You haven’t dated your ex in years. In fact, you might be in a totally happy relationship now, or simply 100 percent positive you’re over the breakup. But every once in a while, you find yourself bored in bed and suddenly on their Instagram, then on their new girlfriend’s Instagram, then on your ex’s Twitter to see if they ever reference their new relationship.
After 20 minutes, you realize you just spent a chunk of time you’ll never get back scoping out the life of someone you genuinely don’t care about anymore. Or do you? What does this mean? Why do you keep doing this? Why are you like this???
Despite how utterly cringey you might feel, this is completely normal. “I don’t think there was ever a time where we weren’t interested in our exes or who they’re dating,” says Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “Maybe now it’s just easier to track and follow [them].”
Having a digital trail to your past relationships so readily available makes it hard for even the most indifferent person not to check in on their high school boyfriend every so often. Here are all the reasons you keep compulsively checking your ex’s Insta from time to time… and why it’s ok to be like this.
1. Social media reminds you of your ex constantly.
“What I commonly hear is you’re not even trying to check, but they will pop up in your feed, which can be more hurtful because you’re not even looking,” says Dr. Marlynn Wei, a psychiatrist and therapist in New York City and author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga. Even if you were proactive and blocked your ex because you weren’t ready for fresh updates, seeing an unexpected pic of them from a mutual friend can pull you into a masochistic stalking sesh.
“Facebook doesn’t help — it will show you what you were doing five years ago, and you didn’t even ask,” says Dr. Whitbourne. Can you really blame yourself for checking their Instagram when a pic of you making out in college resurfaces on your Facebook feed?
2. Instagram doesn’t show you the whole picture.
Most people don’t go on to have super close relationships with their ex. And Dr. Mei notes that unless you’re actually talking to them on a regular basis, you’re not getting an accurate picture of what their life is like. “You’re just peering through the window,” she adds.
Since people tend to post only positive things, it’s easy to immediately get jealous of your ex after casually browsing their page, even if you went into it with neutral feelings. According to a 2009 study on peoples’ ex-surveillance habits on Facebook, the results suggested that “Facebook may expose an individual to potentially jealousy-provoking information about their partner, which creates a feedback loop whereby heightened jealousy leads to increased surveillance of a partner’s Facebook page.”
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Basically, seeing your ex looking like they’re happier than you are at the moment – even though you’re in no way remorseful about losing them – can make you want to deep-dive more to confirm that they’re not actually all that blissfully content if you’re currently feeling vulnerable or even a little sad about your own life.
3. Using apps like Insta, your ex can subtly *and* deliberately get your attention.
If your ex does like a hot photo of you or watched all eight of your stories in a row, it’s easy to think more deeply about it, and, inevitably, end up on their profile again. “It’s a language in and of itself and there are more ways people can communicate how they feel about someone,” says Dr. Wei.
Except unlike actually calling you up and talking to you, doing either of those things requires little effort or bravery on the part of your ex, but it gets you to notice them and access their profile with a click of their handle. Maybe they’re still into you, maybe they’re just bored and want the ego boost of knowing you might check out their profile, but it works every time.
4. You might be looking for patterns of what went wrong.
There’s a difference between checking your ex’s profile to confirm that, yup, you’re very different people and were right to break up, or searching their old posts for tiny red flags you might’ve missed. “You go back and look for clues from the past because you have things documented that you used to only have in your memory,” says Dr. Whitbourne. It’s one thing to remember your ex felt kind of distant through the second half of the relationship – it’s another to be able to go back to their page and visually track when they stopped posting pics of you together.
Whitbourne adds that this could actually be therapeutic and helpful if you’ve had a couple of people abruptly break up with you and want to do some soul-searching, like realizing that you massively overshared or went out a lot and never made time for them. Even if you’re totally happy that the relationship is over, self-reflection – if it’s done in a way that’s kind to yourself – is never a bad thing.
But here’s the good news: you’ll probably know when you’ve gone too far.
“Usually people know if it’s too much for them – they don’t feel good after they keep checking,” says Dr. Wei. “I think that you can be happy and still think about people that you’ve lost in your life – a breakup is a loss. Having thoughts about [your ex] is normal, but you have to think about what role checking on them playing in your life now.”
It’s fairly easy to tell if your occasional habit is toxic to your mental health: if you feel generally feel neutral after checking their profile, or can easily brush off a minor bout of jealousy, you’re likely only checking because it’s there and you have some spare time. But “constantly checking and thinking [about them] and using other people to track them because you don’t want to get caught – all of these things are signs that this is going a bit too far,” says Dr. Whitbourne.
You have to trust that you’ll know when to draw the line with yourself and smash that block button.
And most importantly: You don’t need to be so hard on yourself.
Dr. Wei states that she’s had patients get really angry with themselves for caring about their ex. “To criticize and say it’s terrible or it means you haven’t moved on, why haven’t you moved on, like it’s a competition – that voice people often carry in themselves,” she says.
Whether you’re still hung up on the breakup or casually browsing, treating yourself like a freak is not only unnecessarily mean to yourself, it’s inaccurate because so, so many people do this and it doesn’t really say anything about you.
“I think that you can be happy and still think about people that you’ve lost in your life,” says Dr. Wei. “I would really want to encourage people to be compassionate to themselves and not to judge or criticize what they’re doing as an abnormal thing.”
So the next time you’re procrastinating on a paper and you click your ex’s profile after they’ve watched your story, chill. Enjoy the scenery of their vacation pics taken with a questionable filter. You’re good.