Dividing up a life, decades of a life, isn’t easy. There is so much to decide. Who gets the sofa? What about the kitchen table? And that’s just material. What about the friends? How do you divide people?
Today, feeds show up, chat boxes appear; your thoughts and whereabouts are not private; unless you deliberately and consciously make them so.
My husband of 17 years and I are getting divorced. We each have separate friends, and since we recently moved to a new state, not as many couple friends, so we’re less enmeshed than many. But what about Facebook? Social media friendships have tentacles that reach beyond single connections, as anyone who has been tagged in a photo or status update knows. Suddenly, you are on a thread with comments from a stranger, a friend of a friend, or someone you’d prefer to avoid. Today, feeds show up, chat boxes appear; your thoughts and whereabouts are not private; unless you deliberately and consciously make them so.
My parents didn’t have this problem when they divorced. People didn’t admit it outright, but they inevitably took sides. One parent stopped getting invited to events, found new interests and friends, and things settled out. I’m sure there were hurt feelings and awkward encounters. Sometimes friendships overlapped, and some shouldn’t have. At one point, my dad dated and lived with a woman who was a tangential friend of my mom’s. So, my sister and I lived there part time too. It was dysfunctional and selfish on their part; they were only together a few years. But for my mom, me, my sister and the woman’s son, those were long and difficult years. To add to the twist, now, she and my mom are great friends. Honestly, I try not to think about it, because it makes my head spin.
I have been on Facebook since 2008 and have built a sizable community of friends, nostalgic connections, and an invaluable writing/blogging network. My soon-to-be-ex teased me at first: I was wasting my time, I wasn’t 20 anymore, who did I think I was on hanging out on Facebook?
Often, as was the case in our marriage, his teasing turned to disdain. I did it anyway. It was for me. I reconnected with old friends and bonded with new ones. Sometimes, I overdid it, but I learned my Facebook boundaries. Today, seven years later, Facebook is the social media platform that works for me, as a stay-at-home mom with little adult interaction during the day, as a writer, and as a person who enjoys networking in every way, professionally, socially, and nostalgically.
As a blogger, I would not have my current readership or reputation without Facebook. I am in multiple blogger groups and am connected worldwide with other writers, many of whom have become close friends; real you-can-count-on-me friends despite us never having met in real life. Since August 2014, when I began blogging in earnest, I have been featured on multiple websites and am now a regular contributor on multiple blogs, including The Good Men Project. I am published in three anthologies, have made deep and lasting friendships, and have grown professionally and personally.
What started as a way to share pictures of my aren’t-they-cute kids and post status updates such as “Snow Day Tomorrow! No school” to a small group of friends has now become my creative outlet, my network for writing opportunities, and my support system outside my local friends, and it has spurned a creative and personal reinvention.
While we were married, although my soon-to-be-ex was not interested, he reaped the networking rewards I provided. I was in touch with people he knew, people we knew together, and contacts from my former places of work. He and I met at a small start-up company during the dot.com boom; we were like families then. I worked in software, at both small and large firms, for almost a decade. When he was job-hunting, for example, I could quickly identify former colleagues at this or that company and help him in his search. So he had his disdain and his Facebook too.
Aside from finding such sharing inappropriate, especially in the early days of a major life change, I was friends with his father and step-mother, his brother, and multiple mutual friends.
And then, we split up in a fairly unexpected way. I was hurt, angry, betrayed; it was a difficult time. I did not change my relationship status or make a Facebook announcement. Aside from finding such sharing inappropriate, especially in the early days of a major life change, I was friends with his father and step-mother, his brother, and multiple mutual friends. I shared my news quietly in private blogger and other friend groups, messaging friends, getting my support privately, but suddenly, Facebook felt different. Over the years, my engagement had shifted from personal daily socializing to a way to connect with my far-flung blogging community. I knew I would be blogging about this life change, and I needed a safe space to do so, but Facebook wasn’t safe anymore.
And then, two days, I am not kidding, two days after dumping me, my soon-to-be-ex joined Facebook and sent me a friend request. My stomach dropped. Immediately, I thought of the people with whom we would overlap. How could I be myself on Facebook with him there? Of course he had every right to be there, but as my friend? I did not accept his request, but anyone on Facebook knows, nothing is sacred when one has mutual friends. Hence, the reason I had to unfriend and even block his mother. Aside from never liking me, she had a habit of commenting on my posts with inappropriate boundary-busting jabs, and since she was friends with his step-mother and his brother, if I interacted with them, I was exposed.
I understood his decision to join. Suddenly, he had disconnected from his sons’ mother and his social networker. What about the cute things the boys said on a daily basis, things we used to share as a couple, the pictures I’d text during the day? All of that would be gone, so he wanted that, without having to deal with being my husband, by being my Facebook friend. For one thing, I rarely share personal anecdotes anymore and for another, just no. I declined. We could figure a way to stay up-to-date on our boys’ lives, but I was not comfortable being his Facebook friend. And then I realized, in order to feel like I still had my community, my safe place, I had to unfriend everyone with whom we overlapped.
At first, it was scary and then, surprisingly easy and empowering. I didn’t think about offending anyone, or causing any behind-my-back talk. I remembered my commitment. Protect yourself. This space is yours; it might as well be your office. As a writer, blogger, and website contributor who thrives on likes and shares and reach, he’s trying to get a job in your office. No.
Of course, this is not gender specific. If you are a man going through a divorce and your ex is moving in on your personal space via social media, you have ways to keep your community your own. There’s the unfriend button, there’s not responding to messages or friend requests. It’s certainly a new problem, at least for me. This is my first breakup in the age of social media.
As for friends in real life, so far so good; our neighbors, who know us both, see me regularly because I live in the house, for now. He makes his own plans to stay in touch by connecting to watch the game, or play golf. Our individual friends remain just that.
However, social media is a tangled and far-reaching web of connections: status updates, security settings, and comments and before you know it you are in a thread with people with whom you may not wish to engage. You have to think these things through. Just because your ex can join, and he or she has every right to, doesn’t mean you have to share the space. Do what works for you. I’m free when I can be myself and share my voice and my writing with my Facebook community—my ex not included.
The Facebook divorce has its own set of challenges but none you cannot overcome. For me, I don’t do things for fear of offending someone if it will hurt me. Nobody wins there. And, I have told some people, yes I did unfriend you, but we can stay in touch in this other way. Friends, real friends, figure out ways to stay friends, either on or off Facebook.
(This post originally ran on The Good Men Project.)