When my boyfriend became my ex-boyfriend, I didn’t acknowledge our breakup online. This was fairly easy to do given that so little of our relationship had been posted for public consumption. His mom had tagged me in some pictures on Facebook; I think I tweeted a funny thing he’d said a few times. It’s not that we were one of those couples who took pride in being intentionally offline. It just never occurred to me to document our life together.
Maybe you’re thinking that sounds like a red flag. But this was seven years ago, just before the dawn of there being essentially no choice but to exist almost entirely on your phone. And besides, for the majority of our relationship, I had a fake BlackBerry, which was incapable of doing much more than text. Also, I did not yet know about micro-influencing as a viable career path.
Anyway, when the relationship was over, he moved out, and I began to post more about myself. I shared about my job, my sister. And every so often, I’d nod to my newly single status: Tinder is so bad! Did I mention I’m on Tinder? I uploaded pics of my globe-trotting adventures to places like Des Moines so people would know I was “getting out there.” Navigating my raw singleness on social media certainly didn’t feel natural, but I was resigned to a certain set of facts: Our lives were moving online, so our breakups had to too.
That only became more true in the intervening years, during which time I became something of a cultural anthropologist of social media breakup performance, with a particular emphasis on celebrities, aka the originators of turning personal news into capital-C Content. And bless them: Who among us does not want to know all the specifics of that level of split? Who is above pondering which famous person’s PR team gets the first pass at the announcement or which of them will keep running the dog’s Instagram account? I find myself analyzing each and every detail of these uncouplings, and not to make light of what they’re going through, but...we’re living in an incredibly ripe moment for field research.
The recent past, as in last year, has added some truly peak entries into the Record of Processing Breakups Publicly, particularly in the music category, where heartache has been artfully sublimated into emotional catharsis slash some genuinely stirring shit. I am still wondering how Jake Gyllenhaal is holding up since Taylor Swift’s 10-minute, scorched-earth rerelease of “All Too Well” and weeping every time Adele’s “Easy on Me” comes on the radio. As for “Driver’s License” and all the other addictive, deliciously petty hit singles on Sour, let me be perfectly clear: Olivia Rodrigo, I will *never* get over it.
But if 2021 breakup music is the soundtrack to my studies, the moving-on behavior of the blue-check crowd is a dissertation topic unto itself. There are posts winkingly designed to fan the flames of speculation (see: Bachelorette Katie Thurston and Blake Moynes’s blowup) and the PR playbook moves meant to cut off oxygen completely (which never...actually work). A bloodless “wish them all the best” statement, a dress worn during a post-breakup interview, a ruthless grid cull: It all invites dissection. Saying nothing constitutes something. Oh my god, he’s not even acknowledging the divorce? Wow.
The truth for us normals is: When you’re emotionally devastated and Very Online, even if you don’t know what to say, you do have some off-the-shelf options. There are memes to recirculate; various categories of “revenge” content ranging from compellingly vindictive to saccharine narratives of personal growth. There are illustrated affirmations and widely circulated poems: sterile alternatives to the reality that you haven’t showered since Tuesday and today is Monday.
But a well-utilized meme can only take anyone so far. And communicating the contours of your breakup grief requires getting into the specifics of your particular experience. That’s why we have a common language for the good parts of relationships—“soft launching” a significant other; announcing an engagement or a baby (sooo, we did a thing!)—but not one for our more complex feelings about relationships that end.
And now for the Alex Rodriguez part of the story. Honestly, I’ve never been more invested in him than after his split from Jennifer Lopez, during which he alternated between posting thirst traps and mournful tributes to their love. To quote famous philosopher Marie Kondo, I love mess, and I should therefore probably be under FBI surveillance for the number of times I’ve watched the IG Story in which Alex pans over a graveyard of J-Rod photos (and what appears to be one lone snap of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, for unclear reasons) while Coldplay’s “Fix You” whines on. You could chalk up my obsession to a certain kind of pleasure at seeing a beefy MLB hall-of-famer be so endearingly mushy; you could also make a case that his post was highly calculated. But it’s the unique display of heartache—which, for 10 seconds, dispenses with the “act” of grieving and encapsulates how it actually is—that gets me. No matter who you are, expressing vulnerability is a gamble for empathy. Feeling seen, as they say, is kind of the reward.
Not that you have to be super obvious about it. I’ve found Anna Marie Tendler’s TikToks to be a subtextual master class in the art of moving forward even when maybe what you actually want to do is lie on the floor. The artist, after being blindsided by comedian John Mulaney’s petition to divorce, posted her first-ever video last October, in which she delicately walked viewers through the notoriously annoying process of putting on a duvet cover; in a follow-up life hack the next day, she used a vegetable peeler to perfectly butter a slice of cinnamon raisin toast. What strikes me about this content is the subtle resilience in her competent handling of domestic endeavors. Making the bed by yourself, eating breakfast alone: These are the routine but sharply painful things we do by ourselves when the person we used to do them with is gone.
The first picture I posted after that breakup seven years ago was, for some reason, a meticulously arranged vignette of craft-store trinkets: anchor-shaped bookends, one miniature box of fake doughnuts, a pair of ceramic lemons, and three big wooden letters that spelled “YES.” As in, YES, my boyfriend of four years and I recently split. And YES, this bizarro still life is how I’ve elected to process my feelings about it in a digital format.
The image itself wasn’t immediately recognizable as a breakup post—although if you read the caption, you’d start to get the idea that I was feeling a little unhinged: “In this edition of Mia Buys Things Impulsively, I try to justify to a cashier at Michaels why I need a miniature box of donuts. Spoiler alert: I don’t! #yes #lemons #bookends #donuts #thisisacryforhelp.” The inclusion of the final hashtag—yes, we still hashtagged on Instagram then—was equal parts self-deprecating joke and legitimate SOS. I wanted anyone following along to know that I was going through something. But I didn’t want to get into it get into it.
Actually, that’s a lie. I wanted to. What I posted was, whether I realized it or not, a bat signal for exactly what I needed: validation from the friends who’d be able to read between the lines and see the messy thing I was going through. Even if I wasn’t sure how to share it yet.
Collages by Laura Weiler