Feature

Psychologists are finding that how romance blooms — and withers — is different in the digital age.

For someone who makes a living turning heartbreak into Grammy-winning gold, Taylor Swift hit a bittersweet jackpot when her former beau Joe Jonas broke up with her in what she says was a 27-second phone call in 2008. The experience is said to have fueled the country pop star's song "Forever and Always" the next year.

But other famed breakups are only bitter. Consider actor Russell Brand's 2011 text message to singer Katy Perry saying he was filing for divorce. That New Year's Eve was the last time the two communicated, according to Perry's 2013 account to Vogue. Britney Spears, Adam Levine and John Mayer have all reportedly texted ex-lovers they're through — or maybe it was "thru." Even back in 1994, actor Sylvester Stallone infamously dumped Jennifer Flavin by sending her a six-page letter via Fed-Ex. "It was pretty sloppy," the model told People magazine.

Couples have been calling it quits long before Jason of Greek mythology ditched his wife, Medea, for a princess, using practically every available medium to do so. Now, psychologists and other researchers are studying how digital communications make modern split-ups different. They're finding that technology is changing not only how romances are formed and maintained, but how they're dissolved — and how the pain is sustained.

"Before Facebook, people had a limited, boundaried amount of information" about their former flames, says New York psychological researcher George Nitzburg, PhD, who studies how technology affects people with mental illness. "And now, it's just ever accessible so that at 2 or 3 a.m., when someone might be feeling most distressed, they can reach for it, it's there."

That, he and other experts say, has implications for future psychologists and their patients.

Poking, winking and nudging

There's no question technology can work romantic wonders.

Twenty-nine percent of adult Internet users know someone who's met a long-term partner on a dating site or app, for example, and 59 percent believe online dating is a good way to meet people, according to a 2013 survey by the Pew American Life Project. Another study found that people with long-distance lovers are no less satisfied with their relationships than those with partners nearby, perhaps a testament to the power of the Internet to keep love alive (Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 2013).

But trying to meet your soul mate online has its downside, too. For one, what you see isn't always what you get. In one study of online daters by University of Leicester psychologist Monica Whitty, PhD, for example, nearly 47 percent of women admitted using a profile photo more than a year out of date, while more than 13 percent of men fudged details about their current relationships, such as whether they have or live with children. In all, 51 percent of participants admitted misrepresenting some aspect of their profile, be it their ages, weights, job status or interests (Computers in Human Behavior, 2008).

That can be a problem even before potential mates meet face-to-face. Take the man and woman who banter through a dating website's messaging system for weeks before their first date. They divulge intimate details about themselves because such "technology-mediated communication" reduces the emotional intensity and immediacy of the conversation, the study showed. And self-disclosure, past research has shown, facilitates attraction.

"That [intimacy] mixed with this slightly misrepresented profile makes them seem perfect to each other when they click and chat," says Nitzburg, an adjunct professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. "People are falling quickly for one another."

But when the pair finally meets, the façade of perfection drops. Whitty's research found that daters were often "outraged" when they discovered their dates' not-so-white lies, no matter their own embellishments. That was the case for one participant who found her crush's character was nothing like it appeared. Online, he had come across as someone with a funny personality and a good disposition. But, she told the interviewer, "He turned out to be one of the most depressing people I have ever met in my life."

'It's complicated'

As flirtations turn into feelings, technology can make romances more complicated. When, for example, do you declare on Facebook that you are "in a relationship," if you do so at all? How do you communicate when you're apart — via phone, email, text or chat? What does it mean if he doesn't message back right away or if she doesn't end her text with the usual cheery emoticon?

The answers to these questions are all influenced by "media ideologies," or views about how and when various modes of communication should be used, says anthropologist Ilana Gershon, PhD, an associate professor of communication and culture at Indiana University. Her research involving 72 people, mostly undergraduates, found that everyone's answer might be different.

"People are often surprised when they realize that the practices they're dealing with aren't actually standardized," says Gershon, who details her findings in the 2010 book "Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media." "Many people told me that there was very clear widespread etiquette and then I'd just interview someone else who had completely different widespread etiquette."

Mismatched media ideologies can mean trouble in paradise if partners don't discuss them. Take Jade,* a news editor in Washington, D.C., who chatted online with her former boyfriend via Gmail's messaging system, G-chat, at the beginning of their relationship. But when their digital communication styles didn't mesh — she's a responsive emoter and he's unpredictable and dry — fighting ensued. Soon, she says, "we issued a no G-chatting policy," preferring instead to talk in person or on the phone.

Other research suggests that Facebook can be a negative influence on romantic relationships. In a study of 342 Australian undergraduates, for example, the more participants checked up on their partners via Facebook and the more jealous they were, the more dissatisfied they were with their relationships (Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 2011). In a more recent study, researchers found a link between excessive Facebook use and Facebook-related lovers spats, which can lead to emotional and physical cheating, breakup and divorce (Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 2013).

Of course, social networking doesn't doom all couples. Several studies led by psychologist Laura Saslow, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, for example, found that married people whose profile pictures include their spouses are more satisfied with their relationships than those with solo or other shots. In a daily diary study, the team also found that people were most likely to share relationship-relevant information on Facebook on days they were happiest with their love lives (Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2013).

