A year ago, as my first novel was being published and I was starting a new career, I was also dealing with one of the hardest stretches of my life due to an unexpected divorce.
The divorce particulars won’t break new ground in the genre, and I don’t pretend my experience is any more or less painful than what others have gone through.
But in the era of Facebook, Twitter, Google, e-mail, and blogs, this literally isn’t your parents’ divorce anymore. Thanks to the Internet there are things we never before had to worry about confronting, and no roadmap on how to get through. The essentials of divorce may be the same, but the digital landscape new divorcees confront is new and deeply strange.
A Life Lived Online
Lest you think the peculiar challenges of getting divorced in the Internet era are limited solely to the highly connected, I should say I’ve never really lived my life in public. My Internet presence is devoted almost entirely to my professional life, and while I might peel back the curtain to flaunt my horrific taste in television shows, my day-to-day life has mostly been off-limits.
But my personal life inevitably crept onto the Internet, whether I wanted it to or not. I never even told the Internet I was getting married in 2008, but when I announced on my blog that I would be featuring guest posts for a few weeks, one anonymous commenter guessed that I was going on my honeymoon. Then another managed to find (and link to) my gift registry, which I hadn’t even realized was online. I deleted those comments, but shortly thereafter “Nathan Bransford Wedding” became the second most-searched term involving my name, a position it has bizarrely occupied ever since. (“Nathan Bransford Divorce” has risen to #3 on Google, despite my never having mentioned the divorce online.)
Shortly after our marriage, my then-wife started a blog that chronicled and photographed our real life. Despite being uncomfortable blurring our public and private spheres, I linked to her and mentioned her by name.
My private life was creeping online anyway. It seemed futile to resist the semi-public nature of the Web, which was fine until my marriage unraveled.
That Awkward Moment When You Run Into Your Ex on Facebook…
Post-divorce, the Internet has become a personal minefield. There was the time shortly after the split when LinkedIn suggested I connect with my ex’s new boyfriend. There was a time when Facebook kept surfacing “remember this moment?” photos of me and my ex from my mom’s profile. I hid and changed my relationship status in the dead of night so as few people as possible would notice the change and ask me about it.
Worst of all is Gmail, which has one of the most maddening “features” to confront anyone going through a breakup. Nearly every time I wrote an e-mail to friends this past year, Gmail oh-so-helpfully suggested I include my ex-wife in the e-mail. And you can’t turn this off. It still happens, despite my pleas to Google to make it optional. (Google obviously doesn’t employ enough divorcees.)
That awkward moment of running into your ex can happen virtually at any time, even when you’re comfortably sitting at home. Every mutual friend’s Instagram feed is an encounter waiting to happen. Every search through e-mail to find an address or a phone number is a danger zone of old conversations and memories.
Blog readers and interviewers still ask after my wife, questions I have become increasingly skilled at dodging. Uncomfortable as it is, I can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
When my ex and I split, she adopted a scorched Earth approach to social media. She deleted her Facebook profile and blog entirely and started new ones. (Facebook dutifully suggested I befriend her new profile.)
I didn’t have the luxury of starting over. I had four years of posts devoted to writing and publishing, and discarding all of that because of a few mentions of my ex wouldn’t have made any sense. I could have gone back and scrubbed all mentions of her, but who has that kind of time?
It’s all out there anyway. It’s my life, I can’t pretend it didn’t happen. The Internet makes it impossible to cover your tracks.
The Web Doesn’t Forget
To move on emotionally after a divorce or a breakup, you have to forget. You gradually move on from the pain, the particulars of fraught conversations fade, your memories of being together become hazy, and you reconstruct your life. The relationship eventually feels like a strange dream you once had, and you move on. That’s how we heal.
But the Internet doesn’t forget. It has a perfect memory. And, what’s more, it’s constructed to force memories on you with the assumption that the experience will be pleasant.
Most people don’t have a photo album of themselves and their ex sitting on their coffee table, but Facebook Timeline shows your past to all your friends unless you go back and spend a lot of time revising your past. My ex’s new life isn’t entirely out of view — it keeps popping into my social media feeds and Google Reader.
I’ve had to draw up new blueprints with mutual friends to figure out how to navigate parties I’m not at that will be mentioned online. I’ve had to get used to the weirdness of commenting on the same friends’ Facebook photos as my ex and living a strangely distant parallel life that sometimes can also feel way too close.
Our natural coping strategies can’t compete with Facebook and Twitter.
There is one big benefit to divorce in 2012, though. Now when I date new people, I don’t have to have a painfully awkward conversation where I break the news that I’m divorced. Anyone who is a halfway-decent Google stalker has already figured it out.
This is My Life
I debated whether to write this post for a very long time. Telling everyone I’m divorced on the Internet isn’t really my style. I’m a naturally private person, and a children’s book author at that.
But there’s barely such a thing left as a personal life anymore. Your life is preserved in Facebook status updates, Google searches, public records, and it’s impossible to erase the past. Whether that’s a good or terrifying thing is beside the point. It just is.
I could keep it ambiguous online, or just clear up the mystery. I could continue to dodge questions about my wife, or I could just come out and say I’m divorced.
I’m divorced. There’s no hiding from it in the social media era.