But in this age of social media, e-mails, videos and digital photos, the end of a romantic relationship has become even more difficult, according to a new study from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“People are keeping huge collections of digital possessions,” UC Santa Cruz psychology professor Steve Whittaker told Science Daily. “There has been little exploration of the negative role of digital possessions when people want to forget aspects of their lives.”
Whittaker and Corina Sas, of Lancaster University co-authored ‘Design for Forgetting: Disposing of Digital Possessions after a Breakup,’ a document that explores the challenges of dealing with the end of a romance in an increasingly digital world.
Interviews with 24 people between the ages of 19 and 34 uncovered the difficulty all faced in how to deal with the digital history of an ended relationship.
Of those interviewed, 12 were deleters, eight were keepers and four were “selective disposers.”
Deleting or cutting ties can be “beneficial on a short-term basis, providing separation from continual contact and painful reminders, as well as allowing for sense-making,” the authors wrote. “Its main limitation is that is often impulsive; deleters sometimes later regret failing to save mementos symbolizing a chapter of their life. Future technologies may help address this limitation.”
Social networks, such as Facebook, can be especially problematic after a break up because of a lack of control over digital traces of the relationship, the study found. Facebook users can only erase their own photos but can do little about those posted on friends’ accounts other than untagging.
Facebook users also must decide if they wish to retain any ties to their ex-partner through mutual friends.
“Retaining ties enables unwanted access to the ex-partner’s activities or raises problems with friends taking sides,” the study found, yet “deleting friends disrupts one’s already compromised social network.”
Going from ‘in a relationship,’ ‘engaged’ or ‘married’ to single can be traumatic, the study noted, because it often means having to explain one’s new status to a number of acquaintances.
Retaining social media ties with an ex can also make it easier to check up on the other person, which can be “either maladaptive, or positive if merely done to ‘see if they are OK’,” the study said. “Access to status updates also facilitates ex-partners’ surveillance possibly promoting attempts to get back in touch, which may slow the process of moving on.”
The study noted there needs to be a happy medium between cutting all ties and disposing of nothing.
“Keepers took longer to heal, disposers often regretted their impulsiveness.”
The solution, the authors said, would be the creation of a technology that would collect and store all digital reminders of an ended relationship in one out-of-sight place until a person is able to make a smart decision on what to keep and what to delete. They dubbed the tool Pandora’s Box and suggested a trusted friend or family member be the ‘gatekeeper’ of the ‘Box’ until the person is ready to deal with its contents.
The authors also suggested tools be manufactured to create a “treasure chest of valued items” so users can actively select valued materials to save during and after the relationship and create an ability to ‘craft’ items such as photo collages in a bid to afford closure, celebrate the good and acknowledge the bad to help people move on.