Your exes to appear on next episode of 'As the Web turns'

A revealing article in New York Magazine suggests that social media is enabling us to keep the soap opera of failed relationships alive long after the "shows" were canned.

Chris Matyszczyk
5 min read
Yes, we're all here to help. Alwaysanecesity/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Welcome to today's psychological survey.

We are here to discover your attitude toward your exes. Yes, we know you have more than one. We've heard the number is in the double digits, actually.

So: Do you keep the texts you exchanged? Are you still Facebook friends? If you're not, do you creep around social media to see what they're doing and whom they're seeing?

Do you occasionally sit there late at night with your new (and perhaps temporary) lover, secretly pleased that your ex just texted you, wondering how you are?

I am asking because I've just read (twice) a quite stunning and revelatory piece by Maureen O'Connor in New York Magazine.

In it, she explains that times have changed, that relationships are not quite what they used to be, and that the way people now look at their exes has been altered -- literally.

Technology, you see, has made the things we have done in the past and the people we've shared those experiences with far less forgettable -- even when we thought they were forgettable at the time.

O'Connor explains that exes are no longer "characters from a foreclosed past." Instead, the largely technological lives that we lead create "a dozen soap operas playing at the same time on a dozen different screens, and you are the star of them all. It's both as thrilling and as sickening as it sounds."

In the new world, your ex will turn up on one of your screens, whether you like it or not. Your social circles might have gone their separate ways in physical life, but in the virtual world, they are bound to intersect.

She writes: "Even if you only have sex once, you will spend time with your hookup when he finds you on Facebook, appears in a mutual friend's Instagram, or texts about a weird bump he found on his penis."

Today's men really do that, it seems.

We might wish that certain things we've done in life would be forgotten. Yet technology keeps us somehow in touch with all those with whom we've been in some way intimate.

There seems to be a certain pleasure (perhaps of the horror-movie kind) to see that your ex is now dating a woman who looks remarkably like you.

There might even be a certain perverse fascination that your ex is, say, still wearing the necklace you gave her in every one of her profile photos. Who does that?

But is there a special emotional level occupied by texts? O'Connor cites these as being intimate. It's just two people talking to each other privately.

However: "Texts are also depersonalized, carrying few traces of the physical person behind them -- no face, no voice, no handwriting. You cannot be certain whether a recipient is delaying a response because she is away from her phone, or willfully ignoring you. In that way, texts offer a kind of risk-free come-on."

The whole world of texting seems to engender a lost excitement of what could have been and what might still be.

If he texts me, he's still thinking of me, right? But what is he really thinking, as opposed to what he's actually texting?

O'Connor has thought about this a lot and concludes: "An ex who 'likes' your selfies thinks you still look hot. An ex who ignores 2 a.m. texts is either asleep or over you. An ex whose jokes your friends retweet would have been popular with them. An ex who retweets you and adds a nasty hashtag is giving you a taste of the smack he talks behind your back."

It's assumed that, regardless of how your relationship ended, some vestige of your past will still remain. Yet there are those who go out of their way to shut off every single avenue of potential communication.

They defriend you from everything they can. They cut you off from Facebook and Skype. They put their tweets behind a little lock. They block your phone number and your e-mail address. Perhaps they even change their e-mail address.

Those mere acts, however, still may have complex significance. As the very wise Nassim Taleb offered in one of his many musings: "(If) someone is making an effort to ignore you, he is not ignoring you."

Indeed, O'Connor admits to performing technological blocking maneuvers. And yet:

I'm as nosy and judgmental as the next social-media masochist; I just need to steel myself before ex encounters. And so, during afternoon lulls and late at night, I sometimes navigate to the URLs of their ­public-facing Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds. I start at the top and scroll down, binge-reading backward the fractured narratives of their lives. Has his sense of humor changed? Did he finally download emoji? Who are these new people in his life?

The emoji is a big step for a man, indeed. Once you go there, you hope she will see that you're more than the man she thought you were.

Ultimately, though, doesn't all this mental torture, played out across every device we own, suggest one very painful thing: The existence of all these gadgets and the possibilities they create have exponentially increased human neuroses?

We tell others that we are moving on -- because it's the cliche we're supposed to use. Yet does anyone really ever move on anymore?

Where commitment to a relationship once seemed so simple, now we see so many possibilities that we don't know which way to leap. Worse, when we've made a decision, the continued access to exes creates a whole new world of doubt.

Where once we might hear of exes years later, now we can scour the Web the very night after the breakup to see what they're doing -- in the hope of somehow deducing what they're feeling.

The truth is, perhaps, that this is what we were most unsure of. Though we thought we had so much more information at our fingertips, though we could research their pasts and follow their presents, we still weren't sure who they really were. Or who we really were.

Trust, thy enemy is technology.