All My Exes Live in Texts: Why the Social Media Generation Never Really Breaks Up

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All My Exes Live in Texts: Why the Social Media Generation Never Really Breaks Up

Angry woman looking at cellphone

I have 700 friends on Facebook, 36 of whom I consider exes. Not all are ex-boyfriends—in the eleven years that “boyfriend” has been a name for men in my life, I have referred to nine as “boyfriends.” The rest are men I dated casually, guys I dated disastrously, make-out buddies, one-night stands, vacation flings, and a few boys I never touched but flirted with so heavily they can no longer be categorized as “just friends.” These people aren’t ex-boyfriends but they’re ex-something, weighted with enough personal history to make my stomach drop when they message me or pop up in social-media feeds. Which is pretty often.

There was a time, I am told, when exes lived in Texas and you could avoid them by moving to Tennessee. Cutting ties is no longer so easy—nor, I guess, do we really want it to be. We gorge ourselves on information about the lives of our exes. We can’t help ourselves. There’s the ex who “likes” everything you post. The ex who appears in automated birthday reminders. The ex who appears in your OkCupid matches. The ex whose musical taste you heed on Spotify. The ex whose new girlfriend sent a friend request. The ex you follow so you know how to win him back. The ex you follow so you know how to avoid her in person. The ex you watched deteriorate after the breakup. (Are you guilty or proud?) The ex who finally took your advice, after the breakup. (Are you frustrated or proud?) The ex whose new partner is exactly like you. (Are you flattered or creeped out?) The ex whose name appears as an autocorrection in your phone. (Are you sure you don’t talk about him incessantly? Word recognition suggests otherwise.) The ex whose new partner blogs about their sex life. The ex who still has your naked pictures. The ex who untagged every picture from your relationship. The ex you suspect is reading your e-mail. The ex you watch lead the life you’d dreamed of having together, but seeing it now, you’re so glad you didn’t.

My peers and I have all these exes, in part because we have more time to rack them up before later marriages, because we’re freer about sleeping around, because we’re more comfortable with cross-gender friendships and blurring sexual boundaries, because not committing means keeping more love interests around as possibilities, and because the digital age enables us to never truly break up. We don’t have to shut the door on anything. Which is good, because shutting the door on something is not something we ever want to do.

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Alarmists fret that casual sex discourages intimacy. But in my experience, the opposite is true. When you share your bed, your toothbrush, your sexual hang-ups, and the topography of the ­cellulite on your butt with a stranger, the intimacy is real. It just happened before familiarity did. You are privy to information his family and friends are not; you know what he sounds like when he orgasms and when he snores. You may never see this person again, but he will always be your ex.

But more often than not, you will see him again. Like “dialing” a cell phone or “filming” a digital video, “one-night stand” is an anachronism. Even if you only have sex once, you will spend time with your hookup when he finds you on Facebook, appears in a mutual friend’s Instagram, or texts about a weird bump he found on his penis. Older generations didn’t have a word for this kind of thing—they couldn’t have. But these are, in fact, relationships. Even casual dates have expansive biographies to plow through and life narratives you can follow for years. You hear about their hangovers when you check Twitter for the morning news. You see their new apartments when you browse Facebook at work. They can jump into your pants whenever they want by sending text messages that land in your pocket. Online, you watch your exes’ lives unfold parallel to yours—living, shifting digital portraits of roads not taken with partners you did not keep.

There was also a time, I am told, when staying in touch was difficult. Exes were characters from a foreclosed past, symbols from former and forgone lives. Now they are part of the permanent present. I was a college freshman when Facebook launched. All my exes live online, and so do their exes, and so do their exes, too. I carry the population of a metaphorical Texas in a cell phone on my person at all times. Etiquette can’t keep up with us—not that we would honor it anyway—so ex relationships run on lust and impulse and nosiness and envy alternating with fantasy. It’s a dozen soap operas playing at the same time on a dozen different screens, and you are the star of them all. It’s both as thrilling and as sickening as it sounds.

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My friend Anne was lying in bed with Mac, her boyfriend of six months, when an ex-boyfriend from fourteen years ago hopped into their bed. (I’ve changed some of the names in this story, not that it makes much difference.) “Hey, what’s up,” Paul texted. Anne pulled the phone into bed with her, set the ringtone to silent, and watched his next message appear: “Are you married yet?”

Because texts generally occur between two parties and on private devices, they are intimate. Because they transmit instantly and in short utterances, texts resemble conversations. But texts are also depersonalized, carrying few traces of the physical person behind them—no face, no voice, no handwriting. You cannot be certain whether a recipient is delaying a response because she is away from her phone, or willfully ignoring you. In that way, texts offer a kind of risk-free come-on.

“Not married but I have a boyfriend,” Anne replied. Paul escalated to a phone call, but she ignored it. “That’s not like you,” he texted next, revealing that he “thought he saw something” about an impending wedding. Since they live in different states and no longer have mutual friends, Anne assumed Paul meant online.

When we communicate with exes, sometimes the medium is the message. An ex who “likes” your selfies thinks you still look hot. An ex who ignores 2 a.m. texts is either asleep or over you. An ex whose jokes your friends retweet would have been popular with them. An ex who retweets you and adds a nasty hashtag is giving you a taste of the smack he talks behind your back.

Unexpected texts carry the subtext of the sender’s whereabouts and state of mind. Late-night correspondence like Paul’s may signal loneliness, horniness, or drunkenness. When a co-worker received an unexplained iPhone Facetime chat request at 11 p.m. from an ex-boyfriend she hadn’t spoken to in years, we pulled out our phones to inspect how that might happen accidentally. The Facetime option is most prominently available during phone calls and texts; since there was no call, she surmised he’d saved her texts and was rereading them. Or maybe he was looking at her entry in his address book—there’s a Facetime button there, too. But the only reason to look at an address-book entry is to share, edit, or delete it. Either her ex-boyfriend was obsessed with her, rereading old texts in the dark of night—or he was over her and deleting her forever. There was no middle ground, only unknowable extremes. And that’s what ex management feels like all of the time.

At the end of our three-year relationship, my ex stopped showing up in my Gchat contacts list. I figured he’d blocked me or gone invisible. The breakup had been acrimonious, the kind where you refuse to attend parties until you’ve been assured your ex was not invited, and even then you insist on reviewing the guest list. The entire list, please forward it to me by e-mail. He appeared again in my Gchat list again ten months later, the equivalent of making eye contact at a party, then socializing calmly in one another’s presence—a working definition of being “over it.” But there was a problem. I noticed my ex-boyfriend’s name when I was going to Gchat my boss, who has the same first name. Staring at their names lined up alphabetically, I knew the risk of an accidental message was too great. I had no choice but to block him again.

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