breaking up in the Internet age
I recently read the story of a young Russian couple who were torn apart just three days after they were married, when the husband was forcibly shipped off to join the Red Army. Upon his eventual return home, he found his wife and her family gone, having been forcibly relocated to somewhere in Siberia as enemies of the state. The couple didn’t see or hear anything from one another until sixty years later, when one day Anna and Boris both just happened to visit their old hometown, where they shared an incredible moment:
From the Telegraph:
“When Anna Kozlov caught sight of the elderly man clambering out of a car in her home village of Borovlyanka in Siberia, she stopped dead in her tracks, convinced her eyes were playing tricks.
There, in front of her, was Boris, the man she had fallen in love with and married 60 years earlier. The last time she had seen him was three days after their wedding, when she kissed him goodbye and sent him off to rejoin his Red Army unit. “I thought my eyes were playing games with me,” Anna said. “I saw this familiar looking man approaching me, his eyes gazing at me. My heart jumped. I knew it was him. I was crying with joy.”
Now 80 years old, Boris had returned to visit his parents’ grave. As he stepped out of the car, he looked up to see Anna standing by her old house, where they had lived for the few days after the wedding. “I ran up to her and said: ‘My darling, I’ve been waiting for you for so long. My wife, my life…’”
This is an amazing tale. Reading it makes me break out into the biggest, sappiest smile.
But that was then. Love stories like these don’t happen anymore.
Over the past quarter century, we’ve seen stunning innovation in the field of how we connect with the world, how we socialize and interact with each other in virtual online communities. Social media, as these tools have been dubbed, has been used for plenty of things: for self-promotion, for journaling, for organizing, activism, and sharing art, for staying in touch with friends, keeping track of enemies, and meeting new people.
These social trends haven’t left North American culture unaffected. We now live in an Internet era, one in which split-second decisions can become easily immortalized, prominently displayed for all to see. (Entire websites exist to this end, documenting inebriated late night texts or other minor scandals.) However, in my opinion the most interesting way the Internet Age is affecting us is how it has changed the way we relate to each other romantically.
Back then, Boris met Anna in through friends, asked for her address or phone number, then took her out on a date, and the two of them distinctly ended the affair if things did not work out. But now, Bro is meeting Annie on Tinder, then they “talk” (flirtatiously text on and off for a few weeks), follow each other on Twitter, hook up when convenient, and stay Facebook friends long after the relationship ends.
I don’t think the romance of the past sappy and sweet and things today downright horrible; indeed, meeting someone back then wasn’t perfect, and falling in love today can be really nice too. But one thing should be clear – short of moving to a desert island, there is no way of going back to how we romantically socialized and loved then. Technology has ensured that the way we date has been changed forever.
One obvious example of this, something our generation is only now beginning to understand, is that social media has made the process of getting over an ex much, much harder than it was in the past.
Think about it. Before the Facebook era, if, say, one night you had more than a couple of drinks and suddenly began feeling rather melancholy about your life, becoming dizzy and pained with the silly urge to reconnect with a person you used to love – a person with whom things ended very badly – if this happened to you, you most likely couldn’t do anything about these feelings. Whenever they arose, as they inevitably did every once in a blue moon, you would just grit your teeth for a few minutes and wait until the thoughts dissipated.
Because the alternative was truly impossible. Really, you’d have to put such effort into actually hunting down and reconnecting with an old flame. You might have considered it for a second, but any longer and the entire idea would collapse. I imagine the whole process would be quite complicated: you’d first have to open up a phonebook, or sort through some old papers, maybe write a letter or two, set aside time to call up ancient acquaintances, spend days or weeks traveling across town or scouring the country in the name of following this natural itch.
It would have been a lot of work.
But let’s assume you finally somehow succeeded in digging deep enough into the past to unearth this ossified relationship, let’s say you’ve even gotten to this point, which, let’s be honest, you haven’t, because the momentary urge to run back to an ex was never enough to sustain all of this effort.
But sure, let’s just say that yes, you’ve finally gotten here.
