The Facebook divorce

Couples are broadcasting their breakups online while friends -- and lawyers! -- watch in amazement and horror

Published September 29, 2009 7:08AM (EDT)

“We are getting a divorce. It has been in the works for a while now,” Lauren, a 36-year-old mother of two who resides in a small town outside of Austin, wrote on her Facebook page at the beginning of July, about her husband of 13 years. (Lauren is not her real name.) She was commenting on a response -- a single, stunned “Huh?” -- to the change in her relationship status. “Lauren went from being ‘married’ to being ‘single,'” read the dry, cold, unsympathetic recitation of fact. The infamous little broken-heart icon, the fixture you hope that, like some medical alert bracelet, you will never have to wear, fluttered up to hang alongside it. This is how life’s big moments unfold on Facebook: Epic emotions are reduced to emoticons.

During the month that followed, as the marriage continued to unravel and her grief intensified, Lauren began chronicling her divorce via status updates. “Lauren would cry, but then he wins,” she wrote. “There isn’t enough Kleenex in the world.” “My house is a mess. My life is a mess.” “Lauren is facing the aftermath.” Her very private ex-husband-to-be soon grew enraged. “I would write that I was upset or what have you, and he would assume that every negative thing I wrote was about him,” Lauren told me. “I didn’t feel like I was overstepping any boundaries, but he did.” When she began to write about her new relationship, her husband finally lost it. “I wrote that I was ‘Going to pizza night and beyond,’” Lauren said, “and he was offended by it. I thought it was vague enough.” Lauren’s husband then warned her that he planned to "un-friend" her. “So," she said, "I did it first.” Call it “War of the Roses” on Facebook.

We have long known that social networking facilitates hooking up. But what about breaking up? Does processing -- and broadcasting -- our feelings from the real, private realm in a virtual, public realm like Facebook make ending a relationship, that most painful of human experiences, more or less difficult to endure? It depends. Do you like your arguments, your recriminations, your teary confessions, your rantings and ravings to remain intimate (if acrimonious) interactions between two people, or do you enjoy a communal narrative on which an online village weighs in? Unfortunately, even if the latter notion makes you shudder, it may be unavoidable, as Facebook is the theater where some of life’s most chaotic, catastrophic and bewildering moments are now being played out. Not even the rich or famous are immune: Chelsea Davy, ex-girlfriend of Prince Harry, made the demise of their five-year relationship official (and officially public) by changing her status to “single.” The quick, unceremonious execution of the Facebook breakup -- it's like ripping off a bandage.

This is hardly news to 20-somethings, who have been airing their adventures online for years. But now that the demographic of Facebook has shifted to include those in their 30s, and 40s, 50s and beyond -- there are 300 million active users, so many that the Facebook backlash has already begun -- dramatic Facebook breakups have turned into dramatic Facebook divorces.

The problem is, Facebook is still a lawless frontier. (Though lawyers, particularly divorce lawyers, have come to view the site as an "evidentiary gold mine," as a recent piece in Time magazine put it, and they regularly pan for nuggets in the opposing side’s pages.) There aren’t any definite principles, precepts or binding contracts between individuals, and its habitués are forced to improvise as they go along. An example: Earlier this year, in Lancashire, England, a man named Neil Brady announced the dissolution of his six-year marriage with a status update. Here was the online equivalent of Matt Damon breaking up with Minnie Driver on national television. And yet, in an inadvertent nod to how muddled our on- and off-line realities have become, his wife, Emma, who learned of the break from a friend, remarked, “What upset me the most was not the fact that Neil had written he had ended his marriage, but the comment from a girl in Canada who said: ‘You are better off out of it.’”

The bizarre truth is that your Facebook divorce will likely be more public than your actual one. You are stating, in front of perhaps hundreds of witnesses, that the relationship has run its course. It’s like taking out a full-page announcement in the Times. “For a long time I kept my status as ‘married. I didn’t want to change it,’” said Elizabeth, a hairdresser from Illinois, who discovered her martial-arts instructor husband was having an affair with the mother of one of his students -- and immediately updated her status to read, “Ladies, Don’t Ever Get Married." Elisabeth LaMotte, a family and couples therapist in Washington, D.C., who has been “observing the ways in which technology affects relationships for many, many years,” told me, “Facebook becomes a definite point of tension between couples, and the relationship status in particular. For people who were dating or married, how quickly the person changes their status back to single is a big deal. It’s like, 'we were just dating yesterday, and you changed your status so fast, and do I have to do that, too?' It’s very public and emotional.” Myriad issues of etiquette remain undecided. If, for instance, you’re breaking up or divorcing in the real world, at what point is it no longer heartless to change your status on Facebook to “single” or “it’s complicated”? Do you need to warn your significant other that his or her status is about to change in turn?

