Is "Instagram Cheating" A Thing?

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Welcome to Unprofessional Advice: a column to help you handle problems of all kinds. Got a relationship query? Workplace drama? Is your roommate a narcotics kingpin? With zero professional experience and a complete lack of credentials, I will take on your issues with compassion and humor (and I'll keep it anonymous, obvs). Got a question? Email me:

Dear Kelsey,

My boyfriend follows several Instagram accounts that, in my opinion, are really inappropriate to follow when you're in a relationship. Think: Suicide Girls and other mostly-naked female profiles. It's not "wrong" because, as he says, "It's like porn, babe. It's not cheating." But that's what it feels like, because he looks at it all day. What do I do here?

Feeling Cheated
Dear Feeling Cheated,

I intended to write something clever about how "cheated" is both a verb (a thing you do) and an adjective (a thing you feel). But I was wrong. Linguistically, at least, you cannot feel cheated on. You can, however, feel hurt, mistreated, offended, misunderstood, forsaken, and helpless. Added up, that sounds pretty close to feeling cheated on. But you don't need that one particular verb to make all those adjectives true.

Language matters here, because communication lies at the center of this issue (as usual — ugh, relationships, right?). You and your boyfriend have different definitions of what constitutes a breach of your relationship's trust. Unfortunately, I can't say which of you is right. Every couple draws the map of their own relationship, so only you know where the boundaries lie.

For instance, your letter seems to indicate that porn is allowed in your relationship. For some couples, porn viewing is tantamount to cheating. But there is one (almost) universal truth when it comes to these issues: No couple knows where the boundary is until they smack right into it.

It's not as if you and your boyfriend agreed to be in a relationship and then immediately sat down to compare lists of What's Okay and What's Not Allowed. Furthermore, you didn't sign a contract agreeing to be Officially Not Hurt by certain behavior (including section 2.d. Looking at semi-nude women on Instagram and/or other social media platforms) for the full term of the aforementioned relationship. Such contracts exist only in the Apocrypha of royal prenuptial agreements. The rest of us normals have to negotiate all this the boring way: by talking about it.

Your boyfriend is claiming the moral high ground because, by his definition, he's not doing anything wrong. You're never going to get through to him by saying his behavior is like cheating, because he just doesn't agree with that premise. In an ideal situation, one of you could say, "Can't you see it from my perspective?" and the other one just would. But when you've been tense and arguing over the same issue for a long time, compromise becomes exponentially more difficult. You're at a stalemate. Someone is going to have to cede a little ground. And since you're the one writing the letter, I'm going to nominate you. Congratulations and I'm sorry!
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
If you want to get him on your side, you'll have to drop the fighting words and instead use language he'll be able to hear. Let him know that you understand that, to him, "it's like porn." You could therefore agree that it's not cheating. (Trust me, I barely got through that sentence without cringing. Ground-ceding is the worst, but it works for a good reason: It lets the other person know that he or she has been heard and understood. Even if you're diametrically opposed, this is a powerful gesture, and it enables the other party to lower defenses in turn.)

When you've totally laid that groundwork, then make your boyfriend understand what it's like on your side. You didn't anticipate this situation and how it would make you feel. You're not sure how to navigate it. You know it's not technically cheating, but it makes you feel all those same "cheated on" adjectives. So, it doesn't really matter what the verb is at this point. How are you going to address the adjectives?

Once everyone's on the same page about that, it's time to actually do something. In terms of actual behavior changes, I suspect you're both looking at some sort of compromise. Again, in an ideal world, he'd immediately stop following those accounts because he doesn't want to hurt you. But, again, if you've been wrestling with this issue for a while, you've got all that tension, hurt, and mistrust lingering in the air — and there's no quick fix for that.

Maybe he gives up the accounts you're most upset by. Maybe he limits his time on the app entirely, and you, in turn, agree to stop tacitly accusing him of cheating and instead stick to the adjectives when you need to talk about this. Compromising on the Instagram accounts might eventually mean he gives them up on his own. No promises there, but if he really understands how hurt you are by this behavior, he probably won't get the same enjoyment from those accounts going forward. However, if he feels like you're making unfair accusations and trying to control him, well, that might make the forbidden fruit even more tempting. That's not a guy thing, by the way. That's a human thing.

All this is based on the premise that your guy is a good guy and you think your relationship is worth all this negotiation. Before you launch into the big talk, I'd urge you to ask yourself: Is the Instagram thing part of a bigger problem? If so, you might need to do a lot of big-talk-ing. The good news is that successfully dealing with one problem in a compassionate, adult way makes it much easier to deal with the next problem that way. And if you're in this thing for the long haul, this is just the first of many problems. Maybe that's the wrong word. Disputes? Complications? Either way, you're going to face some tough shit, so you might as well learn how to face it together.

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