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‘My ex was a terrible person but I can’t stop looking at his social media’

Ask Roe: He’s with a beautiful woman, and I torture myself by looking at their profiles

Dear Roe,

My ex and I were together for over two years, and he was a terrible person. He criticised me constantly, lied, cheated, played on every insecurity I had, humiliated me in public, would laugh at me when he made me cry – the works. We split up two years ago, and I was left with no self-esteem. Now, I'm doing better and I've started seeing a man who is kind and sweet and lovely. But I still keep looking at my ex's social media. He's with a beautiful woman, and I keep torturing myself by looking at both of their profiles. Seeing them so happy makes me feel worthless and sick, but I can't stop myself from doing it. I don't even want him back, I just get so angry and sad that he was such a terrible person yet he gets to be happy. I know it's stupid but how are you meant to get over someone when you can constantly see them?

We are not supposed to look at our exes’ social media after a break-up. I don’t mean etiquette-wise, I mean psychologically. We are not wired to overcome trauma and stress and pain when it’s constantly shoved in our faces. Evolution has not given us the skills to watch our exes in their most photogenic highlights while we’re sitting at home, sad and unshowered and heartbroken asking ourselves for the millionth time whether our relationship would have worked if we had looked a bit more like the beautiful girl now popping up in their photos.

Of course, people tortured themselves over their exes before social media. We sat by the phone and waited for them to call, and when they didn't call we called them just to hear them say hello before hanging up and being overcome with the hot shame of having done something so pathetic, before doing it again tomorrow. (Don't deny it – Dorothy Parker outed us all years ago.)


But social media makes it all so much easier to wallow. Except, social media also makes it easy to hide the source of your pain. There are mute buttons and block buttons and unfollow buttons, and so escape from your ex’s photogenic highlights is literally just a click away. Yet after two years, you’re still not clicking. And that’s a choice.

You want to see some form of justice is being doled out to this person who hurt you so deeply, so deliberately – but you’ll never see that on social media. You’ll see the highlights. And highlights do not equal happiness. I’m sure that, over the past two years, your own social media has made your life and new relationship look pretty damn perfect, even while you’ve been heartbroken and angry and hurt.

So your choice isn’t rooted in justice. And probably not even in envy – you have a wonderful new boyfriend and know that being free from your ex’s emotionally abusive clutches can only be a good thing.

Your choice to torture yourself with the memory of your ex and the hurt and insecurity caused by him is because you are still invested in the narrative created during that relationship – that you deserve pain.

Being in an emotionally abusive relationship causes unhealthy emotions such as pain, hurt and insecurity to feel normal. It creates a loop in your mind where your emotions are treated like they are too much, so you never get what you want and then feel needy for wanting it in the first place. You’re continuing this dynamic now – you want to look on your ex’s social media and see that he’s realised he is a terrible person and is atoning, but you also know he never will. So you keep looking at his social media, never getting what you want, and feeling needy for looking, for hoping.

You spent two years having this man tell you didn’t deserve to be happy, and internalised that – but at least the reason for your unhappiness was right in front of you. Now, you have a new boyfriend and a new life, but because you haven’t realised that you deserve happiness, you keep returning to an old story about yourself because somehow, feeling bad feels more normal.

You need to work on unlearning the “normal” that relationship gave you, and write yourself a new one – one where you deserve happiness, and can live in the present enough to accept it.

Talking to a therapist would be a good step to take.

Allowing yourself to tell a friend or a diary or your new partner just how much he hurt you might be another. Realising that having a life beyond him doesn’t have to involve forgiving or forgetting, just moving forward, will be a big one.

What your ex did to you wasn’t your fault. But taking a step towards happiness is now your responsibility. The smallest, quickest, but most immediately impactful one you can take involves a click. Do it. Notice how much easier it is to breathe when you’re not inhaling his energy all the time. Embrace how much more energy you have to spend on you, on the present, on happiness. Believe that you deserve a life so wonderful and joyous and complex that it could never possibly be captured in a photograph.

Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She is researching a PhD in gendered and sexual citizenship at the Open University and Oxford.