by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.
Your Facebook friendships have great potential to enrich your emotional life by expanding your social horizons beyond the people you would normally interact with at home or work. Unfortunately, though, just as Facebook can bring you up, it can also bring you down. The ending of a Facebook relationship rarely occurs in a mutually agreed-upon way. Someone decides it’s time to call the friendship off, unfriends you, and that’s it. Depending on your closeness to the other person, you may not even realize you’ve been a victim of unfriending until it dawns on you that you’re no longer seeing this person’s posts on your news feed. When you search for the person, you’re greeted with the message “Add as friend,” if that person is even searchable, and by then your worst fears are confirmed.
Facebook unfriending should actually be called “Facebook estrangement” because by unfriending you, the person has officially severed social ties with you. You are estranged in the sense that you will not continue to have contact with the person, at least not in an emotional or social sense. Making the situation awkward as well as upsetting, you may still work with the person or share family ties.
It’s possible for unfriending to happen in a deliberate fashion where the two of you actually communicated about the ending of your relationship prior to the unfriending. It’s also possible that the break was mutual, with both of you choosing to part ways in person and online. In real life, a person might decide to stop seeing you, and that person would just disappear from your daily existence. This type of separation can be harsh, but when separations occur on Facebook, they tend to have other features that make them particularly painful. Perhaps the worst is the way that the unfriending occurs. People have to give unfriending much more thought than they give to friending. They actually have to decide that you’re a person they don’t want to hear from any more and that you’re a person they don’t want to have know about them. If you weren’t in on this decision, a Facebook unfriending is very much a rejection and can hurt as much as can any in-person rejection.
- Don’t ruminate over the unfriending. It’s possible that you’re more upset about being unfriended than about losing this online friend. If you’re thinking more about the unfriending than about the friend, this suggests that the person wasn’t really all that close to you.
- Expand your real life social network. If Facebook is the centerpiece of your social life, you’re more likely to ruminate over the loss of one of your virtual friends. Make it a goal to interact more with the people who you can see, talk to, and share experiences with than the people who only read about you online. It’s particularly important that you “love the one you’re with,” as the song goes. Don’t be one of those people who updates their Facebook status while out on a date, or it’ll be even harder for you to form those real-life connections.
- Look critically at your own Facebook behavior. The Bevan study showed that the people most likely to be unfriended were the ones who committed some of Facebook’s most reviled sins. Do you continually make crude comments? Are you guilty of TMI (too much information) in which you share every morsel of food you eat and every step you take? It’s no wonder that some people decide to trim you when they trim their news feeds. If you’re really not sure whether you’re committing these sins or not, ask a trusted friend (in real life) to tell you directly whether your Facebook behavior needs to change.
- Try to figure out what caused the rift and then try to repair it. This is very easy to say, but in practice, it can seem nearly impossible to mend deep family fractures. However, family therapy and couples therapy are methods of intervention that work. The Facebook problems may be not fixable, but if you’re feeling anguished over estrangement from family and formerly close personal friends, it’s worth giving serious intervention a chance (or a second or third chance, as the case may be).
- Don’t stalk those who unfriended you. If you’re unable to repair a broken relationship, don’t torment yourself further by becoming an online detective. You will only re-open old wounds and might even make things worse. If the rift was in fact a temporary one, by taking the higher and more dignified approach of retreating into the background, the other person may very well re-establish ties with you. Don’t hold out hope that this will happen, to avoid setting yourself up for disappointment. Let fate, and a cooling off of tensions, take its course and if it’s meant to be, the relationship will resume in its own time.
Even if unfriending turns to longer-term estrangement, these five ways to manage your feelings will help you cope with the pain of rejection. What’s more, you can learn from the experience to prevent unfriending in your future online – and real- relationships.