After breaking up over four years ago, I recently began Snapchatting my ex-boyfriend, Matt.
Despite living mere subway stops apart for the past year, I hadn’t seen him in almost three years; that last time, we slept together.
But with so much time passed, “snapping” Matt felt harmless. After all, he was my “first love” — first everything, really — so totally losing him from my life always felt a little unnecessary and empty. We’d been such compatible friends—why should that end?
Through Snapchat, it was fun to see snippets of his life— his attempts at home-cooking, office pups and neighborhood art — and to share flashes of mine. To know he was happy, cliché as it sounds, made me happy, too.
But let’s be real. Snapping Matt, I ultimately realized, added a layer of complexity to my life.
Soon into our snap “friendship,” my boyfriend, Ian, caught on. Matt’s name often buzzed across my iPhone when we were together. At first I’d flip my screen or tuck it in my pocket.
But as Matt’s digital presence became familiar to me, it became familiar to Ian, too. I knew this situation was strange, yet part of me didn’t want it to be. Part of me wanted Ian to see Matt’s snaps, to know we’d re-established contact.
Perhaps part of me wanted Ian to be concerned or jealous that our once-love had blossomed into a thriving snap “something.” I enjoyed the attention from Matt and craved Ian’s counter.
I wanted to believe snapping Matt was just an entertaining, even endearing daily divergence. The snap photos and messages were fleeting by design, as our thoughts about one another should have been. Yet as Matt and I scaled the ranks in each others’ snap “best friends,” I found myself analyzing our snap “tactics,” and drifting into distant memories of those years together as I rarely had before.
A slippery slope
At first, I’d see the snaps he sent me posted on his public “story”… but soon they became much more personalized.
At first, I’d see the snaps he sent me posted on his public “story” as well. They were depersonalized, I reminded myself — he’s letting me in as he does every “best friend” on his most recently snapped list. But soon the snaps became more personalized.
First it was a photo of his new kitten, and I’d reply reminiscing on my hate for his dad’s cat, who’d always creep behind my shoulders when we watched movies. I’d snap a show I was into, and he’d send recommendations. We’d use Snapchat’s “messaging” feature, engaging in what felt like real conversation.
Yet however “advanced” our snap “texting” became, the fleeting nature of Snapchat was crucial to our connection—unlike iMessage there was no record of our interaction, which is what I wanted. When my friends saw a snap from Matt come through, they’d raise their brows, but couldn’t ask to read our exchange; it didn’t exist.
Sending Matt an iMessage felt too permanent or forward. I wouldn’t even “Like” Facebook photos of his recent trip. It was too public a gesture.
But Snapchat was free-game, an open testing ground for communication I wasn’t sure I should, or wanted to be having. Our secret engagements were inconsequential or so I thought.
After a few months of snapping, things escalated. Our snap exchanges remained completely PG, even fizzling off for a few weeks. However, my subconscious chose a different route.
At first Matt randomly appeared in my dreams. He’d be at a party I attended or in a store when I walked in. Gradually, he took on more central roles. For a full week, I dreamt about him every night. First, there were love dreams; his arms wrapped around me as I leaned against him, sitting in a grassy field.
But love dreams quickly became sex dreams, and I’d wake up exhausted, confused and turned on. Minutes later, I’d feel disgusted and ashamed.
Yes, it’s normal to have some sex dreams about your ex’s, but the frequency of these dreams, coupled with the regularity of our snapping illuminated a seriously unsettling cause and effect. Anxious about these dreams, but unwilling to discuss them with Ian, I’d pick fights, projecting the frustration I thought he’d feel if he found out. This immature behavior demanded I snap back to reality.
Was any of it real?
Through social media, I developed a false sense of intimacy with Matt that, in truth, proved as transient as our five-second snaps. I realized Matt rarely started our serial snaps, and often didn’t reply to my more personal reach-outs. I had even invited him to my going away party via snap message, and though he replied, he didn’t come.
As I tried to materialize our supposedly budding friendship, he kept his limits. While snapping Matt was as normal as snapping anyone else, the jolt of adrenaline I felt each time his name popped up proved our communication fed a deep-rooted insecurity. For years, I feared the reality that after such an intimate connection, Matt truly moved on and feels nothing beyond fond memories for me.
