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 months into our relationship, I asked my boyfriend if I could unfollow him on Twitter.
I don’t want to hear about your day from the internet, I told him. I want you to tell me about it yourself. I spun it as a near-noble experiment in intra-couple communication.
The truth was, I just didn’t like his tweets. Where I had once laughed out loud while reading them, I now felt more and more baffled by each missive. I didn’t get his jokes; most of the time, I couldn’t even decipher what they were about. I found many of his posts embarrassingly self-important, his hot takes on the day’s news a little overwrought. And it was ruining our relationship.
Unfollowing him, though, was no small ask. Greg (a pseudonym, because I wouldn’t want him to get any new followers out of this) was capital-O Online. He was a Twitter power-user. He’d even secured his job at a prestigious magazine through his active presence on the site.
I was asking, in other words, for permission to ignore a significant part of his life, a request magnified by the fact that we were in a long-distance relationship. The distance that separated us was a four-and-a-half-hour bus ride, but it felt farther. We texted, but rarely Skyped; we talked on the phone, but not as much as I wished we would. It was hard to find weekends to visit, and there always seemed to be a reason he couldn’t leave town.
There was part of me that knew that wanting to block out a source of Greg’s inner thoughts didn’t bode well for our compatibility as partners. But I wasn’t ready to face that. I wanted desperately to find some evidence that our relationship wasn’t doomed just because I didn’t like his online persona. Plenty of people conduct their relationships entirely offline, I thought.
A friend in a similar situation told me she’d informed her Very Online boyfriend that he was only allowed to tell her about two obscure internet phenomena per day. I took this as a sign that you could be both in love with your partner and hate something they were passionate about. I started amassing further evidence to justify my feelings, too. In September, a few months after Greg and I started dating, I created a Google Doc I titled, cryptically, “twitter.” In it, I copied a link to an essay that Farhad Manjoo, another Very Online Person, wrote about Twitter ahead of the company’s IPO:
I have joked with my wife—who, like most sensible people, doesn’t use Twitter but loves Facebook—that by neglecting the microblogging service, she’s missing out on the most interesting facet of my personality. The sad thing about this is that, most days, it isn’t really a joke: @fmanjoo is usually a lot more fun than Farhad Manjoo.
I can’t remember why I thought this bolstered my point, that plenty of normal, healthy couples don’t follow each other’s every move on social media. If anything, it refuted it. Greg, surely, would consider his tweets a vital part of his personality, too.
In person, he would often refer to people he knew from Twitter by their handles, asking if I knew them. Should I? I always asked, feeling like an idiot. The implicit suggestion was: Everyone does.
Greg and I were both journalists writing about similar topics, had gone to school together, shared a large group of friends. But we lived in parallel online worlds that rarely intersected. His felt bigger, more important. I saw his tweets and articles referenced on blogs I read, and watched him interact with people who, on a specific corner of media-person internet, felt famous to me. Most of his friends were people he’d met through Twitter.
Meanwhile, I floated in the distance, an internet-mile away, watching but never initiating conversations. I didn’t have any friends I met through the internet. My online musings had never landed me a job, had never gone viral. My immediate co-workers were pretty much the only writers who followed me on the site, and my few interactions were with people I knew from college. His online popularity in the professional circles I hoped to frequent caused pangs of jealousy and insecurity, despite my attempts to be a wholeheartedly supportive girlfriend.
And I didn’t understand how I could both love him and so desperately not get what the hell he was talking about most of the time. Sometimes I couldn’t even parse what his sentences were trying to convey. In the beginning of our relationship, I would read his posts and chuckle, but now I felt only insecurity and dismay. Instead of appreciating the access to his unfiltered musings, I often thought, “You sound like an asshole.”
But plenty of people seemed to enjoy and respect his online presence, so what was wrong with me, the person who ostensibly loved him most, that I didn’t?
Greg encouraged me to follow some of his internet friends myself, trying, in his own way, to bring me into his circle. But those friendships never blossomed. I was a digital wallflower, unsure of how to proceed. I felt invisible, immature, unworldly. As time went on, I grew despondent, withdrawn, anxious. When Twitter came up in conversation, so did my hackles. We got in fights over the fact that I didn’t follow some of his friends, that I didn’t appreciate certain posts he sent me.
Twitter was his refuge, and he was more than willing to dive in during the rare weekends when we were together. It was a handy way to distract from the fact that as our relationship waned, we weren’t quite sure what we could say to each other that wouldn’t lead to a fight. He disappeared into his phone while we rode the bus or waited for a server to bring the dinner check. At parties, I was left making small talk with his friends while he stood apart, scrolling through Twitter. “You’d rather be on Twitter than hang out with me,” I complained.
From his point of view, the situation must have felt just as dire. His girlfriend didn’t get his jokes, resented his success, and felt alienated by his favorite platform of self-expression.
Soon, his jokes stopped making sense to me in real life, too. We were never on the same page, even when we were just trying to make each other laugh. I no longer found delight in his mundane thoughts and off-the-cuff opinions. Though we still texted every day, we struggled to find mutual ground. “I just don’t know what you like anymore,” he told me, exasperated. I didn’t know, either. Or I did, but I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t him.
Unfollowing him on Twitter didn’t improve our relationship. We didn’t talk more to make up for what I missed online. When we broke up a few months later, neither of us mentioned Twitter.
But maybe we should have. Our fights over social media touched on all that was wrong with our relationship: the misunderstandings, the diverging interests, the insecurity and professional jealousy. When I asked to unfollow him, I was articulating something that I wasn’t yet capable of saying directly: We don’t get each other anymore. I don’t know if this is fun anymore. I just wasn’t ready to come to that conclusion at the time. He was my first adult love, and I so desperately wanted it to work, even though we were making each other miserable.
I tried to corral my dissatisfaction discreetly so that it only applied to the digital version of him, not the person that I saw in real life. But of course, the internet is real life. It’s impossible to extricate someone’s social media actions from the rest of their lives. Even though it has its fair share of posturing and image-control, in some ways, social media is one of our truest forms of expression — which thoughts we choose to send out into the world. I couldn’t separate out who he was offline from who he was online, because they were just two windows into the same person. Unfollowing his online self didn’t allow me to successfully dodge the aspects of his offline self I wasn’t clicking with.
Eventually, I had to own up to the fact that we had grown too far apart for our relationship to survive. Twitter wasn’t the problem. It was just the most visible symptom.
When I mentioned this essay to my current boyfriend, he didn’t laugh. “You never engage with my social-media posts,” he said, in that lighthearted tone that’s both joking and totally serious.
It’s true. I never hit that “heart” button on his tweets or Instagrams. It feels like the social-media equivalent of PDA. I clearly like him, my reasoning goes, so we can all assume that I appreciate his tweets, too. But I should know better than anyone that that’s not always the case.
He only tweets once every few weeks — so infrequently that, half the time, I don’t even see his posts. I promised to like them all. Genuinely.