By MARY TOOTHMAN
She had planned a life with him, she was devoted to his child. They had set up house together - she loved him.
But he ended the relationship. And there she was, alone and face-to-computer-screen with daily images of the man who broke her heart.
Once proudly listed for all of her Facebook friends to see as "in a relationship," Devon had to cope with a reality that failed-relationship victims have come to dread: the public Facebook status-change to "single."
There is certainly no shame in being single - but breakups in this age of fast-moving Internet updates involve a new spectrum of public involvement and awareness. Breaking up online, with an audience of hundreds, can intensify and prolong the agony.
The number of active members of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are increasing at an astounding rate, and the impact of personal, yet oh-so-public postings are taking a toll. Facebook, which reports about 400 million active users, is often the medium by which friends and family - and sometimes even those involved - find out about the end of a relationship.
Devon, a Lakeland office worker whose real name is not being used for privacy reasons, did not actually learn her boyfriend wanted out from looking at Facebook. But after their "it's over" talk, it was verified when he changed his status to "single," - for all of their friends and family members to see.
"The status change was hard to see when he did it," she said. "This entire situation has been hard. I am soon to be 26, and I just want to find the right guy to marry, have babies, and grow old with. Facebook has made it difficult, but I'm not sure it would have lessened the blow even if he wasn't on Facebook."
While touted by many as a wonderful resource for friendships, support, reunions of out-of-touch friends and family and an efficient and easy way to share photographs, videos and information, social networking clearly has its drawbacks.
Berney J. Wilkinson, an Internet-savvy therapist in Winter Haven, pays close attention to the impact social networking has on emotions and the overall well-being of the population. He encounters social networking-related issues regularly when working with patients, and recognizes the differences they bring in today's online society.
"In the age of social networking sites, what were once personal conversations are now publicly broadcast around the world," Wilkinson said. "Prior to sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and networking applications such as Twitter, relationships were confined to telephone calls and social engagements.
"Whenever a couple experienced a 'bump' in the relationship, they would talk it out over the phone or in person, and attempt to work out their differences," he said. "In fact, just the other day, I was talking with a patient about how we used to make mixed tapes after breakups, just to have a collection of songs that defined that time of our life."
Although it was painful, Devon could not stop herself from checking out information posted on the profile page of her ex-boyfriend after they split up.
"It is hard to see what other girls have to say now that it is public knowledge he is available again," she said. "One girl posted 'It's officially official!' It sucks to see that, but what can I do? I can't make him love me."
Society as a whole could stand to alter the way postings are made thoughtlessly - and so publicly, Wilkinson said.
"Today, information spreads way too fast, and social networking sites have become the 21st-century water cooler, where everything is discussed and made public."
People often quickly post remarks or comebacks on the sites that are misunderstood or hurtful, and words cannot be taken back once someone reads them. In many cases, relationships that might have previously been salvaged are irreparable once the process is publicly recorded, he said.
DOWNSIDES OF SOCIAL MEDIA
There are two major problems with the sites, said Wilkinson, who has nothing against them and, in fact, uses them himself.
Relationship issues are often handled poorly, and the personal touch is eliminated. People often impulsively change their relationship status too soon, he said, and sometimes the person who was left behind in a breakup has to view photos and reports about a new relationship.
Breakups have lost quite a bit of dignity with the Internet.
"Prior to social networking sites, breakups had to be done in person," Wilkinson said. "In fact, people were looked down upon if they ended a relationship by note or by phone. Today, people readily use Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and texting to manage their relationships.
"This removes any remnants of the interpersonal relationship and often results in cold interactions that lack connotative affect," he said. "Because a person can break off a relationship via networking, they do not see the person's responses, effect or emotions. As such, messages come across as cold, hurtful, and impersonal, further damaging each other."
Even some of Devon's friends, who probably meant well, posted remarks on her Facebook page that were hurtful. While crying and grieving, it was difficult to read messages about her newly single status, such as "Good!" or "Now we can go out and party!" - when she really just needed support and for friends to listen.
Wilkinson said with precautions, the sites can be helpful.
"Facebook (and other social networking sites) can provide significant support for people following a breakup," he said. "Friends who might otherwise know nothing about one's situation may ask to spend time with them to help them recover. I think that this is a very positive role that the networking sites can play."
But users must take care to weigh words carefully, he said, and always remember who can read them - and how they might be interpreted.
"I spend a lot of time with teenagers, in particular, who are dealing with issues related to the sites," he said. "Our personal lives are now broadcast for the world to see. While they definitely can be used for good, sometimes people just do not understand how much is lost in the printed word."
He offers some advice for dealing with online breakups, although he recognizes many may have trouble sticking with it. "Take a break from the social networking site, or at least don't visit your ex's page," he said. "Too many times, emotions get the best of us and we end up saying, doing or feeling things that hurt us in the long run. As a result, I often recommend that people avoid as many situations as possible that can continue to create or maintain emotional wounds."
For those who are going to read anyway, he said, "You sort of have to know going into it that you are not going to like what you see."
Of particular importance, ironically, is a suggestion most unlikely to be followed - that people keep their personal lives more, well, personal.
"Take discussions offline," he said. "Do not get into arguments or try to fix things through posts or status updates. Discussions of this type create more problems.
"Texting and posting online removes personal touches, affects, and feeling in what you are trying to say. So much is left between the lines. So jump back to the '90s, and instead of texting the person with your phone, call them."
Devon said she was unable to stop cyberstalking her ex-boyfriend, and he finally blocked some of his content from her. But her friends and family members still have access, and she continues to check it out. Still, she said, she's determined to move on.
"I am working on letting go," she said. "I just keep telling myself something better will come along soon enough."
And when it does? Her friends are likely to find out when they see her Facebook status change - to "in a relationship."
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