canstockphoto10411276There is a Golden Rule for life and there is a Golden Rule for social media:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, online.

Everyone seems to be very confused about how to handle relationships in an online world and there are some unusual dynamics that we now have to deal with. In many ways though, online behavior should match real-world behavior. Don’t post something online that you wouldn’t say to the persons face. Pretty simple huh?

But what about some other issues, like dating? “In the old days, when you stopped dating someone, you didn’t get to keep going through their photos or know every detail of their newly single lives,” says Randi Zuckerberg in her book Dot Complicated: Untangling Our Wired Lives. “This should be true online too.” (124).

Breaking up is never easy. You have the exchange of goods – bringing each others stuff back from the houses and apartments, figuring out whose DVD’s were whose and should she be allowed to keep your favorite white button down shirt (the answer is yes, always yes). There’s also the complicated discussion about which friends you’re going to keep in touch with. Now you also have to decide which of your Friends you need to unfriend.

Whenever you’ve been with someone for a long time there is a natural mixing of friendships as well. But now you also have to untangle your digital lives. Not only does the relationship status need to change, but you’ve got to figure out what to do with all those photos of each other you’ve posted online and what about the mutual friends you’ve both “friended?” Complicating things even further is that divorce lawyers have reported a significant increase in couples arguing over who gets ownership of online assets and social media accounts, counting them as valuable property (Zuckerberg 127).

Advice: don’t tell them you’re unfriending them. Most people don’t even notice that they’ve been unfriended and you may also want to wait awhile until things calm down. Make it part of a routine housecleaning of your social media accounts, not something spiteful you do in the heat of the moment. You wouldn’t call these people up and tell them that since you and so-and-so broke you you’re not going to call them anymore, you’d just stop calling them. You can do the same thing online.

“Staying Facebook friends with your ex creates “greater current distress over the break up, more negative feelings, sexual desire, and longing for the ex-partner, and lower personal growth,” according to a study at the Brunel University in the United Kingdom (Zuckerberg 127). When you used to break up you worried about bumping into your ex at some nightclub or common location. Now you can constantly be reminded of the loss of an online identity you once enjoyed, and you can see them continuing on in their lives, happy to be without you now, thanks to the Internet and your desire to keep checking their status. Remember at the end of the movie The Social Network where Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, kept checking to see if an old girlfriend had approved his friend request? How prescient.

I recall one particular breakup where I really tried to avoid a particular nightclub that both my ex and I frequented. I hated seeing her engage with, talk to and dance with other guys so I just avoided the location for awhile, but there were some nights I went, knowing that she liked to go to Ladies Night, and sort of weirdly hoped I’d see here there. I can’t imagine how much harder this is online, but I’d imagine the advice remains the same – limit contact and move forward.

As Randi Zuckerberg says, “Don’t keep refreshing the heartbreak,” (125).

Complicating this even further is there are numerous well-documented cases of ex-girlfriends and boyfriends finding each other on the Internet resulting in the breakup of their existing marriages and relationships. Let’s go back to our golden rule, adjusted for the online world. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, online. Lets assume you’re in an existing relationship and you find an old girlfriend or boyfriend in the real world, say you bump into each other at Starbucks, you have a decision to make. Should you stay in touch or not? If you find them online, it’s the same decision, just a different venue. I do have personal experience with this and this advice seems to work well: Ask your spouse.

WHAT! What did you just say???

Yep, you heard me. Ask your spouse. You need to check your intentions here. What is your intention with this ex? If it’s just to stay in touch and perhaps rekindle the friendship part of the old relationship, then ask your spouse and respect their decision. If your intention is to break up your existing marriage or relationship, then you’ve probably got other issues going on with your life and you should work to reconcile or fix them, or move on anyway. I’ve had old girlfriends find me on Facebook and in person – I’ve checked with my wife on whether she’s comfortable with them contacting me and vice versus and I’ve always respected her opinion. She’s the one I’m married too and that’s the primary relationship. Again, do unto others.

Ask yourself this. Would you be comfortable knowing that your spouse or significant other was surfing the Internet to find lost ex’s? Probably not. I will admit to some natural curiosity just to see how they are doing (and yes, I’m a guy so I want to see what they look like today) but I also don’t reach out to Friend them, or try to connect without first checking with the most important relationship in my life.

Speaking of your primary relationship, it’s important to put them before technology. How often do you see two couples sitting at an intimate dinner, and both of them are on their cell phones checking their status, texting friends and surfing the web? Just like the parents who are watching their 5-inch screens instead of their kids lives happening right in front of them, there is a time to put down the phone, maybe even shut it off if you can, and focus on the present.

Comedian Louis CK in talking about a dance performance he attended to watch his kids: “Every single parent was like this [holding up their cell phone] every single parent was blocking their vision of their actual child with their phone…everybody’s watching a shitty movie of something that’s happening right in front of them…JUST LOOK AT YOUR KID! The resolution is unbelievable on your kid if you just look!” — comedian Louis CK, on HBO’s “Oh My God.”

In a study by Dr. Sam Roberts at the University of Chester in England, he found that people were happier and laughed 50% more when they interacted with their friends in real life, versus social networks (Zuckerberg 114). Another study, in 2006, a team of shrinks found that couples who had a TV in their bedrooms had on average, half as much sex as couples who didn’t — having an iPad or smart phone is the same thing, but, as Zuckerberg notes, with a few million more channels (115).

The rule remains the same – be in the moment. If you’re with your kids, be with your kids. If you’re with your spouse or significant other, be there with them. If an old flame finds you on the Internet, treat it as you would if they’d found you at the mall. Treat others as you want to be treated.

Zuckerberg, Randi. Dot Complicated: Untangling Our Wired Lives. New York: HarperCollins Limited, 2013. Print.

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