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I ruined my engagement with Facebook, and apparently I’m not alone

Maybe this has happened to you: You’re uploading photos to Facebook and somehow trip across an old album. You click through mindlessly, until you land on a picture of your ex. And suddenly, you’re thrown back months, years even, and all you want to do is message them, add them as a friend, look through their photos. Which is fine – unless you’re engaged… like I was.

I’m a Facebook cheater, one of the many. The temptations of social networking lured me in, and what started as the very familiar Facebook catch-up turned into an E-motional affair that ended my engagement.

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People love to write about love. Being in it, falling out of it, giving advice about it, where to find it, and most bleakly of all, how to ruin it. The current culprit of our heartbreak culture? Facebook.

This was something people do with Facebook, relive past times and moments by almost obsessively digging into it. 

Many of us read Maureen O’Connor’s “All My Exes Live in Texts” piece, a brilliant, frighteningly familiar piece of personal anecdotes about her and her friends and how they document and engage in their love lives digitally. The article didn’t take a high-brow look at the psychological or emotional affects our Internet propensity has had on us, instead regaling readers with haunting stories about blocking Google Talk contacts, drunk texting, and Facebook stalking past lovers.

These stories touched a nerve because those of us who grew up on Facebook and have used it, either knowingly or unknowingly, to document our relationships have organically been changed. The way we talk about our love lives is starkly different then how the pre-Facebook generation do.

But one part of the piece spoke to me personally: A story about a couple who had dated for five years and broken up, who reunited later, thanks to a Facebook interaction. I, too, know the potency of a reconnection via Facebook – except that in my case, it cost me my marriage.

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Caroline* and I had been dating for three years, engaged for six months when I saw a Facebook Message from my ex, Laura. Laura* and I had dated for about a year; it was a fairly inconsequential relationship, really, but the break up had been so messy that we hadn’t kept in touch. I’d seen her on Facebook and added her on Instagram when I was prompted to, but we didn’t text or email since we’d separated. One day, out of nowhere, a message from her showed up in my Facebook inbox.

I can’t remember exactly what it said (I’ve deleted the entire thread in an attempt at forgetting the whole episode) but it wasn’t particular incendiary. It read “Hey, how are you? It’s been awhile,” or something along those lines. I messaged her back – something like, “Good, you? Yeah hate how we left everything, glad you’re well.” It all started innocently enough.

But after sending, you see that hyperlinked name glaring back at you, begging you to click it and rifle through this person’s profile. I did, for what seemed like hours; I wanted to know everything Laura had been doing since the last time I’d seen her, wanted to know who her friends were, what she looked like now (and mentally compare it against how she’d looked then). I’ll admit it, I wanted to see if some new guy repeatedly showed up in her photos… and if she did, if she was dating him.

After the intense scrutiny of her profile, I didn’t feel like I’d done anything wrong. This was something people do with Facebook, relive past times and moments by almost obsessively digging into it. But I probably should’ve known when I erased my browser history to delete any trace of my Laura-inspection from the laptop I shared with Caroline that I was heading into dangerous territory.

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relationship-status-change-screenshotA study that was published recently says that “excessive” Facebook activity hurts relationships. Another that Facebook makes it difficult to move on from your exes, thanks to the preserved visual remnents of your time together. A new one says “selfies” cause dating friction. There’s also evidence that “Facebook cheating” hurts just like “real life” cheating does.

Being on Facebook and being in a serious relationship is risky. Temptation and pitfalls are everywhere, the experts are saying. But in very non-scientific terms, what it feels like is being at a house party; there are plenty of rooms, and you just want to find the one with the people or person you actually care about in it, but you have to walk through the whole thing to get there and along the way it’s impossible to ignore everyone you see along the way. Or so it went for me.

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It began innocently enough, like I said: The usual back-and-forth catch up messages, some light Facebook stalking. I say it was innocent, but I know now – and really, then – that it wasn’t. I started checking Facebook way more, to see if she’d responded to me yet, or if there was any other activity of hers I could creep on. (Yes, I’m admitting I was acting like a creep.)

I was also taking precautions to make sure Caroline didn’t see any of this. I changed my Facebook password often, made sure I never stayed logged in, and deleted my sent messages, as well as any messages from Laura that seemed “too” flirtatious.

In retrospect, I know she noticed that I was checking Facebook from my phone and the computer more. I used to just do quick inventories of these things, and now I was refreshing constantly and always connected.

Laura and I moved beyond messages to chatting – sometimes all day. Obviously, the next stop was texting, which felt more intimate, and more like it was leading somewhere it shouldn’t.

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Have you ever asked your parents about their exes? It’s a strange conversation to have, but I encourage everyone to try it. You learn a lot about your parents as people who had lives before they became parents.

It began innocently enough, like I said: The usual back-and-forth catch up messages, some light Facebook stalking.

What I’ve noticed is that when my parents talk about their exes, it’s a short story. They dated, they broke up, it was over. There are exceptions obviously and even the Facebook-free generation had to live through heartbreak, but the way they reminisced about it is very different. Boxes of photos and diary entries bring back memories of the people they used to date, but they don’t have to open up to a picture of that person taken yesterday. They don’t have to see them post status updates constantly or suddenly, out of nowhere, come across a photo of them while they’re just trying to create an event invite.

I try to imagine what their version of “Facebook cheating” would have been; cheating that isn’t technically cheating, except that you know your intentions aren’t as innocent as they should be. Lucky for them, it wasn’t something they had to try and define.

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Caroline found out, obviously. I’d share the gory details, but they are exactly what you’re thinking. I got sloppy; left my phone laying out with a text from Laura sitting front and center. The context made it obvious we’d been in communication for awhile – a couple months.

Then came the horror of letting Caroline read my Facebook Messages. While not all of the conversations between Laura and I were there, she’s a smart girl who gathered that I was having something of a digital relationship with my former girlfriend. We said we missed each other, what we liked about each other, complimented each other – all the things you do when you get back together with someone in real life, we were just doing them online.

I explained this wasn’t actually cheating. I hadn’t slept with Laura, or even gone out to meet her, there’s been no physical, real life connection made since we broke up. It wasn’t real. To her credit, Caroline didn’t walk out on the spot, but the months-long “Facebook affair” I’d had with Laura become this open sore that was unfixable. Every argument came back to it, and soon enough we knew this thing that had happened, even though it happened online, had caused too much damage. There was not going to be a “getting over it.”

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FacebookCheating.com is making its living off of stories like mine, though most come from the other side of the aisle. The site is also advertising that a talk show is looking for people to talk about their Facebook affairs.

… all the things you do when you get back together with someone in real life, we were just doing them online.

My parting advice? Delete your exes from your friends list (if you truly want to move on – and definitely if you are in a new relationship or pursing new relationships). Make sure you create a chat list of specific people you want to talk to so someone you used to date doesn’t pop up to say “Hi! =)!” out of the blue and knock you off your guard. And above all, if you’re in a relationship, list it – if anything will keep you honest, it’s you and the rest of the world seeing your significant other’s name right there. It’s been about two years since this all happened, and I’m following my own advice and it’s going well.

I tried to tell Caroline that what I did wasn’t cheating because it wasn’t happening in real life. Problem is, Facebook is real life now. There isn’t a real disconnect between the two anymore, so Facebook cheating is just cheating. 

* Not a real name

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