The tipping point was the seafood buffet.
Or more accurately, the video documentation of my ex meeting his new girlfriend’s parents over a seafood buffet, an occasion that apparently warranted full Instagram coverage.
The video, set to music that sounded like the auditory equivalent of really bad stock photos, showed images of the happy couple and what I presume was her family, fading in and out thanks to some very modern iMovie effects like slow fade and slide. But it was mostly—and let me stress this—photos of clams.
Call it what you will—the lightbulb moment, the straw that broke the camel’s back—but that was it. I unfollowed him on Instagram and hid his updates from my Facebook feed—a full seven months after we broke up after being together for more than a year. (Brave, I know. To clarify, I only stayed friends with him on Facebook so I could avoid his friends on dating apps.)
It’s one thing to know the obvious—that lurking in the shadows of my ex’s new relationship was not exactly picturesque self-care—and another to actually do something about it. Especially when doing something about it was just a finger tap of “unfollow,” something that felt so intangible, so meaningless, that I couldn’t fathom that it would actually change how I felt about our relationship, and how much I still thought about, in my life offline.
But following him was taking a toll on my digital and analog health. It was exhausting, eating away mental space in ways I didn’t even fully realize until he was (virtually) gone.
You can probably relate to my story. Social media’s faux-connectedness gives us the ability to stay loosely tethered to people we care about, but not so much that we want to hang out with them in real life. The friends from high school, the people with whom you’ve briefly crossed paths, the occasional former co-worker. On the same side of that coin, because it’s so easy—just a quick tap of “follow”—we often end up staying linked to people with whom we don’t want a meaningful relationship with offline, or no longer can have. It seems like an unspoken rule of the social media age: you amass followers and become one yourself, and barring betrayal or death, those digital connections stay intact.
I stayed “friends” with my ex on social media because to do otherwise felt taboo. We ended things amicably, and unfollowing him felt overly dramatic—somehow worse than his many transgressions during the relationship.
So instead I became the digital equivalent of the “cool girl” as I tiptoed around other fun tropes like “hysterical woman” or “crazy ex-girlfriend.” I was “cool” when he started casually posting pictures of the new girl and forced myself to stay “cool” when things got, as I surmised, significantly more serious. (See: seafood buffet.)
It didn’t help that he continued to dole out likes on my posts, which made it all feel so friendly. Each “like” seemed capable of alleviating his past sins, as if one little digital affirmation could say, “we’re good, right?”
But trying to pretend things were still “good” on my end was at odds with watching his new relationship unfurl before me. Every photo they posted together made my skin crawl but I willed myself to adjust. “It’s just how it is,” I told myself.
I not only started resenting this woman who had done absolutely nothing to me (and in fact seemed perfectly nice) but stayed invested in their new life together, becoming a sort of creepy, cyber third-wheel. And through comparing all the ways I was not her, my relationship with him—which obviously ended offline—continued. I was trying to get over him while subjecting myself to constant imagery of him with not-me, our once-real-relationship now reduced to its digital half-life, lingering but dying nonetheless.
Before social media, finding out about your ex’s new fling(s) was nothing short of an investigative feat. (Or so my elders tell me.) Asking friends how an ex was “doing” or running into them with a new partner was about all the exposure you got to their new life without you unless you were willing to do some serious digging.
Today is a different ball game. Unless you’re the type of person who immediately unfollows someone when something goes awry offline (which, alas, I am not), you’re subjected to something worse than the truth: a carefully curated frame of their life, sans you.
I couldn’t resist the siren call of his oversharing. And there was so much to look at—he was meticulous about archiving their relationship history, an obligatory selfie in each of the many museums they frequented. The transition to getting gifts for each other was fun, as were their coordinated Halloween costumes. Their first vacation? I was right there with them. The Bahamas are beautiful that time of year.
I assumed that their relationship, unlike ours, was perfect. The absence of information, coupled with the “perfect image” we all put on Instagram, goaded me into projecting a narrative that became louder than any version of the truth. They must be happy together! They go to so many museums!
I tried to stop following him; I really did. His Instagram account was private, however, and every time I tried to break free Instagram would ask me, “are you sure you want to unfollow? You’ll have to request [insert Instagram username] again if you want to see their posts.” Being able to stay in the loop was more enticing than being left out. I was trapped in a vicious cycle of hating his updates and posts and needing to see them. Unfollowing felt too final—if I wanted back in, he’d know I’d left. And worse yet, that I still cared enough to come back.
But then the seafood buffet video happened.
It was so thoroughly absurd that I couldn’t think of any way to process it other than humor. It was—*Italian chef kiss*—the best thing that ever happened to my digital life.
And here’s why: it crossed a virtual line, an invisible social media code of ethics that, while subjective, is meaningful nonetheless.
I couldn’t expect him to tailor his digital life to placate and protect my feelings. However I kept returning to this idea: he knew I was still following; he knew I was watching. I wanted him to keep her hidden away, but I wasn’t a girlfriend—or friend—anymore: I was a mere follower. A voyeur. Something he knew, which begs the question, when you know a significant person or ex is following you, do you have to take their feelings into account?
In the moments before I unfollowed him I felt a nervous, giddy excitement. Then, I was doing it. It was a quiet relief when I finally told Instagram “yes, I’m sure I want to unfollow.” More than feeling free, I remember feeling ownership, like I had regained some part of myself. Having me as a follower felt like his last Horcrux and after unfollowing, he was gone for good.
After I unfollowed him on Instagram and Facebook, I stopped checking my feeds as much. The currency of his “likes” lost value and I didn’t have the same stomach- churning fear-slash-desire of seeing his posts populate my feeds. And I realized pretending we were “friends” and not just followers forgave him for a whole host of offline problems and assuaged his ego. Making sure he felt we were “good” felt like a civic duty, one society told me was just part of my role as “cool ex-girlfriend” in the digital age.
Since I’ve unfollowed him, I’ve felt free. Shaking him loose digitally allowed me to move on offline.
He still follows me, something I was acutely aware of at first, but that feeling has since faded. He never likes my photos although he religiously watches my “stories,” something I thought would give me a sense of satisfaction or feeling of superiority but, in reality, does neither. It just is.
I do, however, consider him when I post pictures of my new boyfriend. I can’t help feeling the push-pull of wanting to live my life, to show my friends and family that there’s someone in my life who matters to me, something that inevitably seeps into my digital presence. But posting a photo of me and my new boyfriend being happy makes me think, “Am I doing the same thing to my ex that he did to me?”
This is not to condemn those who follow their exes on social media, or a call to action to purge your feeds of people who no longer serve you (though perhaps that’s not a bad idea).
It’s a reflection on decision-making, on choosing to limit the amount of digital information you receive in an age where there’s an overwhelming amount of content. We can’t control that content-churn, nor can we get away from the constant bombardment of imagery we don’t actively choose to see, something especially true on social media where much of the content and comments are toxic, especially for people’s’ mental health.
But we can make incremental efforts to take our social media spaces seriously. It’s not a game, despite the swiping and tapping and emojis. It’s a part of our lives, one with marked—and still unforeseen—effects.
Just as I don’t want to see Paul Blart: Mall Cop or any of his adventures in theaters, and can choose not to, I don’t want to see my exes and their new significant others online. But I forgot that it was a choice.
I hadn’t opted in to keep following him after we broke up—it just was, and Instagram made it hard to get away amidst an algorithm that learned I liked his posts and prioritized them in my feed and a two-step process that made sure I really wanted to unfollow.
But it is a choice, in small but meaningful ways. We can limit how much information we receive from “friends” or exes who make us feel smaller or who hold us back. And importantly, we can do so long before the clams come along.