You know you do it. We all have at some point or another.
You visit your ex’s Facebook profile to see who he’s been tagged with at a concert, or what bar he checked into. You peek at his Instagram story multiple times a day, looking for the tiniest glimmer of sadness or loneliness in his selfies. You overanalyze every random Twitter rambling to scrape together a hidden subtext, a commentary on his sex life, perhaps, disguised as a silly rant? Maybe you even go beyond that, monitoring him on Grindr from a fake profile to see how many times a day his little light is green, or what area of town he’s in, or who he’s next to.
Regardless of your entry point, let’s call it what it is, you’re cyber-stalking your ex, and it’s painful. Every time you do it, it brings up feelings of sadness or loss, anger and resentment, or gut-wrenching jealousy. So, what is actually happening here? Why do we sometimes feel the need to see exactly what’s going on in our ex’s lives, or who they are interacting with, even when it hurts?
It could be that you’re just not over him. A lot of times, we still hold feelings towards our ex, and maybe even want him back. Maybe you were the one who was broken up with, or maybe you did the dumping because it just wasn’t going to work anymore. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling. Let’s face it, at one time it was hot and heavy and you thought he was “the one.” There’s clearly a connection there, and it can be easy to forget the bad parts, because we want to believe it could still work. Monitoring his every move might give you the information you need to see if there’s a chance at getting back together.
But there may be something deeper going on here psychologically. You may actually enjoy victimizing yourself.
Sometimes you can’t stop spying on your ex, even though every time you do it feels like a dagger has been stuck in your heart. Every time we see him out living his new life, it just reminds you of the pain and heartbreak we feel from the loss. Sometimes we can also feel jealousy when we see our ex with a potential new bae, and even though it’s a stinging feeling, we’d still rather know. There’s a masochism about this unpleasant habit. In some strange way, it can feel good to rub salt in the wound.
Maybe we think we’ll be able to move past it quicker if we rip the band aid off all at once. Or maybe on some level we’re more comfortable with being a victim who is suffering, because it’s easier than having to do the work to heal and move on in a healthy way.
Sometimes after a relationship ends, you still hold resentments. You’re angry, and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to put that anger. So what do you do? You monitor your ex’s behavior closely, scowling and seething at his every post, reveling in the feeling. Just like with sadness, it can feel weirdly good sometimes to feel angry, especially because If the anger is gone, usually what’s left is sadness and despair, which are harder emotions to succumb to.
Another reason one might cyberstalk is because unconsciously you want to feel better about your own life. By examining and judging your ex’s life by their social media presence, what you actually may be doing is simply comparing it to your own. You may even be secretly (or not so secretly) hoping that his life looks sad, desperate, and lonely without you. The hope here isn’t necessarily that you want bad things for him, but you want to feel better about yourself.
Maybe you’re feeling insecure in your new chapter, trying to learn to walk again as a single person, and struggling with loneliness or confusion about what to do next. Seeing your ex with a less than stellar life might make you feel like you’re not doing so bad. The problem with this is that it’s just a temporary ego boost, and that “good” feeling really isn’t substantial.
If you find yourself listening to your inner Penn Badgley, there may be a part of yourself that truly likes being in emotional pain. Instead of indulging in masochistic delights, it may be time to take a long hard look at your own life. Rather than focusing on someone else, use all that energy to work on bettering yourself. The more that you are satisfied with your job, happy with your relationship status, enjoying your friends and activities, the less need there will be to ever look back.
I know for myself, sometimes I feel like I’m just being “curious” when I look at an ex’s profile. But upon deeper examination, we can usually find more to it. We want to compare, judge, or have some sense of control over our own emotional state, whether that be feeling better about ourselves, or maybe even reveling in our sadness. When you catch yourself doing that, notice it. Awareness is the first step towards moving on. Then consider asking yourself why you would want to allow yourself to feel bad. Is it really helping you? Sure, sometimes a little S&M can be fun. As Rhianna sings, “Feels so good feeling bad.” But when it comes to our overall wellbeing, maybe it’s time for a little vanilla.
Jake Myers is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, with a specialization in LGBT Affirmative Psychotherapy.