Does Following Your Ex On Social Media Count As Cheating?

Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell

Dear Kelsey, I am happily married to a kind, good, sweet, loving, nurturing and laid-back man who I am blessed to have in my life. We’ve been together for 13 years and married for two. Then there is another man — one I’ve known since before I even met my husband. I’ll call him Josh. I’ve known Josh since high school, and we used to be in a relationship. Though it was one of the most tumultuous, dark, and painful ones I’ve ever experienced, I still love him and respect him a great deal. He is a very special soul — complex, vulnerable, and talented. We’d already broken up by the time I met my husband, but my lingering connection with Josh became an issue. I had no desire to be in a relationship with him again. I wanted to have a mature, platonic friendship. Still, he would send me flirty text messages, and I liked it. I had to admit to myself — and my future husband — that I was still attracted to him. At the time, Josh was in a bad place and his behavior became unstable. He acted like a fool and fucked everything up. I ended up having to cut him out of my life, which was incredibly difficult. About a year ago, I agreed to meet with him so he could apologize and explain himself. That was hard for my husband to understand, but I went, and this time Josh was very sober and respectful. I got the closure I needed. Cut to today, and I find myself looking at his social media feeds lately — a lot. I miss him. I know I can’t talk to him, but looking at his images and work on social media gives me a strange feeling of closeness to him that is indescribably valuable to me. I have come very close to actually communicating with Josh online, and each time I have to remind myself how hurtful this would be to my husband. He would never understand, and I get that. I could be romanticizing; I realize how easy that is to do with people online. But I just keep thinking about him and getting emotional about it: emotional over the fact that I can’t talk to Josh anymore, that my husband is in the living room while I’m in the bedroom looking at this man’s social media feed — that I’m hiding. But I really want to follow Josh online. I really want to comment on his pics and say hi. I have communicated with him briefly via email this year, but I haven’t said anything to anyone about that. I guess my question is, does checking on your ex on social media constitute cheating? Sincerely,
Social Media Cheater (Maybe)

Dear Maybe-Cheater, Wow. I realize this is your actual life and I don’t at all mean to trivialize it, but wow. That is a saga. I found myself reading, chin-on-hand, wondering what would happen next! What did Josh do that fucked everything up so definitively? What is this mysterious, complex, vulnerable, talented, special person up to now? No wonder you’re hiding in the bedroom with your laptop. This is some Wuthering Heights shit.
Illustrated by: Louisa Cannell
That’s the power of social media: With the click of a button, it can turn virtually any old romance into Wuthering Heights and any ex-boyfriend into Heathcliff. If this were the 18th century, you’d be wandering the moors, soaked with English rain, tearful and searching for him. But nowadays you can just tap that Facebook icon on your phone and pine away from the comfort of your bedroom. Is this cheating? I dunno. The definition of infidelity is different in every relationship. Some people define porn and masturbation as cheating. Others don’t mind if their partners have sex with other people as long as it’s in another zip code. The only people who can really answer this question are you and your husband. But I’m guessing you’d rather not have that convo. I’m guessing that if you’d rather write to me than step into the living room and chat with your husband, you already know the answer. To my mind, though, that really isn’t the point. Maybe this is cheating of a kind, but what would you confess to? Lusting? Nostalgia? You’re allowed to have private thoughts in a relationship, and you’re allowed to have crushes. Everyone experiences those things, married or not, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you’re monogamous, you choose not to act on those feelings — not to stop having them. They aren’t within your control. But your actions, both on and offline? That’s on you. Right now, you’re not doing anything unusual. Even if it is transgressive, it’s a transgression that nearly everyone else with a Facebook account has done. Of that, I’m 1,000% sure. But as many of those people can tell you, it’s a slippery slope. If you made contact with Josh, you would be acting on your feelings — not physically, maybe, but virtually. And, these days, most of us spend as much time in the virtual world as we do in reality. I think you know there is a line, and if you hit that Like button, you’d be taking the first step across it. But we all know that social media tends to blur reality. That’s putting it mildly. To be frank, it’s total bullshit. You think you might be romanticizing? Woman, you are. Nostalgia paints everything in a rosy glow — and social media is like a magnifying glass for nostalgia. When you glance at his Instagrams or witty little status updates, you are seeing only the sweetest snapshots of him. They light up all the sweet snapshots in your memory, too, now faded with age and all the more lovely. In those, perhaps his anger looks “complex” and maybe his insecurity is “vulnerable,” as you put it. Or maybe you’re remembering him with perfect accuracy. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The most important thing to remember is that you are busy looking at all these old pictures instead of your real, present life. You are betraying yourself as much as anyone. It’s time to wake up from this cozy reverie. Do you want Josh in your life — your real life? Okay, make it happen. Have an honest conversation with your husband about that (assuming you want him in your life, too) and figure out where to go from there. It might be tricky, and there might be compromises, but that’s reality. Or do you want to keep Josh in your past? That’s even easier: un-friend, unfollow, and get him out of your feed. Turn off your phone for a moment. Close your laptop. Step out of the virtual for a moment and make a decision. Life is too short to live in limbo.

Welcome to Unprofessional Advice. With zero professional experience and a complete lack of credentials, I'll take on your issues with compassion and humor (and I'll keep it anonymous). Got a question for the column? Email me.

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