Five Ways I’ve Sabotaged My Relationships With Technology

Pin it
Twitter is no home for a broken heart.

1. Schizo Status Updating

As in many failed relationships, the last few months of mine were a buttshow. We weren’t really together, yet we weren’t broken up; we didn’t talk to each other, but we texted every other day. I was heartbroken and confused — and wanted my entire online network to know. In one week, I changed my relationship status four times, from "In a Relationship" to "Single" to "No Status" to "Single," finally stopping again on "No Status," where it will remain for the rest of my digital life.

Before the internet, heartbreak was largely a private experience. Then social networking came along and mucked everything up. Now there’s a tick-box for every aspect of our personal lives, from hobbies and religion to sexuality and relationship status. Transient stages of "seeing each other" and "working things out," perhaps better left unquestioned and undeclared, are now definable, categorizable. Reunions and setbacks and all the other naturally occurring spasms of a relationship on the verge can now be chronicled, archived, and shared publicly, with the impulsive click of the mouse.

Sure, some people don’t bother with these sort of things. But as a chronic oversharer, I’d come to believe that "relationship status" was a kind of proof of my romantic standing — as much a declaration to the universe as it was to myself. Which is why I thought my schizophrenic status changing was not only warranted but necessary. My relationship needed to be validated by statements on the screen. In the end, my friends grew confused, then skeptical, and finally apathetic. And my ex-boyfriend was, understandably, embarrassed — so much so that he decided to break all virtual ties with me, lest I suddenly declare "It’s Complicated" between us, for all to see.

2. Emotweeting

Some people really know how to use Twitter: comedians, politicians, PR bots, bored celebrities. It’s a tool for impersonal, indiscriminate snack-sized sharing — not heartbreak poetry, not Coldplay lyrics, not anything that makes you break down sobbing ninety characters in.Having published an anthology’s worth of emotionally ponderous tweets, I can say with confidence: nothing good ever comes out of an emotweet. Sure, it feels comforting to share the weight of your romantic drama with the world, but what sort of reaction are you waiting for? A retweet? A "favoriting"? 140 characters of sympathy from an anonymous follower? No response to an emotweet will make you feel understood.

Yes, I was fine, I chirped, thoroughly humiliated.

In fact, it might do just the opposite. After one particularly devastating week and its resulting deluge of tweets, followers — friends and strangers alike — began noticing and inquiring about my condition. "Your tweets lately… they seem quite sad. Are you okay?" my boss asked, after coming across one of my less poetic broadcasts ("FML FML FML FML"). Yes, I was fine, I chirped, thoroughly humiliated. I looked around the office to see several more pairs of downcast eyes, staring at me with a mix of pity and schadenfreude.

Fifty lost followers later, I resolved to go off the emotweeting. After months of recklessly candid publishing, I’m now on emotional mute, and my Twitter feed has returned to doing what it does best — spreading gossip and news stories and viral videos that make people LOL.

3. Trial By Text

"Writers shouldn’t be allowed to text. Words are our weapon, and texting is just… too easy," my friend Julia recently explained to me. She removed texting from her phone four years ago, and I followed suit last month.

My ex-boyfriend and I talked more about our relationship with our thumbs than we ever said face-to-face. Sometimes we’d even go through a complete fight cycle (confrontation/argument/name-calling/apologizing/absolution) via text before we ever picked up the phone to (gasp) actually talk to one another.

Texting was a means for imposing our immediate feelings on one another, without having to listen to or witness the other person’s defenses, anguish, or outrage. I once sent him a text treatise the length of a short novella. (The entire thing was really more like a monologue, but it had a beginning, middle, and end, like any good story, and put me several messages over my monthly limit of 1500.)

