Can You Catch A Cheater On Instagram?

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Welcome to Unprofessional Advice: a new 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. Got a question? Email me at: unprofessionaladvice@refinery29.com.

This week: Can you catch a cheater on Instagram?
Dear Kelsey,

One of my friends is in a situation right now where her long distance man looks like he is dating someone else based on the other girl's Instagrams. He says it's nothing. Should she trust him? If you have a bad feeling about something or someone, do you wait until you have hard proof to end it?

Signed,
Suspicious


Dear Suspicious,

Last month, I got a phone call from my mother asking if I'd gotten secretly married without telling her. My answer was something along the lines of "Whaaaaa?" Because, of course, I had done no such thing. After firmly assuring her of this fact, I asked what on earth could have made her think so. Her answer: Instagram.

Social media is a world full of rabbit holes. Reality becomes malleable, because users can appear not so much as people, but as personas. Most of us don't present our true selves and entire lives on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Rather, we offer snippets and clues as to what we did that day, what we ate for lunch, and who we're hanging out with. It's not exactly lying, but you can't really call it the truth.

In part, this is totally our own fault, right? We're the one's adding the filters and crafting the quirky comments. But it's also the nature of these beasts — and Instagram is, perhaps, the wiliest critter in the bunch. It's image-centric, offering little room for context or explanation. Therefore, it leaves the door for personal interpretation wide open.

On the day my mom called, we hadn't seen each other in person for months, but like many friends and family members, she'd kept up with me on Instagram. After we hung up, I scrolled through my recent posts and saw things like: Me and my boyfriend on a tropical vacation, the two of us dressed up in formalwear, and a dreamy shot of an altar set up on a rain-soaked field with a not-too-clever caption about "rain on your wedding day." Of course, it was someone else's wedding. But looking at it this way, I could see how she — or anyone, really — could easily assume these were 'grams from my fabulous elopement.
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Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
None of this proves that your friend's boyfriend isn't cheating on her. All it means is that, when it comes to Instagram, it is oh-so-easy to fling yourself down that rabbit hole with every thumb click — and rabbit holes rarely lead to the truth. You've got to fill in the gaps with your own assumptions, (which is the grown-up version of just making shit up). What makes this even more complicated and seductive is that a) her boyfriend is long distance and b) these aren't even his Instagrams, but those of the potential "other woman." There are so many unknowns; you don't have just one potential rabbit hole, but like, thirty.

Maybe she has a crush on him, but he doesn't reciprocate.

Maybe she's deliberately trying to make his girlfriend jealous.

Maybe they're seriously just friends and she's just the type who constantly posts Instagrams of everyone she's hanging out with and everything she does.

Maybe he's cheating on her with this girl.

The bottom line is it's really, really hard to know when we have so little intel to go on. I don't know this couples' history or their individual pasts. Has he cheated before? Has she been cheated on? Are there other contributing factors to this bad feeling she has about him? All these factors should be weighed against the Instagram evidence. Instagram evidence alone should not make or break anyone's relationship.

Occam's Razor says the simplest explanation is usually the right one. But old Occam lived long before the Perpetua filter. Either way, I think the right solution is probably the simplest: You've gotta talk it out, for real. Someone's got to get on a plane (or wait until the next scheduled visit) and take the leap into a really uncomfortable conversation. To get a sense of what's really going on with her boyfriend, she's got to go through him (rather than a third party's Instagram account). Then, it's up to her whether she finds him trustworthy or not.

That's the tricky part: With trustworthiness, it's rarely a question of knowing so much as it is deciding. Unless he's caught red-handed or somehow proven innocent beyond the shadow of a doubt, then she'll never really know if he's worth trusting. She decides for herself. You can think of that as empowering or a huge pain in the ass (maybe both?), but Instagram evidence is tampered with from the start. If you follow those leads, you'll only wind up down that rabbit hole in someone else's Wonderland, scrambling to get the hell out. Remember how that story ends? (Spoiler: it wasn't real.)
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