“I was seeing someone and he ended it. Well, it was a classic fade out - it ended but it didn’t. My friends swooped in and told me to block him,” says Neveah. “They said he had ‘love bombed’ me and told me that he deserved to be blocked.”
Instagram. Facebook. Twitter (if you’re that way inclined). WhatsApp. Signal. iMessage. When a relationship - whether it be romantic or platonic - breaks down, these mundane means of communication become gauntlets. Tests of your faith, your patience and your trust in others, as well as yourself. Your phone turns into a hand grenade. Silence is deafening but any sign that the person you are trying to leave out of sight and out of mind is still living and breathing on this Earth can disrupt everything.
Neveah (who has asked not to be identified) has never really been a blocker, it’s not something she had ever considered. “If you don’t want to talk to someone,” the 31-year-old Londoner says, “then just don’t talk to them. Don’t contact them and don’t reply if they contact you. Don’t look at their profile. That’s my view, anyway. But I’m interested because blocking someone who has hurt you seems to be the norm now. One of my friends was recently blocked and then unblocked several times by someone she was seeing. Is this just what we do now?”
There are, of course, serious circumstances in which the block function is necessary. If someone has been discriminatory, physically, emotionally or verbally abusive to you or if harassment has taken place then blocking them is, at a minimum, protective. But, when it comes to heartbreak, the rules are less clear and cutting someone off completely when you’re in pain immediately after a disagreement or a breakup might seem reactionary further down the line when the dust has settled.
“I think that sometimes people are blocked on social media platforms at the first sniff of a break-up,” says consultant psychologist Dr Heather Sequeira. "It can sometimes be premature; a difficult argument or hurtful behaviour can often be resolved, but chance of reconciliation is precluded once further anger and resentment has been ignited by blocking on social media. It can get in the way of working through a possible reconciliation.”
Of course, while you can always unblock, it could preclude any possibility of apology or resolution because being blocked can be painful. The person on the receiving end may retaliate by blocking your right back. If we hit 'unfriend' or 'block' in haste, could we risk limiting our own emotional growth?
Blocking can sometimes be premature; a difficult argument or hurtful behaviour can often be resolved.
DR HEATHER SEQUEIRA, consultant psychologist
Once upon a time, before Instagram, if you broke up with someone you likely just didn’t see them again. You were also less exposed to other people because life didn’t centre around an online network constructed from a revolving carousel of titbits of information and fleeting glimpses into other people’s lives. Today, it is easier than ever to disappear someone. Whether you disagree with their political views, feel they have wronged you, are trying to piece a broken heart back together or simply dislike them because they won’t stop posting selfies/cat pictures/hotdog legs. We pathologise behaviour we deem “problematic” by calling it “love bombing”, “ghosting” or “submarining”. Boundaries are important but, as trainee psychologist Eleanor Morgan has noted, we are quick to apply labels and, in doing so, distance ourselves from how we actually feel about what has gone down when we feel emotionally damaged by another person’s behaviour.
Blocker's regret is real and 26-year-old Sam (who also wished not to be identified) knows all about it. “I’m a serial blocker and deep regretter with exes and friends,” she explains “and it’s a big problem for me and a pattern. I am queer and I’ve had four significant relationships with women and non-binary people. All of them have ended in me blocking their number and social media. None of these relationships ended badly but I just felt I needed to cut them out.”
So, sometimes, it’s worth pausing to examine our own behaviour when we feel compelled to sever all ties with another person. Through work with her therapist, Sam has come to understand her impulses. “I now believe that my blocking is a fear-based trauma response,” she continues. “I worry about them still having access to me, about the prolonged pain of a break up and it makes me feel powerless. I lose agency and the thought of their name popping up on my screen gives me anxiety so I block contact to feel a sense of control - to regain agency by determining who has access to me and when.”
Sam pauses. “I say all of this with the deep acknowledgement that these are often unhealthy coping mechanisms. I often regret blocking because it feels so definite and I do wonder what they would say if they could reach me, about what niceties I might have missed out on.”
As this is relatively new territory for our fragile brains, research is being conducted into how we handle it. German Neubaum is the head of the junior research group at the University of Duisburg-Essen. He believes that it is pivotal to understand the psychological processes intertwined in blocking and unfriending decisions and recently published a paper entitled "You’re still worth it": The moral and relational context of politically motivated unfriending decisions in online networks.
German’s research focuses on political disagreements which result in blocking people in our more public lives. He says that the ease with which we can block and unfriend has serious implications for the way we relate to one another and have difficult conversations. When we speak he references the idea of a “deliberative democracy”. Also known as a “discursive democracy”, this is a society in which deliberation is central to any decision-making.
There is a sliding scale of disagreement, of course. Some views are unquestionably intolerable: racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism. However, more broadly, “having a political disagreement should not result in not talking to each other or even not being in contact anymore,” German explains. “Democracy can thrive when people exchange ideas, arguments and facts. And this should happen even if discussants disagree with one another.”
Perhaps we ought to think about where our red lines lie before we excommunicate people?
German believes that blocking or unfriending is often an attempt to avoid the uncomfortable realisation that we will always have people in our orbit who we do not completely align with. “People who wish to unfriend someone because of political reasons seek to reduce the cognitive dissonance (a psychological state of frustration) that they perceive once they are confronted with two facts simultaneously: ‘I am acquainted with this person’ and ‘I disagree with this person fundamentally’.”
There are parallels between German’s findings as to how the ease with which we can unsee and unhear views we do not want to be confronted by shapes society, and how blocking impacts our intimate relationships. In life, we will often be forced to hold two conflicting ideas in our heads at once. As Sam notes: that you could care for someone deeply but also be afraid of their capacity to hurt you.
“The fact that it is now so easy to block or unfriend someone for whatever reason should lead us to rethink the concept of a virtual relationship or connection,” German says, “and what motivates us to initiate, maintain and dissolve it. This raises interesting questions of whether unfriending someone virtually is comparable to removing someone from one's offline life.”
German is again careful to stress that there are differing levels of disagreement. “Our research shows that people are very reflective about their (online) interpersonal relationships and generally wish to maintain relationships (like they would do offline),” he says. “But, if political disagreements are very severe and related to fundamental moral dissents, people (as they would do offline) wish to not get exposed to those dissenters anymore.”
In our intimate relationships too, perhaps we ought to think about where our red lines lie before we excommunicate people. If a healthy and evolving democracy is forged through discussion and disagreement, perhaps healthy interpersonal relationships can be too?
Neveah did not take her friend's advice. She did not block the guy she was seeing and, instead, has chosen to move forward with her life. “I think that blocking him would make more of a statement than not blocking him to be honest and I worry that we are getting into territory where we are unable to communicate - where we block people instead of acknowledging that we are hurt or upset. I think this happens professionally as well as personally,” she adds.
It is possible to create space and distance between you and another person without blocking them. “If there is a definite relationship breakdown, no contact is definitely important,” Heather reflects. “I would usually recommend muting people on social media for at least a month regardless of whether we want to get back together with them or would like to remain ‘friends' in the longer term because we will need to figure out the new boundaries in the relationship.”
However, she is clear that “difficult times are part of all relationships and learning how to roll with these and resolve difficulties is part of any successful relationship.”
Sam is determined to work with this idea. “I’m trying not to close doors so definitively,” she explains. “It might make me feel safe in the days and weeks after but, in the end, I wish I had allowed some space for my exes in my life and for me in theirs.”
“Ultimately,” she adds, “I know that my fears and anxieties have prevented me from having continued relationships with people who once meant so much to me.”
*names have been changed to protect identities