There’s a fairly common scene in old movies where two characters in love part for the last time. Sometimes there’s a ship or a train or a war involved, and someone waves wanly, while smoking a cigarette. Sometimes they just stare at the moon and smoke a cigarette. However it ends, they are always smoking, and things are always definitively over. You know those two people are not going to encounter one another again, at least not any time soon.
No one smokes anymore, and thanks to social media, no one gets to part with any kind of finality. If they were around today, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett would never get any closure because she would get drunk and incessantly message him on Facebook chat. Rick would like every single one of Isla’s Instagram photos until she was dead. The “Brief Encounter” would result in a lifetime of Facebook pokes.
There’s no such thing as closure now, because everyone you know, you’re going to know forever. You’re going to follow them on Facebook and see their Tweets and Instagrams and (very rarely) their vines.
On the whole, being able to keep in touch with people through social media is amazing. It’s great to know that your friend from high school now lives in Tokyo. What if you want to visit Tokyo someday? That will be handy! That kid who was mean to you in 7th grade is overweight and unemployed? That, too, is amazing!
It’s remarkable that we live in an age where people you otherwise might have forgotten about can reach out to you in times when you need a word of encouragement. It’s great to be aware of the topics that your friends are discussing. The only terrible time is when that miraculous connection extends to people you’d much rather forget.
Namely, when you’re going through a break-up and you keep seeing your ex’s face pop up on your timeline every damn day.
The obvious way to handle this dilemma is to unfriend all of your exes. There are a slew of advice books that will tell you that the best way to handle a break-up is to cut off all contact with your former beloved. Stop following them on Facebook, block them on Twitter, and just stop checking Instagram for a while, altogether, because you don’t really need to know who is making French toast this weekend.
This all makes complete sense. Cutting people off on social media is a fantastic way to get time and space away from them, and lick your wounds in private, and move on. It removes the temptation to reach out to them whenever they tweet lyrics from that Mountain Goats song you both like. That might not stop you from sending out some drunk texts to them, but it definitely doesn’t up the odds.
The only problem is that this almost never works.
Hell hath no fury like an ex unfriended. The minute you unfriend your ex—especially if you foolishly promised to stay friends—you’re going to get an outraged text from them.
Which is kind of understandable. After all, friending people is a polite way of saying, “I’m interested in knowing what’s going on your life.” When you unfollow someone you are basically saying, “I care less about knowing what is going on with you than I do about someone I had a reasonably good conversation with at a cocktail party once, and the only thing going on in that guy’s life is seemingly he’s a huge John Kasich supporter.” You might as well send a letter to their house written in blood claiming, “I don’t unfriend that guy who writes those wildly misspelt posts about social issues he does not understand, because it feels impolite. But I will unfriend you. Because I hate you.”
Especially if you’re the dumpee it’s hard to suddenly feel like you’re the one being irrational about a break-up. Given that a major goal in most of our lives is simply “not to be yelled at” the fact that you risk upsetting someone is reason enough not to jump to unfriend.
Alternatively you might unfriend them for a while only to hear from them again at the moment that you’ve moved on. Or you could just be gripped with an unbelievable urge to see whether they’re preparing elaborate breakfasts on Sunday and have to re-friend them or refollow them, probably to your mutual embarrassment.
Any of these outcomes will completely destroy any hope of your dignified smoking-and waving parting of the ways. They virtually ensure that you’ll happen upon pictures of your ex with their new love. Instead of looking like Lauren Bacall you’ll look like a person sobbing on your couch and angrily swilling from a bottle of gin, because that is just objectively, what you will be doing.
This is actually such a problem that Facebook designed a tool that allows you “see less” of your ex without actually going through the process of unfriending them. The thing is, if you are willing to go through Facebook machinations to avoid seeing someone, that means you desperately care about seeing what that person is up to. If you didn’t care, you’d just ignore them, as you do the vast majority of social media updates. You can use Facebook’s cool new feature all you want. There’s still a huge likelihood that one morning you will end up scrolling through all their pictures anyway.
And, of course, there are those who won’t even consider unfriending their exes. Who will gleefully stalk them nightly until their friends finally admit that they can’t handle hearing about their break-up anymore, because no one thinks this is healthy or good for anyone involved. Even the most devoted online stalkers, though, will find that practically no one is able to maintain content interesting enough to merit consistently checking their page online over and over. You can only read so much into the fact that your ex is really enjoying the new bagel shop in their neighborhood before you start to realize that it’s, well, kind of boring. Your ex might have been riveting in person, but online they’re probably mostly just posting the same Hillary vs. Bernie meme everyone else is posting.
However you handle it, you can’t keep up social media stalking forever.
Even if it is more difficult for people to cut off all ties with their ex than it was in 1940, we perhaps get a different kind of closure. A slower kind of closure. Because, as they say in Brief Encounter, “this misery can’t last.” Eventually, you will find your exes Tweets maybe just a tiny bit pretentious. Or dull. Or simply not very interesting. That’s a kind of closure, too. There’s something satisfying about seeing someone post’s with their new fiancé on social media and realizing that you’re not thrown into an emotional downward spiral. And no one can maintain the energy for downward emotional spirals forever. It takes too much work.
Maybe coming to terms with the fact that yes—your ex will make French toast and be happy without you—offers us more closure than rain and joining the French resistance ever could. While the people in that old movie scene remember each other forever young and… at least emotional… there’s no closure like realizing your ex has gotten old and you’re not, well, so emotional about them.
And besides. There’s no cafe that would let you smoke a cigarette as you parted these days anyway.