The Ex Purge: How to Break Up in the Digital Age
From the moment I came home to my husband’s cleaned-out office and a typed letter on the kitchen island, I became a certified professional level cyber stalker. I used Google Earth to get a bird’s eye view of the home he was staying in with his other wife. I learned her school and employment history. I discovered where she grew up and I even found her sister’s name. I compulsively read her blog, where I found pictures of her and mentions of my, I mean our, husband. I even had to endure a description of them showering with monkeys on a trip to Uganda shortly before the court date for the divorce. As I read about their seemingly happy travels, I couldn’t help but wish they encountered monkeys throwing poo.
Fifty years ago, if a spouse disappeared, they disappeared. There were no options for information short of hiring a private investigator. But today, we can all be P.I.s with nothing more than a phone. It’s a bit scary when so much information is available so easily.
I was obsessed. Driven. Once I started looking, I couldn’t stop. Each new image or tidbit of information made me feel ill.
But the sad part? The part that kept me going? It also gave me a thrill. Not in a good way, but in an addiction-feeding way. It was like an itch I couldn’t scratch. Chasing the dragon of information into a rabbit’s hole of social media. With each click, I felt worse and yet somehow I expected the next click to make me feel better.
But it never did.
Instead, all it did was drive my addiction for information.
I felt like I needed to know what he was doing and where he was. Part of it was learning to let go of him; for 16 years, I always knew (or at least thought I knew) where he was. It took time to adjust to no longer needing to know about his life. Part of it was driven by the divorce process; evidence of his whereabouts and activities were fed to the lawyers to bolster the case and refute his outrageous claims. And part of it was that I hoping to find some sign that he was not happy. That he regretted his decision. I wanted some sign that he missed me.
And I never did.
I knew that this obsession wasn’t healthy. I could feel the itch growing stronger with each scratch, worrying the wounds open and allowing them to fester. In the weeks leading up to court date, the behavior grew along with my anxiety about the possibility of seeing him again and of the outcome of the court’s decisions. I was consumed and it was eating me alive.
So I decided to fight back. I set a date – March 12, the day after the court appearance – as the last time I would ever look for information on him again. On that morning, still riding high from the relief of the conclusion of the legal process, I checked the wife’s blog one more time. She didn’t mention her husband’s divorce. I wasn’t surprised. I closed the window, cleared the search memory on my computer and packed away all of the papers around my desk that held the results of my searches. It felt a little scary, cutting that last tie. But I felt in control again.
I was done; I would never look again.
And I stuck to it, resisting the urge even when I learned information from a television producer that made it sound as though he had new charges pending. I didn’t dig when Jeff Probst informed me about the felony warrant. And I didn’t even think about talking to Google when I saw him two years ago at a local festival.
It was a complete and total ban. A self-imposed safe-search filter that has no work-around.
Want to institute a similar ban yourself? Here are some suggestions:
This is no time for moderation. Facebook posts are not like food; you can survive without them. This is all or none. Commit to none.
Put It In Writing
Write down your conviction. It helps to make it more real and makes it a little more difficult for your brain to try to justify “just one click.” In the beginning, make sure a written version of your ban is visible. You can even change your wallpaper on your devices to a reminder to stay safely away from that rabbit hole.
Dig Into the Why
Explore, preferably in writing, why you feel the need to view these pictures and read this information. What do you gain from it? How does it make you feel?
It’s difficult not to turn to your preferred search engine when you hear a tantalizing piece of gossip from somebody about your ex. So, ask them to help you stay clean. Explain what you’re doing (and maybe add a dash of why you’re doing it) and request that they not pass along any information to you.
Watch the Precursors
Be mindful of the times and/or situations that make you more prone to initiating a search. Is it when you’re lonely? Bored? Facing an anniversary? Prepare a change of venue or activity ahead of time that can be implemented during those dangerous times. For example, I knew that I was more inclined to look when I was feeling anxious. So, I would go for a run (sans phone) whenever my nerves were singing.
Understand the Limitations
Social media is a Photoshopped version of real life. You’re seeing what people want you to see; not the reality of the totality of their lives. When you are concluding that your ex is over the moon because of a particularly sappy photo, you’re doing the same thing as a teenage girl comparing herself to an edited supermodel. It’s not real. Don’t spend your days contrasting your real life with a fantasy.
Verbalize Your Urges
When you feel the urge to look, say it out loud. Yes, you’ll feel silly. That’s partly the point. When you verbalize your drive, you are pulling it into your conscious mind where you have more control over what you do with it.
Remove the Triggers
Clear your history. Unfriend as needed. Remove associated reminders from your surroundings. Do everything you can to avoid seeing anything that opens that door.
Sometimes the drive to look becomes so powerful that it demands action. So have an alternative lined up. What will you do when the pull becomes too great to resist?
There are countless apps and programs that deny you access to your social media accounts for a set period of time. These can be useful when you’re feeling particularly vulnerable.
Create a Virtual Hug
Surround yourself with images from your life that make you feel happy and hopeful.
Prepare for Slip-Ups
You may fall off the wagon. That’s okay. Plan ahead to make sure you don’t stay off. If you start looking, set a timer. When it goes off, you’re done. After a cyber-stalking binge, go on a technology diet, restricting your access until you feel at peace again. Have a “sponsor” at the ready, a friend who knows of your plan and is supportive. Reach out when you need to borrow somebody else’s will power.
Like with anything, removing your ex from your digital life becomes easier with time. And as the urges fade, it’s replaced with peace. You no longer what he or she is up to. And you no longer care.
Because you’re too busy creating your life.
Related: What Happens to the Ones Who Leave?