it's complicated

The Struggle of Setting Digital Boundaries in an Open Relationship

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 itscomplicated@nymag.com.)

A month or so after my boyfriend and I made our relationship open, he sent me a strange Instagram message.

It was an innocuous video — swap in virtually any “funny web thing you’ll forget about in two seconds,” and you’ll get the idea — but it was sent to me and another girl whose name I didn’t recognize.

I clicked on her profile picture and engaged in what is, for many of us, the now-habitual exercise of piecing together disparate digital morsels. She was impossibly beautiful, and, according to her bio, an activist and model; she took a lot of selfies squatting in front of mirrors, her head cocked just so. (How do some people look so good while squatting?) I clicked on another picture of her at random — this time lounging in her bedroom, looking dewy — and saw a comment from my boyfriend: “Where are you?”

It seemed like this was a girl he might be seeing. I took a screenshot and sent it to my boyfriend, curious, but not yet accusatory — because what exactly would I be accusing him of? We were open. We were allowed to see other people. Neither of us wanted those people involved in our primary relationship, though, so I wasn’t entirely sure why he’d looped both of us in to the same message thread. At any rate, I was fairly certain this wasn’t some ill-thought-out introduction to a hot girl for us to “share.”

Sure enough, when we talked about it, it turned out he’d meant to send the video to us individually. The comment he left on her photo was a joke, one made while she was in the bathroom on their second date. And for the time being, that’s how we left it.

My boyfriend is still mortified by this moment even now, a year later, but I return to it because it’s such a clear example of our biggest, most glaring blind spot. Social media extends through our screens and into our intimate partnerships — and yet I found myself lacking the language to talk critically about how these everyday internet exchanges impacted our relationship offline.

Which, clearly, they did. Offline, we talked candidly about problems that creep into all kinds of relationships: with jealousy, trust, communication, honesty. We made rules and boundaries for how to navigate these realities, especially in a relationship that included other people. But we didn’t talk about how these things ran rampant on the internet.

I look back on how we handled the opening up of our relationship and find, as a millennial is wont to do, a helpful a comparison in Harry Potter. There’s a moment in The Order of the Phoenix when Cho Chang, mourning Cedric’s death, tells Harry she wishes Cedric had just “known this stuff,” been better versed in Defense Against the Dark Arts, so that he could have stood a chance against Voldemort. To which Harry says Cedric “was really, really good!” He knew everything he needed to know to survive. Voldemort was just more powerful.

I suppose in this metaphor, social media is Voldemort. We didn’t do our version of an open relationship perfectly, at all. It was messy and, in the end, not the right model for us. (We’re now monogamous.) But we were really, really good at talking about and practicing the type of communication we wanted. We trained as hard as we could, but in the face of something so amorphous, sinister, and sprawling, we inevitably found ourselves struggling. We were not, alas, the chosen ones.

Here’s some important personal context: for the first year of our relationship, my boyfriend and I were — simultaneously — getting more attention on Instagram. We encouraged each other to share our art with the world and soon amassed hundreds, then thousands, of followers.

In my corner of the internet, a community was growing around my comics, which are dedicated to unpacking the nuance of relationships, dating, and toxic masculinity, and seeing so many people react to them felt like catharsis. But seeing people talk to him on social media felt like the opposite: I found myself playing a perpetual game of “fan or friend?” about people who commented on his photos, then wondering which was more threatening.

Sorting out what was flirtation versus “audience engagement” became a pastime. People would comment “I’m obsessed with you” on videos he posted of himself, and sleuthing revealed they all seemed able to pull off short bangs. And probably looked great squatting. Once, on a night that we’d decided to spend apart while keeping texting to a minimum, he posted a Boomerang of a candle flickering to his Instagram story. I didn’t know where he was, or with who, but then again, I had agreed to that. Still, I spent that night creating imaginary narratives for myself of what was going on, sinking deeper into digitally induced paranoia.

And there were more of them, moments like these that I couldn’t prepare for. I began bracing myself every time I picked up my phone to  encounter something that gave me that sinking, sick feeling in my stomach, the too-familiar itch of not-rightness that happens when you discover information you are conceivably allowed to know, but not supposed to.

We flailed in the general direction of solutions, like limiting texting or being mindful about keeping things in DMs over comments. And sometimes, when I could feel the paranoia kicking in, I would just ask my boyfriend what certain people meant to him. Like the time he commented “you are pretty” on one of Cara Delevingne’s photos, an act he thought was funny and I could only interpret as some indication of (a clearly impossible) offline connection. But to ask about every single digital exchange wasn’t exactly sustainable.

Of course, social media is weird regardless of what type of relationship you’re in. But incidents like the accidental group chat between my boyfriend, the model, and me, as they accumulated in the year we spent in an open relationship, clarified something essential for me: We’re so inundated in the amount of access we have to everyone, all the time, that it’s easy to dismiss how this impacts us, especially romantically. It was this constant (if fragmented) access to my boyfriend that made me feel like a voyeur, peering down into my own relationship.

I saw a tweet recently (I forget from who) that remarked on the bygone era of saying “be right back” online. BRB is gone, because we’re always here. If you’re looking, there are traces of our exchanges everywhere. Even Venmo. But that unending, direct line into someone else’s technological sphere isn’t communication. It’s a glorified version of trading “what’s up” back and forth forever.

We found solace, perhaps expectedly, offline. We settled on phone calls when we needed to communicate, which gave us depth and–more importantly–intentionality. Even when we went back to being monogamous, the phone calls gave us the time to talk about the things that matter. Like if writing about the squatting hot girl in an article on the internet was okay, and whether I too could pull off that same pose if I stretched and tried some yoga someday.

To be clear, we were never experts in setting digital boundaries. In fact, we were pretty bad at it. But we made space for serious conversations about how we, as partners, were in a separate, strange relationship with social media – as are most people, regardless of follower count. As a unit, we gave credence to how even the smallest exchanges can feel not-right, and naming that—voicing it—was freeing.

Setting Digital Boundaries in an Open Relationship