resist the urge to text an ex to going on her first date since her split. "I still cry when I read people’s comments who say the videos helped them," she says.
Posting about something as intimate as heartbreak is hardly a new phenomenon and given the spike in breakups brought on by the pandemic, there’s a chance that this type of content will be cropping up on people’s feeds more than usual. But on TikTok – more so than any other social media platform yet – the videos often show people at their most heartbroken and vulnerable. There’s an immediacy to a TikTok video that you don’t get on Twitter or Instagram. Perhaps that's why the hashtag #breakup has over 15 billion views on the app.
"People just share so much about their personal lives on TikTok, whereas on Instagram it’s more curated," explains Nat, a 25-year-old from south Florida who is documenting her post-breakup journey on the app. "You just feel a lot more comfortable posting to TikTok."
It’s these more 'raw' videos of heartbreak which garner significant attention on the app. "In my most watched video, which has almost a million views, I was in the middle of crying," says Nat. "I kind of look back and I’m like, 'Why did I post that?' but I know that it helped so many people." The nature of TikTok's highly curated algorithm means that breakup videos are more likely to end up on the For You page of people who are seeking out this kind of content, making it easier to connect with others going through something similar.
It may well be the case that these unfiltered, emotionally heightened breakup videos can offer a meaningful way to help and connect with others on the app. On top of this, Simone Bose, a relationship therapist with Relate, says that it can be a healthy outlet to express emotion. "It can be very cathartic [and] much better than bottling it up." But feeling able to express emotions online doesn’t always translate to real life. Emily K, an 18-year-old from Telford, says that she felt more comfortable turning to TikTok during her breakup than to the people in her life. "People I’m friends with couldn’t really relate to what I was thinking and how I was processing my thoughts," she says.
Bose worries that feeling unable to talk about emotional turmoil with loved ones in person might lead people going through a breakup to lean more heavily on support from TikTok than IRL friends and family. "If you replace people that know you with the digital world of support, then you're not going to be able to process your emotions properly," she cautions. Anastasia admits to slipping into this herself. "I was spending so much of my day reading and responding that it was preventing me from moving on," she says. It led her to "take a step back" from TikTok and to spend more time with IRL friends doing "non-breakup-related things".
Another concern with broadcasting vulnerability is that it could open up whoever posted the video to negative responses – or end up being viewed by the wrong person. This was the case for 18-year-old Amy from Liverpool, whose girlfriend saw a video she uploaded to TikTok of her crying over their breakup. "Her response, at first, was anger," Amy says. "I kinda used TikTok as a way to vent and release any anger […] I didn’t want [my ex] seeing that kind of weakness."
Amy had initially posted about her breakup on TikTok rather than other platforms because, as she puts it, "there’s less chance of people you know in real life seeing it". The app's emphasis on following other creators over IRL friends offers a sense of anonymity that has allowed breakup TikTok, in particular, to flourish. However, changes which are seeing TikTok make a greater effort to connect users to people they have relationships with outside the platform could impact just how open and vulnerable people feel they can be on the app.
For others, getting the attention of an ex might be part of the motivation for posting. "My ex had me on TikTok and was aware of what I was posting. For me, that’s what I wanted, for him to understand that I was hurting," says Emily K. She is now back together with her boyfriend, who features in a video of Emily K hysterically crying before cutting to a montage of photos of them together pre-breakup. She has not deleted the video, saying: "I have no regrets. I helped others along the way and I helped myself by expressing it."
On the flip side, some users are choosing to create more aspirational breakup content. Among them is Emily O, a 28-year-old from Toronto. "The messy side of ‘breakup TikTok’ can be tricky. Most are just to get views and are more on the negative side," she says. "I think the side of TikTok that shows how to heal in a healthy way, stresses that you're not alone and empowers others to walk away [is] the side of breakup TikTok that you want to be on."
One of her videos – caption: "This is what healing a broken heart looks like" – sees a montage of clips of Emily O performing various 'aspirational’ activities, from lifting weights to putting spinach in a blender and filling out a gratitude journal. Many of the comments are celebratory: "We love to see it!" "Girl yes!!!" Others are less so: "Where is the 'crying in bed for days’ phase?" wrote one user. "Yea, nope, I was a mess and didn’t wash," wrote another.
Can this kind of content be harmful for people going through a breakup who feel they do not fit this healing trajectory? According to psychologist Dr Veronica Lamarche, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology at the University of Essex, the danger lies in presenting this 'glow up' mindset as if it’s the only acceptable way to be in a breakup. "The problem with social media comes in the sense that some creators, or some silos of information, start to present [heartbreak] like it’s one thing or the other. You either feel vulnerable or upset, or you’re having this wonderful transformative process, when the reality for most people going through a breakup is that it varies from day to day," she says. "We need to be aware that what we’re seeing is just a fraction of their day-to-day life."
However, Lamarche also stresses that there is no objectively 'better' type of breakup content: it will depend on the stage someone is at. "Individuals need to be mindful of how what they're consuming could be affecting them: is it holding them stuck in a psychological pattern of distress because they're not letting themselves move on? Or is it giving them something to work towards?"
It’s why Anastasia has made an effort on her TikTok to show the highs and lows of the post-breakup experience. "I only feel comfortable posting [aspirational] content when it’s balanced out by having real conversations about these issues and showing times when I’m struggling or when life doesn’t look perfect," she says. "As with most things in life, I think moderation is key."
As Lamarche points out, it’s about striking an emotional balance – but on an app like TikTok, which is designed for virality, this nuance is often lost. This isn't to say that the app can't offer a meaningful and helpful tool for people working through a breakup. But in most cases, TikTok alone won’t cure a broken heart.