Call me cynical, but every time I see a couple on Instagram, my brain sees forced serotonin-laced messages. Their images portray a picture-perfect archive of what our lives could be. If you’re single, you’re probably somewhat jealous (even subconsciously). And if you’re in a relationship, you’re most likely comparing your situation to the one on your screen. Sure, that "Aw, they’re so cute" feeling sometimes creeps up in our throats. But if we’re being blatantly honest, that sensation is quickly coupled with a wave of comparison, envy, and even a smidge of doubt.
While we all have mixed emotions about the romantic couples we see on our feeds, breakups collectively pique our interest. As a society, we’re conditioned to become obsessed with things out of our scope. "It’s a compulsion to create a picture-perfect narrative of who we are," licensed master social worker and founder of My Wellbeing Alyssa Petersel says.
So when we see the cracks in someone's relationship, we start to do a double-take. What happened? Did they delete all of their posts together? And most importantly, what have they posted since? Asking these intrusive questions is our way of humanizing the situation and finding solace in the fact we aren’t alone.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but one of my first thoughts after my most recent breakup was, What will other people think? At the beginning of our relationship, I'd share mysterious photos of our hands. Then, it turned into full-face kissing photos and appearances in YouTube videos. "Part of my 'job' is sharing my life online," I told myself. After all, most couples I knew were doing it. "We showed and shared everything," quips influencer Alexa Losey of a past romance. "We both made YouTube videos, Tumblr posts, and Instagram captions expressing how much we loved each other. We were two hopeless romantic creatives with way too many outlets to build the perfect digital love story."
Navigating Breakups in the Digital Age
When our relationships end, the way we handle or don't handle our internet trail of love notes is something to be unpacked. "When we are triggered, we enter a space that is generally not super-rational," Petersel reminds us. "If we're in flight, fight, or freeze mode, our immediate need is safety and survival, but our brain hasn't quite caught up to social media."
If deleting everything looks petty but keeping everything up skews desperate, where are we supposed to land? For me, erasing photos of my ex was the automatic solution. But don't get me wrong, if you stalk my page, you will find his face buried in the photo dump trenches (the first picture of me in the carousel was too good to be deleted).
But is there a road less traveled by regarding post-breakup internet etiquette? To find out, I went straight to the source (my Instagram ask box). I implored my peers to share how they handled their feeds after a breakup. Losey, catering to her social media job, not only deleted everything but went as far as making a breakup announcement video. Emily chose to delete and archive everything, while Nicole had a very different take. "When we broke up, I didn't think twice about keeping or removing," she notes. "The photos and memories were staying, even if it hurt to look at them. It was a part of me, so why hide it? There's no need to be ashamed of your journey no matter how bumpy it may have been."
If we're in flight, fight, or freeze mode, our immediate need is safety and survival, but our brain hasn't quite caught up to social media.
The consensus of my investigation was to do what feels right to you. And if the whole "trust your instinct" thing doesn't cut it, Petersel suggests the two-week rule. "Post-breakup, radically prioritize you and what you need for a minimum of two weeks," she says. "It is hugely unnatural because we are systemically conditioned to care what other people think. So, if that means postponing the decision to delete or not delete for two weeks, then fine."
There are already so many things worth getting worked up about in this world. Worrying about whether or not to delete digital traces of your past relationships is not one of them. But just know, if you ever see another man on my page, it's either an ad or my future baby daddy, and there is most likely no in between.