Why We Stalk Our Exes Online, Even Though We Know It’s Bad For Us
We’re in the midst of a social media-stalking epidemic. Fortunately, there is help.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon and Sarah is looking at pictures of her ex on Facebook. They were official for three blissful months, until one day, David disappeared. The man who’d been referring to her as his “soulmate” ghosted her. Four grief-stricken months later, Sarah learned she’d been his side piece all along. David was in a six-years-long-and-counting relationship. Even though the days of mourning the loss of her ex-sociopath are long behind her, here she sits, checking in on him?—?just like she’s done nearly every day since it ended.
“He deleted me, but I still visit his page every day just to see if he like, changed his profile picture or something,” Sarah says. “After I’m done here, I usually move on to his girlfriend’s profile. I’m not ‘friends’ with her, either.”
I think I feed on the adrenaline.
Sarah knows this kind of behavior isn’t healthy or productive, but just like millions of other people, she ignores her better judgment and succumbs to the drug that is social media stalking.
As the creepy exes of America, we spend hours digging around in the e-lives of our past love interests. We know exactly how our ex looked in the selfie posted to Instagram 73 weeks ago. We scroll for miles, mesmerized by his pompous Twitter commentary, anxiously awaiting a new update. His stagnant feed feels like a swift punch to the gut. The irony is hard to accept, because we’re certain we have absolutely NO lingering feelings for the scumbag. We’ve moved on. We might even be in a happy, healthy relationship. So, why can’t we help but peek?
I reached out to social psychologist and licensed psychotherapist, Meredith Stockton, who compared the risky behavior to drug abuse.
“Falling in love releases dopamine, the same chemical released when you ingest a drug,” Stockton says. “There’s a chance you could look back with rose-colored glasses about how that person made you feel.”
When I ask Sarah why she subjects herself to the lethal pattern, she said, “I think I feed on the adrenaline. Even though I’m way over him and glad I didn’t get more involved with such a douchebag, seeing what he’s up to gives me a different rush of emotion. It’s kind of empowering. It reaffirms that I’m way better than him.”
I knew this was sensitive information for people to share, but I wanted more insight. I decided to visit the internet mecca of anonymous secret-sharing: Whisper. I typed “stalking exes” into the search bar, and the page filled with ambiguous photos and Gotham text overlay. Hundreds of exes were speaking their truths about stalking old lovers and their motives behind it:
Many of the Whisperers, like my friend Sarah, claimed they weren’t into their exes anymore at all. Most of them say they keep tabs to see who the relationship’s losing party is. Former flames who are married, engaged, or generally looking happy with a special someone-else, is exactly what the Whisperers do not want to see. Any sign of new and attractive love means their ex is “winning.”
But it’s not just new love that causes concern or extreme denial. Seeing photos of an ex out on the town, or scaling a mountain in Colorado, or generally looking good are also things stalkers don’t like. Even if the relationship ended well, social stalkers do not hope for their exes to be doing too well. In some cases, they may even hope they’re doing badly?—?failing, even. Checking in on them is a way of making sure the balance of the universe is in check.
A lot of people have no explanation or rationalization for their behavior. Many admit they feel out of control, going to great lengths just for a glimpse into a past lover’s life.
I once drove to my ex’s house to slip a mixtape of our song in his mailbox.
Take my mom?—?a single, 51-year-old woman who has dated before and after the social media surge. She’s my sounding board for most all advice, so I asked her if she ever checked in on her exes before social media was a thing.
“Oh, yeah. I once drove to my ex’s house to slip a mixtape of our song in his mailbox,” she revealed.
OK, so two takeaways from this: 1) Holy shit, I’m SO my mother’s daughter, and 2) This was a whole other level of post-breakup stalking. It was so much more…real. The effects were so tangible. What a daredevil, that one.
My mom also mentioned that pre-Facebook, she’d ask around to mutual friends to see how John, Jake or Jimmy might be doing. Was he happy? Who was he dating? I asked her if she found herself dwelling more on her exes since she was introduced to social media.
“Oh my god, yeah,” she said. “It’s hard to find closure now that they’re virtually always available in some fashion. It’s so easy to scratch that itch.
Her theory on why we do it? “I think we like to know how we compare to them. There’s always a level of ‘who made out better in life’ that’s been going on way before social media. It’s the same with people you left behind in high school. I know I mostly want to check in to see if he’s dating anyone new and if she’s prettier than me. What do they have that I don’t?” (ATTENTION, ALL OF MY EXES EVER: DOES THIS VAIN MENTALITY EXPLAIN SOME THINGS?)
I thought to myself, Wow, what insightful feedback. But also, What a terrifying epiphany about my own psyche.
Stockton compares the drive to stalk an ex to a drug addict needing a fix. “At some point, you may have experienced pure euphoric love in that relationship, just like a drug user experiencing drug-induced euphoria,” she says. “But, ultimately, like the recovering drug user, one gradually builds enough awareness to recognize that, while the person once had a positive influence on your emotions, to continue exposing yourself to that person via social media for prolonged periods of time could be detrimental long-term. If holding onto an ex takes precedence, it can isolate you from current relationships or prevent you from building new, more healthy ones.”
He thinks I don’t notice, but sometimes he’ll add me again just to look at my story, and then block me again.
My mom echoed this sentiment. “Facebook has definitely made it harder for me to move on from relationships, and at an inconvenient time in my life,” she said. “I’m not getting any younger, and it seems like the process of finding my soulmate might be moving a little faster if I wasn’t constantly concerning myself with my failed attempts.”
There are ways to mitigate social media stalking. Of course, there’s always deleting or blocking the person you need to avoid, but that takes willpower, and if you’re in this position, that is probably an attribute you lack. So, in the name of saving ourselves from ourselves, I did a little digging and found some apps that can help social stalkers get sober.
KillSwitch removes every trace of your ex from Facebook. No kissy-face photos, no pictures of his dumb face every time you log in?—?no temptation. Make sure you’re REALLY ready to make the kill, though, because once you enable the app, you lose everything your ex was tagged in. The coolest part? Killswitch donates some of the proceeds to the American Heart Association. Consider it the one good thing to come out of your relationship with that dill-hole.
Block Your Ex brings out the big guns. It’s a browser-based plugin that shuts down all updates from your ex’s Twitter, Facebook and blog accounts, all in one digital swoop. Your little corner of the web can be squeaky clean for up to five exes.
If you’re trying to ween yourself off your addiction, there’s Eternal Sunshine?—?a plugin exclusively for Google Chrome. It works exclusively with Facebook to make your ex vanish without dramatically unfriending him or her. The best part of Eternal Sunshine? No more gut-wrenching friend suggestions. Presto, no more ex-o!
But let’s be honest, would a shock collar keep Sarah from visiting her ex’s Twitter account everyday? “Probably not,” she admitted. And you know what? I don’t think it would stop David, either.
“He blocked me on Snapchat,” Sarah says. “He thinks I don’t notice, but sometimes he’ll add me again just to look at my story, and then block me again.”
Sarah’s haunting her own ghost. In fact, all of our exes are very likely watching us, just as we’re keeping tabs on them. Though social media may seem less risky than driving over to their homes and dropping off a mix of love ballads, the convenience of social media is the truly destructive part of it?—?allowing us to return time after time. Like with any drug addiction, we have to want to make the change.
Stockton describes the biggest benefit of learning to let go: “At the end of the day, heroin and/or Instagram aren’t going to order Grubhub with you on a Friday night. Only letting go and making new meaning for yourself outside of your previous relationship will get you back on the couch with a more rewarding partner.”
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the guilty party.