This week on TikTok, university student Lauren Zarras posted a video surprising her long-distance boyfriend. The seemingly innocuous video she thought she'd posted has now been viewed over 57 million times, spawned a #couchguy hashtag with another half a billion views, and has hundreds of thousands of strangers speculating about the state of their relationship.
TikTok users are convinced that Robbie, the boyfriend in question, is cheating on Lauren because of some pink flags (i.e. not as obvious as red flags) that arose in the video. Some say that his reaction was delayed, that he wasn’t as excited as he should be, while others say the way he held his phone was suspicious, and that the girl sitting next to him on the couch had her thumb on his back, and swiftly moved away from him.
This isn’t TikTok’s first foray into attempting to break up relationships, nor is it the first time it’s latched onto something random (and potentially dangerous). But this particular viral moment isn’t much of a surprise to Melbourne-based couples’ therapist Natalie Claire King.
“We do like drama, even the ones that say that they don’t,” King explains to Refinery29 Australia. “It stimulates us, it's interesting. I think it's only natural that we are drawn to it, that's why we're drawn to movies and stories. Whether it's a stranger, colleague or a friend, it can be very hard to kind of say, ‘oh, I don't want to talk about that I'm not interested;’ it’s hard not to get sucked in.”
It comes from a very human, primal place. The constant pressure to keep up with the Joneses and look over our shoulders at what the next person is doing is a completely normal instinct.
“We’re talking about betrayals and infidelities… and that's because [they’re a form of] crisis, it's a crisis that's happened in the relationship. And so, like any crisis, it's the news; the news is full of crises. That’s why people watch it, because we want to know what's been going on.”
But more than that, King also points to the self-comparison that can arise and worry about infidelity in our own relationships. “It’s our own fear. Cheating is the ultimate form of betrayal. What happens when there is a betrayal is that we really question who our partner is; our whole world has been shook and [people] actually [have] a trauma response. It actually shapes their own sense of self, not even knowing who they are when they don’t know who their partner is.”
The intense scrutiny on this young couple was spawned by subtle body language movements, something that King suggests is a good indicator of character, but doesn’t tell the full story.
“I think we know body language can tell you a whole lot — the way someone looks at you or the way someone doesn't look at you. Our instincts kick right in but there can be moments when we can overthink it too,” King says. “I don't think [body language] is enough to determine whether it’s [cheating], it's not that black and white, but I do think it's definitely something to pay attention to.”
“It's one thing for a partner to decipher that compared to a complete stranger looking at [a video]. But on the flip side of that, you know, a stranger might be able to see something more clearly because they're not in that relationship.”
The person who may have done the betrayal has already been going through, potentially, their own shame, and shame is really unpleasant — and the public eye on that and everyone else in the comments will only amplify that.
Natalie Claire King
While our voyeurism and schadenfreude feed off this drama, it’s best to watch how involved you're becoming as a bystander. “As long as we're aware that boundaries can be drawn, I think a little bit of curiosity and interest and intrigue is only normal,” says King. “But obviously, [if] we’re feeling that we are becoming obsessive about it, then it can become unhealthy.”
Of course, it’s not only the observers’ mental health that is affected, but the actual couple who finds themselves in the middle of the chatter.
“These comments are getting ridiculous, and I don’t know why you guys are assuming so much about my relationship,” Lauren says in her first follow-up TikTok video responding to the ‘couch guy’ drama. Her boyfriend’s first TikTok video overlaid text which read, “Not everything is true crime. Don’t be a parasocial creep. Go get some fresh air.”
“The person who may have done the betrayal has already been going through, potentially, their own shame, and shame is really unpleasant — and the public eye on that and everyone else in the comments will only amplify that,” King notes about what public scrutiny does to a relationship. “Then potentially the other partner’s own fear around their own self worth [that decreases from] their partner [cheating] and their own shame around that. I think it adds so much more pressure and amplifies the emotions that are already so big when this can happen, or is speculated to happen, in a relationship.”
While ‘couch guy’ may be the latest victim in our obsession with cheating scandals, he definitely won’t be the last. Playing detective and scrutinising microseconds of footage may feel a bit of light fun, but it’s also worth thinking about what they stem from, and what real-world repercussions our actions can create.