Matt is more a ghost than a participant in my present, and his absence requires I let go, not only of our relationship, but myself with him.
Perhaps scarier is the reality that I too have moved on—that Matt is more a ghost than a participant in my present, and his absence requires I let go, not only of our relationship, but also of myself with him.
Things were simpler when Matt and I dated; our biggest concern was which Starbucks to go to or if I’d finish my homework in time to make a movie. Matt treated me like a princess, and allowed me to get whatever I wanted. I encouraged this behavior. While we meant it, we said “I love you” ad nauseam, as if playing out a scripted high-school romance—our relationship, in retrospect, more performative than deep.
With Ian I am not that googly-eyed, self-centered sixteen-year-old. I can’t expect him to jump at my every need, or soliloquize our romance, nor can he. We have jobs, rent and consequential deadlines beyond late homework. We strive for balanced partnership and long-passed the honeymoon phase. For us, love means compromise, informed support, and advice in the dark times, as well as the light-hearted, childish adventures.
We’re far from mature adults, but we’re getting there. So to compare present relationships to past, to hold onto less fully-formed versions of ourselves, perhaps as a means to justify immature behavior or old habits, is not only dangerous but also damaging, to present partners and ourselves.
The IRL factor
Recently, for the first time in years, I saw Matt, by surprise, in-person. It was a Saturday, hot. During a neighborhood ‘block party,’ welcoming the unofficial start of summer, I spotted Matt from a distance, sipping a smoothie and swaying to live music.
His broad shoulders and bright T-shirt were immediately familiar. Hand-in-hand with his girlfriend, as I was with my boyfriend of two years. She looked my way through round sunglasses blocking potential eye contact. Her long, wavy hair reminded me of mine at seventeen. She is undeniably beautiful.
Now short, my hair dampened at the nape of my neck. I turned quickly. He didn’t see me.
“Matt’s here,” I told my boyfriend, on instinct. A rushed whisper. “Matt. Matt?” he asked. Stoic, he rolled his shoulder then changed the topic. “It’s fine,” I lied, smiling. “I know,” he replied.
My friends urged me to say hi, but I couldn’t. Seeing my ex by-surprise after years apart was shocking, but not because he’d become a stranger. Spotting Matt was dissonant, even nauseating, because over the past few months, through Snapchat, he’d become completely familiar.
I’d moved to this neighborhood weeks earlier, to live in a friend’s empty room out of convenience. I knew Matt lived in the area, and months ago we’d planned to grab a drink. Though now living in such proximity, catching up beyond the digital space felt too close for comfort. After my move, our Snaps, too, began to fizzle.
In awe of the bright sunshine, beautiful murals, music and countless tattooed artists that day, I decided, “Fuck it” and sent Matt a quick Snap. I also posted to my “story,” of the local scene.
As Matt and his girlfriend entered the crowd, I checked the app instinctively. He hadn’t opened my snap or staged some romantic run-in, as my internal narrative might have fantasized weeks before.
I didn’t love Matt anymore, but I’d fallen back in love with the idea that he was paying attention to me.
In that moment, I realized how threatening and fake this whole “snap affair” had been. I didn’t love Matt anymore, but I’d fallen back in love with the idea that he was paying attention to me, that he remembered me, that some part of me, the first-love, high school romance, lost virginity part of me, remained pure and alive with him.
Now, through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter (the list goes on), we’re not only able, but almost encouraged to spy on ex’s lives “after us.” This often anonymous viewership sustains our participation (albeit digital) in their lives, whether they or we) know it or not. Troubling and beautiful, we can only expect this phenomenon to advance.
Snapchat’s transient nature tempts us to dance the line between appropriate and unnecessary communication, especially with romantic (and ex-romantic) partners. Ultimately, this wider margin for regret requires we second-guess Snapchat’s “less serious” reputation, before acting upon it.
The facade I’d fostered with Matt was so false that when real-life contact proved finally possible, I felt entirely incapable. He never responded after opening my snap hours later — this silence appropriately evidencing a mutual lesson learned.
*Names have been changed for anonymity.
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