“Hit the gym, lawyer up, delete Facebook” — so goes the stock Reddit advice for how to handle divorce. For those of us who grew up on the internet, it’s not that easy. We’re used to sharing our lives online; we’re not about to stop just because we’re hitting a more dubious milestone such as divorce. If we’ve shared everything else, it’s only natural to share this too, right?
When I got divorced last year, what blindsided me most wasn’t the awkwardness of dividing the novelty mugs from our honeymoon road trip, but just how weird it was to tell people that, “Hey, so that time I declared to friends, family and Instagram that I had made a choice for life? It turns out I was clueless!” Maybe this shouldn’t have been a surprise; 40-50 percent of marriages end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association. But even as I was careful to never use the word “forever” when talking about my husband, I, like most people, married with the expectation of avoiding that stark statistic.
And the last thing I wanted was for people to send me sad face emoji, because the truth is that no happily married people get divorced. By the time people make an announcement, it’s probably on the back end of a long — and failed — process. While my situation wasn’t anything near ‘Nicole Kidman on her divorce day’ levels, I felt relief at having finally made the decision. Still, the prospect of how the limp little “likes” might have accumulated under a Facebook post meant I never specifically stated on social media that I was divorcing. I just quietly removed my “married” status, and proceeded to post a load of photos of myself along with people who were not my husband. If there were better ways of handling it, well, nobody wrote books about this when we were growing up.
As the internet generation ages, we’re dealing with things that our parents never had to worry about, and making up the rules as we go. For Theo*, officially announcing his divorce on Facebook seemed like the natural thing to do. “My ex, as the aggrieved party, asked me to pen a mutually agreeable statement,” he told me. “She reviewed it, and then we posted it.” This was a couple of weeks after their split. Theo said he would have posted about it even if his ex hadn’t asked him too, as they had been together for over a decade and had a large joint friend group. “Telling each of them was becoming draining,” Theo said, and the post solved that problem.
Theo and his ex are still friends, but they have agreed to hide their relationship statuses from each other for now. Isaac, however, took the opposite approach, deleting his ex-wife from all social media platforms so he wouldn’t have to see her updates — plus, he wanted to talk openly about his feelings about the divorce on Twitter. Leonard’s approach was to essentially stop posting on Facebook altogether and let his ex make whatever declarations she wanted. It’s been years since the divorce and he basically hasn’t touched the platform since. “That’s my old life,” Leonard said, matter-of-factly. “I’ve decamped to Instagram now, adding only the people who I’m close to since the divorce.”
“People who’re emotionally unstable are actually more likely to use online social networks.”
While people take very different approaches to social media during divorce, those who have grown accustomed to sharing their life online find it surprisingly hard to stay away altogether. “People who’re emotionally unstable are actually more likely to use online social networks,” said Dr. Eva Buechel, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina. Buechel’s research has found that this is especially the case when people also feel socially apprehensive or anxious about reaching out, as can be the case around divorce. In these cases, social networks can be a strong source of support, said Buechel: “We found that online social networks can be really good, especially for people who have trouble communicating offline. It opens the door for a different kind of communication that can be easier for them.”
Writing can be therapeutic in its own right; the internet didn’t invent that. But Buechel said her research actually found that much of the benefit of social media sharing comes from the anticipation of a response. “We believe the anticipation of having lots of people see your post, and possibly responding or just being affected by it, may actually be [more beneficial] than actually getting the response,” she said.” The fact that you don’t have to put anyone on the spot also makes social media sharing a good option for many, as anyone can respond at their own pace.
Still, you could easily end up writing something you’ll later regret. Dr Tracey Phillips, a licensed counsellor in South Carolina, said she’s seen people take to social media to vent their frustrations about their exes and air dirty laundry. “I’ve seen people discuss child support and custody,” she said. “I've had clients who've gone as far as post the personal information of the person their spouse cheated with. It can get pretty ugly.” In the moment, people are looking for support and encouragement — but even if they regret it later and take the post down, the damage has been done. By then, the gossip has spread and screenshots have been taken, sometimes to resurface in divorce court.
Phillips isn’t against posting a divorce announcement on Facebook, but she advised to wait until the dust has settled, and until it’s certain you’re not going to get back together — Phillips has seen people jump the gun, only to later announce that they’re not splitting after all. “Even in the most peaceful divorces there's still an emotional upheaval,” she said. “Wait until after the divorce is finalized and put it out there as a fact, not an emotional response.”
As awkward as it may be to announce your divorce on social media, everyone I spoke to reported that it was actually quite the relief. When Miriam divorced her childhood sweetheart after 11 years together, she was worried about the social repercussions, as her ex publicly blamed her, and attempted suicide several times during that first year apart. “Because of his mental health I was extremely careful about what I wrote on Facebook at first,” she said. “But then he blocked me and demanded that his family and friends — who were my friends too — also block me so he’d never have to see me.”
This actually made it easier for Miriam to share about her life when she met someone new who she was crazy about. “It was a milestone to post a photo of myself and my new boyfriend on social media,” she said. “But I actually got so much support from friends on Facebook, even my ex’s buddies, that I need not have worried.” It took Miriam’s ex seven years to befriend her again on Facebook, but she said her ex is now friends with her and her new husband. They co-parent well together, and six months ago, he even added her on Snapchat.
I wasn’t too nervous about posting pictures of my boyfriend on Instagram and Facebook after my divorce, as I figured it wasn’t much different than sharing photos of friends. But of course, people can tell. Most of the supporting comments came via DM: “You’re glowing on the socials,” my out-of-town friend Helen texted me. “I’m so happy for you.” People who I’d never met in real life said similar things, because “post-divorce new relationship energy” is definitely a thing. It’s that dopey happy look that says, it’s been really rough for a while, but I’ve discovered happiness still exists after it seemed impossible.
Maybe the awkwardness that comes with being open on social media during a divorce is just an extension of the fact that life feels so out of control — and sharing means it’s out there for everyone to see. But when you reach out, sometimes unexpected and wonderful things come back your way. The day my divorce was finalised, I put it in an Instagram caption on some random photo of a clocktower in East London. I probably wouldn’t have specifically told my friend Ross, but he saw my post and DM’ed me a YouTube link without comment. It was “Loaded” by Primal Scream, which starts with a sample from The Wild Angels where Peter Fonda exclaims enthusiastically, “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! And we wanna get loaded and we wanna have a good time.” That day, in that moment, it was so perfect that I almost cried.
*Some names have been changed