Photo via Anke Allaert/Flickr (CC-BY) Remix by Jason Reed

Why can’t I shake his ghost?

 

Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email [email protected]

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Dear Swipe This!

I dated a guy who waved some serious red flags in my face the whole time we were seeing each other—but I liked him. Partially, I think, because he works hard to get approval from the women he dates. In fact, he desperately wants approval from the women he dates.

When we were dating, he brought up his exes all the time. He talked about their successes. And the famous people they had dated. And sometimes he would say negative things about them, always unprompted. For example, one of his exes was recently on a pretty popular TV show. Out of the blue, he shared that fact and said he felt “weird” about it. He said, “Good for her, I guess.” I wondered if he was just trying to make me jealous, or if he wanted me to think he was cool for having dated her. (I didn’t care.) He then posted an Instagram of him and her together, celebrating her success.

Post-dating, I muted or unfollowed him on every platform on which we were connected, and I haven’t interacted with any of his posts since. But he is constantly up in my grill. Purposefully and by virtue of Instagram’s evil engineering, I can’t shake his online ghost. He still follows me and randomly likes my posts—sometimes from days before, meaning he was scrolling through my profile. His name appears at the top of every account where we have a mutual follow. He is always around.

Granted, he and I have a few mutual acquaintances. We even have a mutual acquaintance who he once told me he’d hooked up with. He said that she sends him nudes, and that “it’s crazy,” as if he didn’t like them. Meanwhile, he would like her selfies on Instagram. In fact, he almost exclusively likes cute selfies from his exes and other beautiful women on Instagram. I’m no longer seeking out all this info (believe me, when I was in the midst of our confusing dating experience, I was), but now I’m like, why are you still here?

I recently followed someone I had just met and saw that she and he follow each other, too. He. Is. Always. Around.

I know your advice is probably going to be “Move on.” And I want to. But can I just ask: What the fuck is he doing?

Sincerely,

Haunted

. . .

Dear Haunted,

I love short stories. The best ones are neat and compact and when I finish them I feel like I’ve just had a delicious and perfectly portioned meal. My favorites are by Chekhov. He writes about the mundane, the mysterious, the human condition. And whether his stories are tragic, humorous, or hopeful, he always delivers a really solid ending.

I hate sloppy endings. Don’t you?

Some relationships are dense novels. Others are short stories. And some have really lousy endings.

The worst endings aren’t necessarily the ones that are the saddest or even the most explosive. They’re often the ones that leave us feeling like something is incomplete. Sometimes, when we’re left with a sloppy ending, we have an impulse to tack on something a bit neater. We want to tie up all the loose ends so we can look at what happened and say, “There, I know what that was.”

It doesn’t surprise me one bit that you are having trouble moving on. And I doubt you are alone in the discomfort you feel knowing someone you’ve decided to let go of is still peeking into your world to see what you are up to. There is something particularly jolting about seeing the username of a person you are trying to shake flash across the screen like a mosquito buzzing about, as if to say, “Hello, I’m here. Just wanted to irk you a bit, maybe nibble your skin and draw some blood.”

On top of this feeling of invasion, it seems to me your stress is compounded by the fact that you feel ashamed for caring in the first place. You wrote to me asking for some resolution, but you say in your letter that you know my advice will be to admonish you and say, “Move on!”

Why should you have moved on? Are you not allowed to feel any amount of attachment or sentiment toward a person whom you shared your time, heart, and body with? Let me tell you a secret that everyone knows and no one says: Some of the hardest relationships to move on from are ones that, to the untrained eye, seem totally trivial. You are not alone in feeling this way and you help nothing and no one by shaming yourself for caring.

So let’s slow the breakneck pace of our Instagram scroll and honor this connection you had by giving it its due attention.

You dated a man briefly and it fizzled. You say there were red flags. It’s healthy that you’ve identified things about this potential partner—his constant need for validation, the status signaling—that really don’t work for you. But I wonder if these very qualities are part of what hooked you. What is your own relationship to status, to validation—and how did he push those buttons? Did he make you feel special? Like you were better than other people? Or did he make you feel like you were good, but never quite good enough to hook his full attention?

I also wonder if he did, in fact, help you to have some fun. I bet, while he was doing all the things he does to seek approval, he made you laugh. I bet he made you feel present and appreciated. I bet he made you feel a way you’d like to feel more often: connected and excited and looking forward to more.

I am sure that when you first met this guy he seemed pretty wonderful, not because he was extraordinary, but because this is what we do in the early stages of dating once we’ve felt that initial spark. We develop fantasies of who a person might be. We magnify small moments of kindness or connection and think, “Wow, this is really something special this time.” Then we peruse their social media accounts for attractive pictures and further evidence that they are, in fact, the best person yet! We piece together an idealized image of who our potential partners are, or more often, who we’d like them to be. We make mental altars to them in our mind and adorn their likeness with flowers and blessings.

And then, when they disappoint us, their less attractive features come into sharper focus. They aren’t as funny as we thought. We rescan and we find all their flaws. We really hate that one winky face they do in every picture. And why on earth are they always pointing at the camera? We throw away the flowers. We burn the altar to the ground.

In reality, the people we date are neither gods nor monsters. They have their merits and their shortcomings and sometimes they just aren’t the right fit. As far as I can see, this man isn’t trying to do anything more sinister to you than offer you the kind of attention he might enjoy receiving from the women he’s liked and dated briefly. But that doesn’t mean you enjoy it. And so, I see no harm in blocking him completely if that is what you need to do to get closure.

I also wonder why you didn’t block him in the first place. Did that feel too rash or too extreme? What priorities of niceness or keeping up appearances did you privilege over your own need for space to heal? What did you feel you owed this person that you were unwilling to offer yourself?

It is also possible that in the time that has passed since you wrote your letter, Instagram’s algorithm has gotten wind of your new disinterest and his name isn’t popping up quite so often. Maybe in the catharsis of writing and admitting how unsettled you feel, you are already beginning to feel less tethered to this story and its sloppy ending. Maybe you’re feeling quite electric on your own, in the present.

Or maybe you are still grieving a muted grief that you can’t quite let out.

Either way, my advice is this: Make an altar to yourself. Find all the things you like and love and write them down. Adorn yourself with praise and flowers. Be your own relentless follower and fan. Be unshakable in your belief that you are interesting and worthy. Because no matter who likes your posts, or who peeks at your stories, the most important person who can tell you that you are one hundred percent a person of value, is you.

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