Nothing between us was ever resolved via text. Our fights splintered like fractals, one semantic equivocation leading to the next. Once I even rode the signal-less subway ten stops past my own to avoid continuing a particularly heated SMS-fight. Needless to say, when I surfaced, the debate was raging on without me. Texts, unlike email, require no compliance. They are forced on us in near real-time, with no way to claim ignorance beyond the unconvincing "I never got it" or "My phone was off… for three days." They’re almost impossible to ignore, unlike emails or voicemails — a fact some of us use to our advantage. "I text my boyfriend when I want to make sure he knows exactly how pissed I am — right now," my textatic friend Lara confided in me. "He might not pick up my calls, but I know he at least sees my texts." Texts are the closest thing we have to complete, immediate access to another person — the virtual equivalent of following our recipients around with a bullhorn yelling messages at them from a few feet away.

Practical matters — "I’m around the corner, what kind of beer do you want?" — are what SMS was made for. Add emotions to the equation and things get hairy. Texts are like darts that can’t be dodged or retracted, making them all too perfect for verbal assaults. The ease of sending texts, and the knowledge that they are almost impossible to ignore, makes messaging about serious, heartfelt issues a bad call.

My ex-boyfriend, Joel, was a friend of a friend. We started emailing within a couple of days of meeting. By week two, I found myself shamelessly smitten with digital Joel. His Facebook page was impressive; his emails, well-crafted (a perfect combination of short and sweet); and his gchatting persona was witty, attentive, and generous with the emoticons.

With so much build-up, our eventual real-life first date — nearly a month after our initial gchat exchange — was nerve-wracking and fraught with expectation. I felt like I was going on a date with my favorite television-show character: Joel the Incredible!, my unbelievably clever, kindhearted, and constantly ROFLing beau-to-be.

As you might have guessed, the date was kind of awkward. We got into a fight about feminism and Erotic Photohunt. There were more than a few stretches of uncomfortable silence and clock-watching. But despite the tension, things ended up okay — fun, even — and we continued seeing each other for several months. From that point on, though, our digital interactions were never the same. Our charming, flirtatious online selves grew weary, burnt out. Our chatting repartee turned banal and perfunctory, and sweet, thoughtful emails sent "just because" began appearing less and less frequently in my inbox.

A couple of months in, our once-playful avatars had become irritable, pugnacious, and incapable of civil discourse. Our online interactions became so antagonistic that we agreed to quit gchatting with each other altogether. We eventually defriended each other, too, and stopped following one another on Twitter. I told my best friend Liz about the pact, and it puzzled her. "How can you not have your boyfriend on your buddy list? What’s the big deal? It’s just chat!" It was "just chat," but that wasn’t the big deal. The big deal, I wanted to scream at her, was that Joel the Incredible was dead — and there was no bringing him back.

5. Inbox Sulking

The inbox is a dangerous place for the broken-hearted. It’s a minefield of memories, mistakes, and regrets long forgotten, yet still wildly combustible. During the final phase of my relationship with Joel, I spent a lot of time in my inbox. Our relationship had grown complicated, and I thought Gmail might clear things up. I typed "Joel + love" in the search box, and ruminated over a few choice picks from the hundred-plus threads returned.

My relationship was on its last legs, but I was in denial. I looked to my inbox to support my delusion, sifting through hundreds of love letters, "I miss you" cards, cutesy Photoshop jobs, emoticon-filled chats, e-tickets for two — all evidence, I thought, of a love and relationship worth saving. Could all this have been for naught?

But I knew digging deeper would uncover the other side of our relationship. A more targeted search turned up signs of love turned sour: combative IMs, longwinded e-indictments, hasty rebuttals, and half-hearted apologies. Incidentally, the terms "Joel + sad" turned up about the same number of results as "Joel + love."

I brooded over these digital remnants, trying to cobble them together into one coherent picture — some sort of proof that our love was either true or false. But after weeks of scavenging, all I could see was a graveyard of sentiments. No amount of revisiting our digital history could change the inexpressibly complicated reality. And when I finally took inventory of all that wasn’t fit to print, I realized I had been rummaging for clues that were with me all along. Gmail didn’t save my relationship with Joel because it never could’ve. The missing pieces of the puzzle were in my memory, not my inbox.