Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
A few years ago, shortly after a close friend of mine went through a breakup with her boyfriend of several years, she began the social-media purge, systematically deleting her Instagram posts and Facebook photos of the two of them together. It was like a virtual wisdom tooth removal, tearing the relationship out by its roots one at a time: “Every time I delete something, it feels like we’ve broken up all over again!” she wailed.
I watched (and tried to comfort) as she agonized over what to do: Maybe she should just leave everything up, she reasoned. After all, the relationship had been a big part of her life. But what if that made her look stuck in the past? Would taking it down look petty? Would not taking it down look desperate? Even after they got back together a few months later, she maintained that social media was one of the worst parts about their breakup. The selfish part of me was thankful I’d never found myself in that particular app-induced minefield.
I’ve never put a relationship on social media: not a Facebook relationship status, not a couple’s photo, not a sweet post commemorating a first date with someone. I’m currently single, but if someone were to judge my dating history by my social-media accounts, they would assume I’ve been that way forever. It remains a point of fascination among people I know: Do I date at all? Why are there no pictures? Why would I keep that a secret? It feels like being caught in the 21st-century version of that philosophical riddle: If you like someone and no one sees it on social media, do you really like them?
We’ve all seen screeds against social-media PDA, and I doubt I’m the only single girl who allows herself a private, vaguely bitter eye roll when someone dumps 50 pictures of their couple’s vacation on Facebook. For the most part, though, I love seeing my friends’ happy posts, and in general, I say, let people have their happiness, documentation and all. But what’s been puzzling to me is watching how much we align happiness with what we can see.
I never noticed I under-shared relationships online until a friend pointed it out to me and asked why. I rattled off a list of reasons that felt legitimate — being in the moment doesn’t always mesh with stopping to take a photo, I like to keep my private life private, so on and so forth. But then came her blunt follow-up question: Do I not share that part of my life because I’m scared it will fail?
I didn’t know how to answer that one. Mostly because more than a little part of me believed it had to be true.
“It’s part of your life … why wouldn’t you share it?” my friend continued.
“Why should a relationship be ‘content’?” I half-joked. We moved on after that, but days later, I still couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation. So I reached out for expert advice.
When I asked Lydia Emery, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University who researches the self and relationships, whether there is such a thing as “under-sharing” a relationship online, she explained that there is, to the extent that people interpret it as reflecting something about your relationship. “We’re also seeing differences between people who make their relationships chronically visible, like if you just post a profile picture with your partner that is just always there, versus sort of posting constant updates about your relationship,” she said. “There are different effects for both those things: If you make your relationship visible with a profile picture of the two of you or an ‘I’m in a relationship’ status, those people are perceived as being more satisfied and committed to their relationships than those who don’t make their relationships visible.”
Her research has also shown that attachment style plays a role in how much people share online. “These tend to be ways people sort of relate to their partners,” Emery explained when I talked her through my own situation. “People who are high on attachment avoidance — types of people who are reluctant to get too close to other people, and are sort of slower to open up to their partners and have a harder time trusting them — they’re especially likely to not want to make their relationships visible online, and they’re less likely to do things like post a picture with their partner or add a relationship status.”
Uh-oh, I thought. Attachment avoidant. Here I thought I was just a social-media weirdo.
Rachel Sussman, a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert who founded Sussman Counseling in New York, agreed that there could be truth to the idea that an aversion to sharing a relationship online could be rooted in fear. “Many of my clients reported relationship anxiety,” she told me. “They are afraid something will go wrong, or the proverbial shoe will drop.”
On the other hand, she added, “what is considered ‘under-sharing’ today was actually considered normal maybe ten years ago.”
“People tend to share all aspects of their relationship today at all stages, and I’m not sure that’s always the best way forward or the healthiest way,” she explained. “There is something special about keeping details private between two partners.” Sussman referenced a client who shared every detail of her engagement — and then fallout when it was called off.
“People always post what looks amazing in their life. I know people who actually design their life around what they will post,” Sussman continued. “I think it’s dangerous for us to think that just because someone isn’t posting, they’re not happy. It could actually be just the opposite.”
I’ve felt that: too happy to remember to photograph something; too tuned into a given experience to remember to check my phone. But I’m also far too familiar with the fear that often punctuates those experiences, that lurks underneath the “does he like me?” butterflies. For every moment of excitement and curiosity, there are at least three others of me bracing myself for fallout that seems inevitable.
Which is part of why it always felt easier to just not bother merging digital lives. In a world where my AIM “away” messages from middle school are still floating around somewhere in cyberspace, the end of a relationship doesn’t just mean untangling the in-person stuff like shared friends and furniture. We’re left to digitally extract ourselves, torn between deleting the past and freezing a memory.
But it’s not just fear or pessimism that’s motivating me. Social media has made me — made everyone — into a voyeur; we think we can see it all online, that if we follow along we’ll know what someone is doing and who they’re doing it with. But our online lives are a balance of choices. Even with our most post-happy friends and followers, we’re only seeing the stuff they choose to show us. I just choose to keep the best moments to myself.
My relationships are the space where I don’t have to be anything — no filters, no pithy captions, no hot takes, no ambition to perform or please. It’s exhilaratingly off-the-record, and refreshing to look over at the person next to you, their face lit up by a bonfire in the backyard or a glass of wine to their lips or whatever they’re doing, and realize the only one who will ever witness that moment in time is you. Sappy? Maybe. But part of me thinks more things should be.