He was the love of my life and I just couldn’t let him go. We met at a party, and initially bonded over mutual, albeit very different, problems’his wife had just kicked him out, and my cat had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. We also shared a passion for music, and spent many evenings singing folk songs to the accompaniment of his guitar. As a medical-doctor-turned-writer in my late 40s, I had always focused on my career and had never met anyone I wanted to marry. But I soon knew that he was the one.
Six months into the romance, the bottom fell out. My once-besotted lover announced he was ‘damaged goods,’ and would no longer venture into the dangerous terrain of emotional intimacy. He would never marry again. He would never live with another woman. And, by the way, he wanted a casual relationship. I sobbed as I bid him goodbye and good luck.
The day after we parted ways, I de-friended him on Facebook, figuring it would help me move on. But the temptation to catch one last glimpse of him proved too great. The following day, I landed on his ex-wife’s Facebook page, and from there was able to hop onto his profile. I knew it was slightly creepy, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. I felt lost without him, and craved even a watered-down form of Internet intimacy.
Thus began a daily ritual. First thing every morning, I perused every nook and cranny of my ex’s Facebook page via his ex-wife’s profile. One day I found a link to one of his recent guitar performances. He was smiling’smiling’and waving at his fans. Clearly he had moved on, rather than moping on the couch as I was doing. My mood blackened.
My obsessive post-breakup cyberstalking hardly makes me unique. One study to be published in 2014 by Anabel Quan-Haase, an associate professor at Western University, and graduate student Veronika Lukacs, found that 88 percent of survey participants who remained Facebook friends with their ex-partner indicated that they had ‘creeped’ their ex-partner following the breakup. (‘Creeping’ refers to the act of viewing other people’s pages, reading their profiles and staring at their pictures without ever interacting.) These surveillance practices were not limited to the ex-partner’s profile; 74 percent of survey participants reported looking at or trying to look at an ex-partner’s new, or suspected new, partner’s profile. (When I mentioned that stat to an acquaintance, she sniffed, saying, ‘I’d guess 99 percent. The rest of them just don’t admit to it.’) The drive to creep emerges from a ‘real need to go back to that emotional connection,’ explains Quan-Haase. ‘They are still trying to hold on to what was so important and meaningful in that relationship.’
But compulsive creeping can become toxic. A 2012 study by Canadian psychologist Tara C. Marshall of Brunel University in England confirmed what many of us suspect: that Facebook-stalking interferes with emotional recovery. In Marshall’s study, those who pursued their exes on Facebook suffered greater distress and longing than those who refrained. ‘Any time you look at their page, it dredges up unresolved feelings you may have for your ex,’ says Marshall.
Other experts in cyberpsychology agree that Facebook-stalking your ex can backfire. According to Quan-Haase, creepers are often hoping to find that their exes are as miserable as they are. ‘So if there are indications that the other person has moved on, that can be really hurtful,’ she says. But it’s difficult to glean an accurate picture of one’s ex from Facebook anyway. According to Marshall, ‘people commonly engage in impression management tactics on Facebook’they may post flattering photos of themselves, carefully edit their list of interests, or post photos to make it seem like they have an exciting social life.’
Psychologist Guy Grenier of London, Ont., says creeping ‘stops you from facing the reality’ that the relationship is over and ‘you need to get on with your life.’ My own life was at a standstill as I sank my energies into peeping on my ex. Even on a Rhine river cruise with my family, for the first couple of days I borrowed the ship’s laptop and agonized as the painfully slow machine coughed up my ex’s profile.
I might have continued down this self-destructive road indefinitely if it hadn’t been for a bombshell. One night four months after my breakup, my sister revealed bad news that put things into perspective for me: She had precancerous cells in her right breast. I gave up praying to reunite with my boyfriend, and instead wanted only for my sister to be healthy.
Withdrawal was visceral. My heart beat faster whenever I passed my computer, and my fingers ached to log on. But I persisted, and with time the compulsion waned. While the urge to stalk someone on Facebook can diminish with time, experts agree on some concrete steps to fight the desire. Marshall suggests blocking the ex-partner if you feel you can’t resist the temptation to creep. ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ she says. Dr. Peggy Richter, director of the Clinic for OCD & Related Disorders in the department of psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, advocates seeking ‘real contact’ outside of cyberspace (not with your ex, of course). ‘The offline relationship is the reward,’ she says.
It has been more than a year since the end of my relationship, and I am firmly ensconced in the physical world. I am no longer tempted to surf my ex’s Facebook page. Instead of meandering through cyberspace, I am sowing seeds of friendship in real life. I’ve joined the Running Room, I’m volunteering with Amnesty International and I’ve become the organizer for a writing group. I visit my sister regularly and, thank God, she is healthy. I’ve begun dating again. So far I haven’t met my prince, but I have hope that one day he’ll materialize. Until then, I plan to stick with real life.