We were never Facebook official. As far as breakups on social media go, I realise I had it pretty easy. The only visual record of our November-to-April romance online is a picture of us at a wedding that his friend posted, which is still visible on my profile until enough new photos push it out of sight. I’m a romantic, but I’m also a cynic, so I didn’t post my pictures of us together for this very reason. There are no statuses to change, no albums to take down or make private, no custody battle over an Instagram-famous puggle. But there was the issue of following one another. When we called things off over two months ago, our once-intimate relationship became an ongoing back-and-forth of Likes on Facebook and Instagram, a series of clicks that assumed, in my mind, the emotional gravitas of a Dostoyevsky novel. We’ve exchanged only a handful of text messages since breaking up and have met just once face to face. Our primary mode of communication has been expressing silent, “thumbs-up” approval as we watch each other move on. After our relationship became purely digital, my phone constantly threatened to send my stomach into my shoes with a flick of my thumb. He doesn’t use Snapchat or Twitter, so those are my safe spaces. We already matched on Tinder, so hopefully I’m in the clear there, too. But his sporadic approach to Facebook and Instagram made them minefields of the worst order. Just when I’d been lulled into a trance, scrolling mindlessly past what a high school frenemy ate for lunch in Tulum — boom. There he’d be, smiling up at me, with people from his life whom I’d met and loved, themselves now among my Facebook friends with whom I feel a genuine if tenuous connection. I almost always clicked Like, to make a show of being cooler about our split than I really was, and because it was, in some way, a true expression of how I felt — I still liked him, despite my best efforts to the contrary. Then, of course, there were my posts: photos in my tux from the wedding where he’d have been my plus-one, from the beach where I’d invited him to be a guest in my summer share, from the Florence + the Machine concert that we had tickets to see together. These are just the kind of moments I usually share online, but now, I found myself posting them with defiance echoing through my head — take that. Look at how great my life is; I’m not sad at all. I think I was trying to convince myself as much as him or anyone else.
I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I was waiting to hear from him.
Amid Likes and comments from my friends, I was always waiting for that one notification to break through to my home screen. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I was waiting to hear from him — for a thumbs-up on my latest article, or a heart on an Instagram of my just-fine-without-you life. Seeing his name pop up offered proof that he was still out there, that he was watching me move on, that he still cared about me in some small way. Waiting for those moments, I felt more desperate and sad than I really was — than I would be if this online chapter of our history were put to rest. When a photo of him recently surfaced on Instagram, cuddled into the frame with his best friend and her 6-year-old daughter, I knew I was approaching a breaking point. I Liked it. Ten minutes later, I scrolled back to look at it again, feeling slightly wistful. I put the phone down and told myself to pull it together. As I scrolled through Facebook an hour later, there it was again — he’d shared it there, too. I realised I couldn’t do it anymore. I scrolled up and finally selected “unfollow.” I already felt lighter. Facebook had been disarmed. My determination soaring, I turned to Instagram — and stopped short. Was it possible to mute someone without unfollowing them altogether? Apparently not. A brief Google search turned up an option including the keywords “jailbroken iPhone.” But it was me who needed to be set free; putting my device through such an extreme procedure just to mute my ex seemed drastic. Once I clicked "unfollow," that was it. He probably won’t notice the change to his total count, but my action will be felt in absences — pictures left unseen, moments in his life without me left unacknowledged. Eventually, I’m sure, his reciprocal Likes will dwindle as well, until the digital shadow of our former connection fades away to something resembling the past tense. Unfollowing is just another part of the breakup process. If we do ever manage to become friends, and I wind up clicking "follow" again, he’ll get a notification that tells him I’m ready for us to start a different chapter. Until then, I need to know that he’s not lurking just down my feed, waiting to surprise me with a wave of emotions while I’m trying my darndest to still the tide. I have to accept that for now, moving on means not watching him do the same. And that’s okay.