Watching friends and co-workers attempt to navigate this pothole-riddled terrain can be -- I’ll just cop to it -- fascinating. Keeping up with the messy lives of others has become a guilty pleasure not unlike reading about the spectacular implosion of the Gosselin marriage. In "The Peep Diaries," a book I wrote about in July, Hal Niedzvecki argues that we are witnessing the tabloidization of everyday life. Regular people are acting like mini-celebrities, announcing their every move in the way famous people once did in the gossip pages. Needless to say, that girl from junior high, the one with the boyfriend troubles who is a fixture on your Facebook feed, is often no more familiar than some starlet in a magazine. Stephanie Nelson, a family lawyer from Texas (she asked that her real name not be used), described reading the posts of a woman she hasn’t talked to since high school, whose regular updates narrate a custody battle with an ex-husband who has put their child in a mental institution, and florid fights with a current husband of only five months. “There’s part of me, the goodhearted lawyer in me, that thinks, you should keep this down,” Stephanie told me. "And part of me, the part that reads Us Weekly, is like, what happens next?”

Of course, not every spurned lover provides a blow-by-blow of their marital meltdown. To do so takes a peculiar mix of anger, candor and exhibitionism, maybe even a tinge of desperation. Reading some of the more dramatic updates in my own feed, it's hard not to wonder about the people behind them. Recently, in a late-night online procrastination session, I was sucked into the Facebook drama of an old high school classmate, whose smiley, strawberry-blond wife had been swapped out for photos of an attractive brunette woman in a variety of come-hither poses: in a coral bikini, in tank tops so tight they revealed her padded bra underneath. I felt transfixed, embarrassed for him, judgmental -- like a creepy neighbor peeking in their window at night. Stephanie, the Texas lawyer, described a similar tangle of curiosity and secondhand shame. Her former classmate "posted on Friday at 9 or 10 p.m., ‘He’s decided that he can’t stand me, he wants a divorce, we’ve only been married 5 months, I’m pregnant, he’s on the phone with his ex-wife right now, asking her to take him back.'" She continued, "This thing is happening to you, right, and you get on fricking Facebook? I would call my best friend crying, I would leave the house -- I don’t know what I would do -- but writing on Facebook would be the last thing on my mind.”

Who can know what prompts people to expose their most intimate moments on Facebook? For some, Facebook makes it possible to confess what might otherwise feel too personal. “A lot of times you don’t get to talk to people about that stuff,” says Elizabeth, the hairdresser from Illinois. “It can be hard to discuss in person.” For others, the billboard approach has its benefits. It’s like a dark take on the holiday circular -- a quick, pro forma way of notifying people about your life. “It cuts a lot of awkward conversations, because people already know I’ve gotten divorced,” said Chad Post (was ever there a more appropriate name?), a 30-ish man in Rochester, N.Y., who runs Open Letter, a small press that publishes literature in translation, and whose divorce is in the final stages. “I don’t want to call people up and dump a bunch of shit on them, but I don’t mind if they know my life got screwed up. There’s something passive about it. No one has to respond.” But when people do come forward, it creates a feeling of being supported (which can be especially comforting when friends and family live far away). “People e-mailed saying, ‘I’ve been through this; if you want to talk, great; sorry this is happening,” said Post. “That was the thing that made me feel better -- it was self-selecting. If I talked to any friend, he or she would have said similar things, but they would have felt obligated.”

But let's be honest, for people in a frantic or vulnerable state, the siren call of Facebook can be hard to resist. Freud would have loved the site, enabler of the id that it is. The aggrieved parties can spy, stalk, trash-talk, gossip about, even publicly shame each other by way of dueling wall posts -- everything you want to do in the real world but that would be way too obnoxious. Lauren, for example, “tagged” her ex-husband in a photo of their two boys and a coral snake -- she gave the snake her husband’s name. When he complained, she said, "I was not trying to imply that you were a snake; I just thought you’d want to see this photo of the snake our kids caught.” (Still, you have to wonder.) When you want to be permanently free of your ex (at least online), there is the strongest weapon in a Facebooker’s armamentarium: deleting them, the fabled “defriending.” Chad Post was expunged by his wife after he posted about chopping down trees in preparation to sell their house. “I wrote that I was probably not in the best mental state to be using a chain saw,” he told me. “My wife didn’t say anything, but then she defriended me. She just wasn’t there anymore. It was super-surreal in a 21st century-meets-third grade sort of way."

