Article By Olivia Petter
~ July, 2021 ~ On Thursday 8 July, Millennial Love, a book based on The Independent podcast of the same name was published by 4th Estate. Like the podcast, the book explores the questions, quirks and anxieties that consume the contemporary dating landscape.
Having been praised by the likes of Matt Haig and Pandora Sykes, Millennial Love scrutinises the myths surrounding modern romance and asks why, despite having endless technology designed to aid communication, it feels harder to meet someone than ever before.
The book expands on some of the issues discussed on the podcast, including why contraception is a feminist issue, how dating apps have altered our understanding of attraction, and how Love Island became the unlikely lens through which the consequences of so many of these things were exposed.
By combining memoir with social commentary and insights from former podcast guests, including Munroe Bergdorf, Elizabeth Day and Lisa Taddeo, Millennial Love is an essential handbook on what it means to love today.
Here, we’ve published an extract from the book on the subject of how people use Instagram in relationships. Social media might be the platform we use to post the trajectory of our lives, but often it’s used as away to compare your life to other people’s. How does this affect us when we talk about those we love online? And what does it mean if a partner refuses to post about you on their Instagram account? And why is there a difference between posting about someone on your Stories versus your grid?
When my ex-boyfriend and I got together, one of the things I told him very early on was that I had a strict policy against sharing our relationship on Instagram. ‘It’s embarrassing, it’s unnecessary and literally no one cares,’ I told him, rather smugly. I did not want to be one of those couples. You know, the kind that use a self-timer to take photos of themselves snogging aggressively in loungewear or write sycophantic captions about ‘this one’ smiling next to a £10 plate of avocado toast. I wince at those posts. And they’re all eerily similar. Search #CoupleGoals on Instagram and you’ll find millions of near-identical shots of straight, white couples in some sort of highly Instagrammable scenario: think sipping cocktails at sunset/doing acro-yoga/eating brunch. The hashtag implies that this is what an ideal relationship looks like. But does anyone actually straddle their partner on a public beach and lick their face off? Who actually wants to share a bubble bath? And who is the poor third wheel that’s been bribed/hired to take all these photos?
I posed this question to illustrator Flo Perry. She told me that she’s suspicious of couples who post excessively about their relationship. “I think you’re more likely to post gushing public declarations of love on your Instagram if that love feels fragile. It makes sense, because seeing the likes roll in on a ‘couple photo’ can temporarily make you feel more secure that you’re doing the right thing in staying together. When your love feels secure, however, you don’t need those public declarations of love to feel loved. You feel loved every day in the offline world.”
This is definitely not the case for all social media couples, like Oliver and Emma Louise Proudlock, who I’ve interviewed on The Independent’s Millennial Love. But it certainly is for some, who might see sharing their relationship online as a way of glazing over its real-life cracks.
As the comments and likes roll in on their cute couple snaps, with people gushing that they are ‘perfect for each other’, they might start to believe it themselves. This is toxic for several reasons; one of which being that it can also keep you in a relationship for longer than you should be.
Having interviewed a few social media influencers on the podcast, I’ve been surprised to learn how invested their followers become in their love lives. In the case of fitness entrepreneur Grace Beverley, her followers have become so invested in her past relationships that they felt compelled to police them. While everyone is of course entitled to their own opinion, forming one about another person’s relationship is quite a leap – particularly if you have never met the person. No one really knows what is going on within a relationship apart from the people in that relationship. And yet we love to pass judgements on relationships we aren’t a part of, whether they’re those of our friends, our family members, or of the influencers and celebrities we follow on Instagram.
What’s more, we love to compare them to our own, as we do with almost everything on social media. There’s a sense of schadenfreude when you witness another relationship falling apart, as if it somehow validates your own.
This way of thinking turns relationships into a kind of competitive sport, one that rewards so-called happy couples and punishes unhappy ones, or worse, single people – remember when Bridget Jones is made to feel a social leper at a dinner with all her married friends? As the essayist Tim Kreider put it, ‘we’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated – that we are, in some sense, winning’.
A few weeks after I’d firmly imposed a no-Instagram rule on my boyfriend, which he duly obliged, I started noticing how he’d used Instagram in his previous relationships. And it was quite a lot. There were photos of his ex-girlfriends on trips abroad, having fun at festivals, or sitting across from him at the dinner table. There was even a post to mark a one-year anniversary of a previous relationship. Seeing how visible his ex-partners were on his Instagram feed made me feel like I was somehow invisible, despite the fact that I felt secure in our relationship.
In the end, I asked him to post something about us – and he did, on his Instagram Story. As petty as it may sound, there’s a major difference between posting about someone on your Instagram Story, where it will stay for just twenty-four hours, and posting about them on your main feed, or on your ‘grid’, as it’s often called.
In many ways, whether you choose to post about someone on your Story versus your Grid is a sign of commitment. When you post about a partner on your grid, it renders your relationship ‘Instagram Official’ – see the countless tabloid articles using the term in reference to the celebrity couples who have done this. When you post about someone on your Story, it’s apropos of nothing.
Which is why I was really annoyed when, nine months into our relationship, my boyfriend still hadn’t posted a picture of me on his grid.
Let me point out some of the basic hypocrisies here that make this completely ridiculous. One: I was the person who had initially told him not to post anything specifically about our relationship. Two: I was the one who had previously been adamant that I did not want to become a couple who shares photos of their relationship on Instagram. Three: in light of all of this, I had suddenly decided that if my boyfriend did not post about our relationship, it meant that he didn’t love me, despite the fact that I hadn’t shared a single post or Story about him.