You show up on this person’s doorstep.
And you have no idea what to expect.
They could be married.
They could have kids.
However you went about trying to reconnect with them, whether by showing up in person or just penning a goopy letter, you would end up looking like a total psycho.
Because no one did that.
And I think this is how getting over a bad heartbreak was meant to happen.
Today, it’s completely different. Say ten, fifteen years from now you’re pretty happy, but you also develop an inkling to find out how your ex is doing. You can, before you even realize what you’re doing, pull up his Facebook page and gorge to your burning heart’s content. You can see if he’s still in shape, if he’s still posting sanctimonious selfies. You can gape at how much hair he’s lost, check on his relationship status, see Christmas cards, breeze through pictures of his children and wife (who is really not prettier than you at all), and the aching feeling that will be left in your stomach afterwards will be one of overeating, of filling your belly with too many spoonfuls of ice cream long after you’ve had that “I’m soooo full” moment.
This is unhealthy.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about college and young adult breakups over the past few years, it’s that when you end things with someone who you never thought you would end things with, it is a good idea to really separate from each other. To create as much emotional and physical distance as possible. Sure, some people really can “stay friends.” But most of us mortals can’t. Most of us would be lying to ourselves if we insisted that it wasn’t so difficult remaining close to our former life partner, that we were completely over them and doing just fine, thank you very much.
Distance is good. I think we’re kind of supposed to lose track of the people who broke our hearts.
That’s how breaking up was back then. More clean cut. It was much more difficult to fall hard into old memories and spontaneously reconnect with an old flame, so it really didn’t happen all that much. (This was probably a good thing.) Maybe you bumped into them years later at the grocery store, and it was nice. But other than that, nothing.
Today, breakups are long, muddled processes. We split but then continue to casually hold our greatest heartbreaks at arms length, toting around the ghosts of our past in polished digital portfolios. We are easily able to gain the most intimate knowledge about an ex in just a few clicks. The information era has increased our inclination for immediate gratification to the point where a booty is just a call away, a text pouring out forbidden longing only as distant as your cell phone and a bottle of tequila. (Or Burnett’s. We are in college.)
In the olden days, things faded more smoothly with time. Today, the temptation to pitifully bemoan a former love interest, thinking “if only, if only,” can be nursed for years afterwards. We can always “Facebook stalk our ex.” Which is fun, in a sick sort of way, but in the end it makes you hurt (especially if it seems they’re doing too well) and this habit does make it a lot harder to get over breakups.
All that to say, this is why I believe it is good to have a couple of serious friends around who are committed to keeping you gagged and tied down after a devastating breakup. Whenever a bittersweet, rogue memory crosses your emotional palate, they will be the ones who keep your mind otherwise occupied. When you are feeling your most vulnerable, they will be the ones who monitor your social media activity; they will be the ones who help you hammer down any violently surfacing memories.
These friends will take you out to help you move on. They will be the ones who hold you back when you’re raging, trying to stumble across town and spill your heart out to her. In this day and age, one truly needs good friends who can keep you penned in, trapped, like Prometheus. (Although instead of an eagle descending daily to devour you, and instead of being a god, you’re a child, and you’re inflicting your own torture, trying to eat your own liver out.)
One last story.
I was talking to a Cuban friend last month about the pain he has been feeling since he and his girlfriend abruptly ended things. As he was telling me about this girl he was completely in love with, I asked for her name, to see a picture of her.
But he had gotten rid of all her photographs. It hurt him too much, being that close to all those memories. She did not have a Facebook either, or any social media, which helped to shelter his fragile psyche a bit more. He even deleted her number from his phone, “so I wouldn’t be tempted to call her when I got drunk or sad.”
Stepping away from the technology that put her within arms reach, I think, is helping my friend begin to really internalize the fact that he will never hold her again. I think everyone in this millennium who is struggling working to get over an ex could take a lesson from that.
And then he looked at me and said, “I could still call her, though.” He rattled off a sequence of digits. “I have her number memorized.”