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.)
Things with Chris (not his real name) didn’t end badly. Exactly. They just didn’t end at all. Our casual romance, like so many others, fizzled into the abyss popularly known as ghosting: One day he answered my texts, the next he didn’t. And a few days after that, when a recent selfie of him cozied up to another woman popped up on my Instagram feed, I got the memo and promptly unfollowed.
It wasn’t my first experience with ghosting, nor will it probably be the last: I’ve lived it, and I’ve read some of the many think pieces that it’s spawned, plenty of them musing about proper breakup etiquette for ambiguous dating situations like the one I had with Chris: Ghosting is terrible, sure, but how do you cut ties with someone you were never really dating?
Except — in our case, it seems, you don’t cut ties at all, not entirely. It’s been years since we last saw each other, but I regularly find Chris peering at my Instagram Stories. We’re not in touch, but he’s watching from afar, he knows that I know it.
The internet’s coined another term for this particular pitfall of digital romance: orbiting. Not quite a reintroduction to online correspondence, orbiting is the passive voyeurism of a past flame. They’ll consistently peep your Instagram Stories and like your tweets, but never actually break the ice. Orbiting is social media’s Rear Window of exes. It’s equal parts confusing and creepy.
And I have to say, I love it, both the practice and the fact that there’s a name for it — finally, a way to understand the steady interest Chris and so many other former flings have seemingly had in my social-media goings-on. To me, that ambiguity — why are they looking, if they don’t care about me anymore? Or do they? — feels more like a reward than a source of anxiety. Regardless of where we’d left things, someone I shared time and space with has at least an inkling of curiosity about my life, and it feels like a pat on the back every time it happens.
The purpose of social media, or so the world would have us believe, is to put on a show. Often, it’s our way — my way — of feeling seen. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) While I’ll never know what my former flames are thinking when they make their way to my social-media accounts, I’d like to believe they’re impressed with the life I’ve made for myself post-ghosting. And that, by extension, they’re kicking themselves for letting such a fun-loving, free spirit go. Orbiting allows me to feel like the one who got away.
The phenomenon extends to past friendships, too. When childhood buddies take the time to check my Snapchat, is there a part of them that wonders what weekend outings we’d embark on as adults? What our companionship would look like had we not naturally went our separate ways?
What makes orbiting so alluring is the postulating afterward. For every failed romancer that likes a funny tweet, there’s the possibility that maybe he’s impressed at how much we’ve both grown since our time apart, that he’s interested in the person I’ve become since our paths diverged. Maybe I’m cooler and funnier than I was then. Just as Chuck and Blair in Gossip Girl needed to succeed as individuals before they could truly feel equal as a pair, what if all my orbiters were waiting for the day my Instagram wouldn’t remind them of the embarrassing memory of my terrible dancing in a crowded music venue?
Of course, nothing is quite this simple. Keeping tabs on someone you were once involved with can veer into uncomfortable territory if the orbiting translates into unwanted communication or IRL interaction. I’ve had to block a few orbiters who didn’t respect my boundaries.
But for the most part, I’m tickled with pride, however delusionally, by the awareness that someone I once thought fondly of is watching me from a distance. The facade, the on-brand moments I’ve curated, are enough to keep at least a few people tuned in, even if they’ve long checked out of our physical interactions.
It’s self-centered and maybe a little bit deranged, but it’s been more than enough to keep on justifying my adoration of orbiting to myself. It feels like progress, like I’m doing okay enough on my own to warrant a few viewers on the outer fringes of my social life. I know better than these lurking exes do that my real life, as a whole, is messier and less exciting than what I post. But when I discover that one of them has watched another one of my Instagram Stories, for a moment, I see what they see.