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Should I Delete Photos Of My Ex From Instagram?

The Internet is hard. Learn how to navigate it with our (semi-regular) advice column, It's Not You, It Me.

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My long-term boyfriend and I just broke up. Because we’ve been together for so long, there are obviously a ton of photos of him (and us) on my Instagram. I don’t really want the photos on there anymore since we’re not together, but is it petty to go through my account and delete the photos of him? Or is it weirder to still have him all over my account?

Millennials! If there’s anything they like to do, it’s fuck. And if there’s any place they’re going to talk about who they’re fucking, it’s the Internet. What a quandary, then, when our tangible lives shift, but our web lives remain stagnant, like an iTunes playlist that just. Won’t. Sync.

There are plenty of people who will argue that the Internet is not real life and, objectively, this is true. You cannot block people in real life, unfortunately, meaning you still have to be polite and calm when faced with someone who sincerely supports a men’s rights movement. The Internet allows you to have the entire world at your disposal, unlike the real world, which requires that you pay for things like music or movies or the privilege to watch someone ejaculate on a pie and then make another man eat that pie.

The Internet might not be an accurate representation of reality but it is an accurate representation of what you want your reality to be. That’s gotta count for something. You used your Instagram to spread word about your relationship and there was a good reason for that. At some point you loved each other. You say you were together for a while, so presumably there was something meaningful and heavy that kept you two together. Maybe you had a kid or a cat or an apartment or maybe you both feared the ceaseless march towards death and thought it better to do it together. Whatever the case: you wanted the world to know that you had found someone who understood you.

So maybe take a beat to think about why you want to take all these photos down. Do you hate the idea of being associated with this person? Did they hurt you in a big, meaningful, tragic way that you can’t even bear to think about what took you so long in breaking up? Do you want to hurt him? Do you want him to see that you’re FINE, that the breakup has been just FINE, that you don’t even think about him because you’re FINE?

Or does the ongoing existence of the photos just make you sad? Do you think deleting them will cure you of whatever residual heartbreak remains? Do you think you can extract from the tar of your soul whatever influence he had, whatever devotion you had to each other, that you can scrub it away by spending 40 minutes going through your accounts and hitting delete? Are you still ruminating over what went wrong, how this happened, how to move on? Do you think you’ll find answers?

The worst breakup I ever had was with a friend of mine, not a partner. She and I had known each other since we were 5, and when we were 22, she broke up with me big time. Not your typical ebb of a long-term friendship, but a sudden stop. We stopped speaking immediately, and I was ready to pack her life away and never think about her again—I did it fast, too.

The day we had our big fight, I stormed into my apartment and tucked away all the little physical items I had that reminded me of her: earrings from Zambia, a photo on my mirror of us on my 13th birthday, a lip balm she once left at my house that I took with me when I moved across the country. I put them in a shoebox along with the 50 or so pages of notes we passed in grade school, that I had kept, for some reason, and tucked it under my bed. I deleted her from Facebook and wiped the pictures clean from all my accounts. I thought I tucked away every tangible memory I had left, but of course I didn’t.

Cracks in my online life let her in, like bright light first thing in the morning when you want to be left in the dark. A mutual friend would talk to her and somehow it would appear in my feed. Facebook is relentless in pulling up “memories” from years ago: photos I’ve posted of us together or little inside jokes we’ve sent back and forth. The stupid Cloud (which I am almost 100% sure is just trying to get me to cry) keeps pulling our text messages back to my phone, reminding me when her birthday is (IT’S IN DECEMBER, I GOT IT), reminding me when her mother’s birthday is (IT’S THREE DAYS AFTER MINE, HOW COULD I FORGET). Later, when she blocked me online, I’d notice people having conversations with themselves, and I’d assume she was somewhere there, lurking, just out of my reach. It’s almost like no matter what you do, the people who left you, or whom you left, they are ultimately inescapable.

So why fight it? I miss her desperately, all the time, a horrible ache that climbs out of my body and spills into my daily routine. The reminders I get from the Internet always make me feel a little sad, a little sickly, but sometimes it’s good to feel that intensity.

The right amount of pain makes you feel alive. It makes you know you did something real, even if it didn’t last. The Cloud never hides my pain from me. Once, my old friend texted me months after our fight, to wish me a happy birthday. (It was my first birthday since I was 5 where she didn’t send me a handmade card.) It was curt and awkward, and worse, it pulled down to my phone, our entire text message thread. Every stupid comment, ever dumb topic, every weird date, every sad memory. “Remember this?” my phone asked. “Remember this person who you spoke to almost every day? Weren’t you stupid!” The Cloud brought back the last time we saw each other in person, the photos of the last day we spent together not fighting. The Cloud brought the fight we had over text. “Are you still hurting? I bet you are. Let me press real hard on this bruise you thought already healed.”

Admittedly, this is a feeling you’ll only ever want when you’re not currently feeling it. Maybe you’re mired in it right now, which is why you want to scrub your life of these imprints, but when you’re feeling better and less connected to this person and this moment in your life, you might want to revisit it. When I’m content, or when I feel like I’m forgetting parts of my old friend, I’ll go digging for something that can remind me, even if it makes me feel bad. Feeling bad, for a little while, is good for you.

You owe it to yourself and your relationship—whatever it was—to feel a little bad. In a few years, many years maybe, you will want these photos as nice keepsakes of a love that never worked out, but maybe, that you liked. Of New Year Eves and concerts and birthdays and even warm nights in. If you can’t stand the risk of you or anyone else scrolling back to your former happiness, then save them in a folder tucked in the recesses of your computer that you’ll only find at 4 in the morning while drunk and trying to find that Pirates of the Caribbean porn parody you downloaded five years ago as a joke and never deleted because, whatever, it was kind of hot, don’t judge me.

Soon enough, you’ll forget most of this relationship, and maybe you’ll be in another one, and this life will feel another lifetime away. Then, when you are your least guarded, Facebook will send you some stupid fucking notification about a “memory” from five years back: a photo of you and your ex on a beach back when you were happy. You’ll either find it a hilarious blip, or, emotionally devastating. But, how will you know how you feel about this person, this life you had, if you bury your digital footprint so deep that you can’t be confronted by them?

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