All of this is why lawyers both love and fear Facebook. “It's a great new way to get information, a really immediate way," said Laura Merritt, an Austin-based attorney, who last week taught a Web seminar sponsored by the Texas Bar Association, “From Lawbooks to Facebook: What Lawyers Need to Know about Social Networking Sites.” “It's part of your due diligence now: Do clients have an active online life, social networking sites, blogs, etc.?” Lawyers hope to excavate information on lifestyle, relationships (“persons of interest”), whereabouts -- mentions of affairs or parties, say; money spent on gifts, lavish purchases or trips; photos of a parent smoking or drinking. In a custody or settlement case, such information can be used to show financial resources, state of mind, even lack of fitness to parent. If, for instance, photos surface online of you and your new paramour toasting each other at a pricey restaurant, you could be found to have committed “marital waste” (spending marital funds on another person). And it’s difficult to testify to psychological damage or humiliation when you are trumpeting your post-breakup happiness in status updates. (Most divorce decrees also prohibit one parent from disparaging another in front of a child, and a judge may view writing about your former spouse on Facebook as public disparagement.) “[C]ourts have come a long way from regarding the Internet as a source of ‘voodoo information,’" John G. Browning, a Dallas-based attorney who co-taught the Web seminar, notes in an article in Voir Dire magazine. A 2008 poll conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 88 percent of members had seen a "dramatic increase" in the use of digital evidence. Increasingly, this evidence is proving pivotal: In a Louisiana case, sexually explicit boasts on the MySpace page of one woman's boyfriend convinced the court to award custody to her husband. It’s one thing to lose your head in an update; it’s something else to lose your children because of it.

Don’t think you’re in the clear because you’ve set your privacy settings to "high." In legal terms, information is treated as private when the person writing it had a “reasonable expectation” that it would remain so. But when you post on Facebook, you are aware, even if this awareness is submerged, that it may be viewed, not only by your own carefully curated collection of friends, but often by their friends -- indeed by anyone else they may allow to view their page. “By its very nature a social network makes information available for all to see. This means that there is no right to privacy,” writes William Jones IV, a Memphis divorce attorney, one of many lawyers on the Internet with ads and blogs that warn of the pitfalls of social networking. As Facebook’s own privacy policy reads, “Please keep in mind that if you disclose personal information in your profile or when posting comments, messages, photos, videos … this information may become publicly available." Facebook is not like Las Vegas: What happens there rarely stays there.

If you wrote it, a lawyer is sure to find it, even if you’ve gone back and deleted material you worried might be incriminating. Lawyers hire computer forensics experts who know how to extract material that has supposedly been erased from a hard drive, or that is lingering out there in the blogosphere. Often, the opposition is ordered to refrain from taking any “destructive action” -- thus the seemingly benign act of deletion becomes the “spoliation of evidence.” Many lawyers, in fact, advise clients not to get on Facebook, MySpace or Twitter at all during a divorce, and some firms require that clients suspend their accounts. “Those bunny ears at Halloween may have been harmless, but they can be used to paint a fairly nasty picture in court,” writes Jones, the Memphis divorce lawyer. If you do continue to social network during a divorce, you might want to act like a modern-day celebrity, not an old Hollywood one, and reveal nothing telling about yourself at all.

Still, beware. Facebook, like the weather, is impossible to control. ”It’s not like bitching about your ex-wife to your neighbor over the fence,” said Laura Merritt, “you just told 600 people, who might tell 600 people …” Find yourself a neighbor and a fence. After all, during a divorce, people need to vent -- non-disparagement clauses exist for a reason -- it’s only now, post-Facebook, that there exists a permanent digital footprint of that venting. As a law student wrote in “Social Media Law Student,” an online blog about the topic: “People will express themselves, albeit to their own detriment, through numerous mediums, whether by electronic communication, acts of aggression, verbal comments, physical actions, written letters, and more. Social media networks are not to blame for sheer stupidity ... stupidity is now just easier to prove.”

Legal concerns aside, when any narrative is written down, experience does not decay over time. You are not left with your own memory of unrecorded moments but with a collection of status updates as indelible as photographs. The crying phase, the tearing-your-hair-out phase, the three-months-into-therapy phase: Each track is eternal, and can be eternally embarrassing. “In short, social networking sites have become the digital equivalent of what Jimmy Buffet once described as a ‘permanent reminder of a temporary feeling,’" writes John G. Browning in Voir Dire. How to explain these sentiments away in a later, cooler moment? It’s not as easy as calling up your sister to sheepishly admit that your beloved apologized and the situation has (once again) changed.

And in a relationship, change is often the only constant: “When he moved out,” Lauren said, “we would see each other for maybe 10 minutes without fighting, if we were lucky. Then he came here to do his laundry, and we talked for an hour and a half. It was the first lengthy conversations we’d been able to have. After that conversation he said, 'Maybe we’re ready to be Facebook friends again?'”

By Amanda Fortini

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