When Cait K., a 26-year-old freelance writer and content marketer, was living apart from her partner, Ryan, for almost two years while he attended law school, they didn’t have a whole lot of time to talk on the phone or even text. But there was one easy way for them to stay in contact throughout the day: trading memes. “We were constantly sending memes back and forth during that time,” she explains. This was especially crucial because they had only been together for a few months before transitioning into an LDR. “Memes became a way of establishing intimacy very quickly. It became a fast track to understanding one another’s sense of humor. Memes were a quick and easy way to speak volumes.”
Cait’s story is far from rare — whether it’s to bridge a physical gap, get to know each other better, or just shoot the shit, romantic partners, as well as friends and family members, are engaging in a never-ending game of digital tag. Sophia, a 25-year-old illustrator and designer who has been with her partner for two years, says they sometimes exchange up to ten memes a day. “One morning he was walking me to my car, and I was nearly in tears over really, really not wanting to go to work,” she says. “He told me not to worry, and that the moment he got back inside he'd start looking for memes to send me throughout the day so I'd stop crying. Funny how comforting that was. 'Bye, love you. Send memes.'”
According to a 2019 survey from market research firm eMarketer, 54% of millennials and 59% of Gen Zers are active on Instagram. While the ‘gram is often thought of as a black hole of selfies, influencer content, and paid marketing endeavors, memes also make up a huge part of the platform’s landscape. And while the reaction to most of the aforementioned content genres is typically to look, like, and move on (or maybe just roll your eyes and close the app), memes are the most inherently social kind of social media. If you check out the comments section of a post on your favorite meme account, you’ll see what I mean: it’s primarily littered mostly with people otherwise wordlessly @-ing other people.
This casual yet neverending form of communication is particularly fitting for couples. Couples are, after all, known for sharing an array of obscure, cute-yet-gross inside jokes that nobody else understands or finds amusing; being in a couple is basically a form of comedy-based hivemind. Before social media, the individual members of a couple had to leave the comfort of said hive during the day and interact with others. That’s still mostly unfortunately true, but thanks to memes, they can return to it intermittently, whenever they see a picture of a weird-looking animal or something about that thing they totally talked about last night.
“Memes have become our way to talk trash and joke,” agrees Cait K. “During that long distance time, we almost created our own code of memes. Particular images that we kept recycling for given emotions or that were pointed at specific people.”
One meme the couple is particularly fond of? So-called “Pajama Kid,” a school picture of a young boy in Spongebob pajamas making a straight-lipped face that, in the internet world, implies judgement or a state of being unimpressed by someone or something. “When Ryan tells a bad joke or intentionally tries to ruffle my feathers, we have a ‘face’ for that,” she says, in reference to the meme.
Dr. Rosanna Guadagno, a social psychologist at Stanford University, who has researched social influence and virality, says that humor is an important way people bond with one another. “One of the ways that you can tell when a relationship is getting stronger — especially as time passes and you spend more time together — is you start developing all sorts of inside jokes that mean something to the two of you,” she explains. “A meme is effectively a visual version of this. It's less intentional, but I think it serves that same psychological function of reinforcing the couple as a unit and having these shared ideas, shared perceptions, shared jokes, and shared experiences.”
In a world where couples are increasingly meeting online, memes can fill the awkward getting-to-know-you small talk space. In December, the popular Instagram account Overheard New York, which posts snippets of supposedly overheard conversations, posted an exchange in which the first party is telling a companion, “Yeah, man, I really like her.” “That’s awesome, just be nice to her,” the companion responds. The punchline follows: “Oh, I am. I’ve just been sending her one meme a day. Keeping it really casual.”
The implication here is twofold: One, passing memes back and forth is a good, non-threatening way to get to know a romantic interest. Two, sending one too many memes might imply an over-familiarity, given that constant meme-sending is something couples often do. Comments include: “how I want to be courted tbh,” and, of course, the requisite string of tags.
Memes about relationships, and also memes about the role memes play in relationships — meta, I know — are increasingly common on Instagram. And while couples certainly love tagging each other in memes about shared pop culture obsessions or obscure baby animals, nothing strokes both the heart and mind’s need to share like a meme that’s just “so us.” Whether it’s that viral Bernie Sanders campaign image with the text “I am once again asking if I’m a burden,” superimposed on top or a more complex Expanding Brain format about “loving someone for who they are while knowing that how they make you feel is simply a reflection of how you feel about yourself in reaction to who they are,” there’s truly something out there for every couple’s couple-y quirks and nuances. (Or, perhaps more accurately, what we think are quirks and nuances — my boyfriend recently tagged me in a meme of two cats playing with each other's paws. "It us," I replied... right under the exact same comment from another couple.)
It's noteworthy that just as memes have made it easier to talk about topics like depression and mental illness, they have also illuminated the weird insecurities we all sometimes feel in relationships. “It's sometimes hard to talk about our emotions, especially the wishy emotions, the more sensitive emotions, the things that make people vulnerable,” says Dr. Guadagno. “With memes, we can express some negative feelings or more vulnerable feelings, and that in a way it’s less formal and less scary because you're not putting it in words, nor are you really attributing it to yourself.”
In this way, memes have revolutionized communication, allowing us to transmit information on a wide range of topics — everything from kittens to politics to death — in a way that feels both thoughtful and unintentional, serious and irreverent. Like all good artists, meme creators articulate the things many of us don’t know how to. But unlike, say, movies or songs or paintings, memes are bite-sized and easily transmitted. For this reason, memes have an uncanny and unprecedented ability to bring us together, both as large groups and as couples.
For Sophia and her partner, they are the ultimate reset button for when life as a couple is less-than-easy. "I am deeply in love with my best friend, and at the end of the day that is all that matters. I am lucky to have a partner that feels the same. We've fought in nearly every way one can, from big screaming fights, to nearly undetectable passive aggressive moods that turn into subtle irritated battles out at dinner,” she shares. But sometimes, in life and in relationships, it’s the little things that make it easier to manage the big things.
“After a bad day, later when we're apart, a meme can be a small peace offering,” she says. “It's a way to remind each other that whatever is wrong probably doesn't matter that much, and that you still want to make the other person smile. You don't have to use words to say, ‘I love you, who cares, look at this funny picture of Justin Bieber falling off a unicycle.’”
And honestly, isn’t that what we’re all searching for the ability to express?