Love & Sex

How I Became My Exes

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A new study of Facebook "likes" suggests we take on our exes' interests.

Your personality might be comprised of the personalities of everyone you’ve ever dated. It’s going to be depressing, but think about it. The old Jimmy Ruffin song asks, “What becomes of the brokenhearted?” Today’s answer would be: they’re totally lingering in your Facebook “likes”. 

We learned last year that by Facebook stalking your ex, you’re only slowing down the normal trajectory of your healing process post breakup. If our virtual behavior reflects our real-life behavior, then constantly scrolling through pictures of our ex and their new girlfriend on their trip to Sicily is akin to drive-bys of days of yore. Sometimes I'm discouraged over the fact that half of my top 9 friends are comprised of frozen faces of my sexual past, and I can’t change them. Is that who looks at my Facebook, and alternatively, is that whose profiles I frequent? Probably. Our Facebooks are an exhibit of broken hearts, and every time we click “Like” on anything our ex introduced us to, we’re further ingraining their influence, both in the algorithm and in our lives. Even if we defriend an ex or block them from our News Feed, there’s a part of them that manifests in us long after we’ve cut ties.

A Western Illinois University Communications professor, Christopher Carpenter, who studies Facebook and social networking and the self, found in a recent study of 276 respondents that the more past relationships a person had on Facebook, the more interests they had listed on their profile. On top of that, the more photos and statuses a person was tagged in with their romantic partner, the stronger their relationship proved to be. Carpenter’s findings show that part of having and maintaining a successful relationship is adopting your boyfriend or girlfriend’s interests and hobbies. 

Does compatibility and strength really come down to copious FourSquare tags and a mutual “like” of Breaking Bad? It could be. Perhaps part of absorbing someone into our lives is absorbing their past, too. The study also points to the fact that we’re all die-hard narcissists who continually need to grow and expand, and one of the most tried-and-true methods for self-expansion is dating. The more interests we appropriate from a partner, the larger and more interesting we seem to the next potential mates.

So, I trolled my own Facebook to find if I am really just a hodgepodge of ex-directed interests. I looked at my musical interests. What I found were bands of my exes, CDs my exes gave me, cultural obsessions of my longest relationship, and a few evergreen selections. Movies I fared better in: only three were my college ex-boyfriend’s recommendations. Then I turned to general “Likes”. I didn’t find as many categories in common with my exes as I thought, but I found a heap of our history, the echoes of the relationship that permeated my world view, my tastes, and my habits since leaving them. I didn’t copy their interests as much as I had subtly acquired their lens and their memories (while, of course, still retaining things that were just "me".)

I “liked” the anatomical structure “frenulum linguae” after my ex had broken mine after kissing me too aggressively once (yes, it was terrible, hilarious, and bloody). My long regard for poet David Berman joined my “likes” the week after my unrequited love walked me hand in hand down a sidewalk in the middle of the night as we listened to the Silver Jews. I jokingly and fondly had clicked on “David Attenborough’s Voice” after re-watching a banana slug documentary my environmentalist ex had once shown me. These interests and passions will remain mainstays of comfort, and I see, attachment, too. My exes don't need to frequently write me, because in some ways, I have taken on a part of them.

Which leads me to wonder what trademark cultural artifacts I have bequeathed to those I have dated.  Maybe an unbridled affection for Harry Nilsson, maybe coveted poems of Borges, or the memorized lines of a well-versed Stella comedy sketch. They too might pass on to my exes’ next partner like cultural STDs until we are all one great big amalgamation of our dating past, ghosts of shared interests.  Statistically, only 11% of us defriend exes, and a frightening 88% of us admittedly report stalking an ex, which means even long after they're gone, we may still be influenced by the online transmissions of our lost loves. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is still to be determined, but it is a burgeoning and perpetuating trend. Some relics, like improvisational jazz piano tracks, we may choose to bow out of, and others, like 1970s counter-culture memoirs, we'll cherish forever as a vestige of who we were and who we were with.

Facebook is uniquely bringing us a conversation with ourselves that we don’t necessarily speak aloud, maybe even one that we’re not readily aware of. Our identity can be tracked with time-stamped public interests, and for that, our identity will be constantly melding and advertised. Facebook “likes” make us realize we really might be all the things we choose to place outside of ourselves, and even more than that, we might just be all the people we’ve ever loved.