So when and for whom might Facebook do more harm than good? The answer might be answered in part by looking at attachment styles, Nitzburg's research shows. He and colleague Barry Farber, PhD, surveyed more than 400 young adults, asking questions that revealed their attachment styles, as well as their habits on social networking sites, including Facebook. They found that participants with disorganized and anxious styles — characterized by a preoccupation with the fear of being hurt — tended to use such sites in a less-than-healthy way: to avoid face-to-face communication. Anxiously attached participants also seemed to be using the sites to seek care and comfort from others, which is similar to how they might anxiously and repetitively seek reassurance in their offline relationships, the authors suggest (Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2013).

"The takeaway is that attachment status appeared to be visible in online behaviors, and so this has ramifications for therapy because relationship problems… [are] a big reason that people seek out therapy in the first place," Nitzburg says. By asking about clients' social networking habits, then, therapists might get a window into their clients' offline behavior, he says.

'We r thru'

Whether or not couples today part ways because of technology, they often do so using it. One survey conducted by the dating site WhatsYourPrice.com, for example, found that 88 percent of men and 18 percent of women have broken up with someone over text. And whether it's via Twitter, email or a 27-second phone call, how it's done matters, Gershon's research finds. "When someone chooses to text break up, they are also choosing not to write a letter, call or email," she writes in her book. In other words, the method is a part of the message itself.

That could help explain why Gershon's interview subjects, when asked to relay their breakup stories, largely emphasized the "how," rather than the "why" or "what." Take the college student, for example, who remembered how her boyfriend's relationship-ending text included the sentence, "I'm bad at life." Or a man who described his soon-to-be-ex-wife's two-line email announcing she wanted a divorce. Even a young woman who had received an old-fashioned break-up letter was preoccupied with the fact that it was written on cream-colored stationery. "Who does that anymore?" she said repeatedly to Gershon.

Such a focus on the medium is uniquely American, Gershon says. Research in England, for example, has shown that divorcees stress their own good characters in light of their unfavorable romantic histories. In Japan, former couples tend to cite an unequal balance of dependency and independence as the reason for their breakups. In the United States, however, the wounded focus on the medium in an attempt to find fault in their exes' natures, Gershon says.

"Americans tend to believe that the reasons people are doing things that they find insulting or offensive is because that other person is selfish or ignorant," she says. "And by focusing on the ‘how,' it's really helping them do that."

Unbreak my heart

The newly brokenhearted have good reason to try to avoid their exes both offline and on: It often hampers the healing process.

One study by psychologist Tara Marshall, PhD, for example, found that Facebook surveillance — colloquially known as "Facebook stalking"— is associated with greater distress over the breakup, more negative feelings, sexual desire and longing for the ex-partner, and lower personal growth. Even simply remaining Facebook friends was linked with less personal growth (Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 2012).

Checking up on a partner obsessively online is also associated with certain types of stalking offline, one study by psychologist Amy Lyndon, PhD, and colleagues suggests (Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 2011).

What's more, looking at an ex's Facebook page in search of information — Why did we break up? Who is he dating now? How is she spending her Saturday nights? — tends to raise more questions than it answers, says Nitzburg. "You're on Facebook in search of those … answers and that increases, ironically, jealousy, and the jealousy increases time spent on Facebook searching for more answers," Nitzburg says. "It can spiral the wrong way."

But today, cutting someone out of your life isn't easy. In one 2013 study (PDF, 705KB), psychologist Steve Whittaker, PhD, of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Corina Sas, PhD, of Lancaster University, found that disposing of digital reminders after a breakup is not only distressing, but also complex.

"You could have texts, images, Facebook conversations, email conversations, voicemails, music you've shared," says Whittaker, who edits the journal Human Computer Interaction. "When you decide you don't want to have much more to do with that person, there's a bit of a job on your hands to cull all of that stuff because it's not in one place."

That's something Jade learned when she and her boyfriend broke up after three years. Although she'd rarely run into him in person, his name and photo frequently popped up on Facebook, Twitter or mutual friends' Evite lists. "In real life, you know someone's routines: You know where they get their bagels on Saturday, you know what they're up to. If you're trying to avoid someone, it's really easy to do it hypothetically," she says. "But it's really difficult to avoid someone's Internet presence."

Whittaker and other psychologists are working with technology companies, where they are helping to create tools that make it easier. In their article, for example, he and Sas propose programs that automatically collect and store digital information related to the relationship, making the choice to delete or save it less daunting. They'd also like to see new technologies that facilitate impulse control, such as a lock on an ex's Facebook page that mandates a sort of "cooling off" period before being able to access it, or a digital wastebasket that holds memories so that a user doesn't delete them prematurely.

When he has spoken with technology companies, Nitzburg has recommended the option to hand over access to an ex's social media pages to a trusted family member or friend. "I believe technology does more good than harm: It facilitates a level of social connectedness and an exchange of ideas that we've never seen before, and that can be very beneficial to everybody," he says. "My goal is to help incorporate psychology into the design of these products."

*name has been changed