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Dear Swipe This!
I have a friend who constantly posts about her picture-perfect relationship. Her social media presence is a constant flow of photos, poems, quotes, and posts about how deeply in love she and her partner are, and how theirs is a love for the ages. Clearly, they do love each other very much, often planning great dates and trips together and enjoying a lot in common, so these posts aren’t outright lies.
But I know the ugly truth. Their relationship is tempestuous. They often have public fights that degenerate into name-calling. They recently had a major blow-up at her mom’s house. They also had one fight at home in which her partner drunkenly hit his head on the wall and the police had to be called. She has even come over to our house at 1a.m. to avoid him after a fight.
In spite of all this, I don’t truly think they have a terrible relationship. They really do love each other and bring a lot of joy into each other’s lives.
Part of this may be me rooting for them because I am, in fact, the one who set them up. I tell myself, they’re grown ups and they can decide if this suits them. Also, to have introduced two people who are in love is a very nice thing!
On the other hand, there are days when I ask myself if I’ve created a monster.
There’s no indication of physical abuse on either side. I also realize some people have a more dramatic fighting style and hotter tempers than others. And of course, no one really knows what a relationship is like behind closed doors except the people in it. As an English person (my friend is American), I would never actually meddle in someone’s relationship unless I thought it was abusive. And even then, I haven’t got the answers.
But knowing something about their offline behavior, their online presence feels like they’re compensating in a big way. Is my friend OK? Is this something one should ever even bring up?
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Dear Politely Alarmed,
For better or worse, social media offers us the opportunity to airbrush the blemishes out of our lives. Can you imagine what your Instagram feed would look like if there were no Instagram filters? No FaceTune app? Can you imagine if before posting a picture of you smiling on vacation you had to screenshot the nasty work email that sent you into a tizzy the week before? I can think of several friends and countless celebrities whose accounts would go dark in a matter of minutes.
In the same respect, we, as an audience, turn to our social media feeds, not necessarily because they are truthful, but because they show us moments that glimmer and sparkle. It’s easy to label what’s captured as inauthentic or fake. But I, for one, would hate to live in a world where we didn’t have a place to shift our gaze away from our gritty realities every now and then.
If we look beyond our human desire to preserve only that which is beautiful, we’d see that we also use these bright, shiny moments as tools to connect. We offer our friends saturated moments of joy and love in the shape of puppies, babies, and goofy portraits. In return, our digital communities embrace us with affirmative likes and comments.
When your friend posts about her picture-perfect romance, she isn’t sharing her love story. She’s seeking affection. And I’m willing to bet that for a few minutes or hours—days possibly, if the picture and caption hit that sweet spot of lovey-dovey but not overly saccharine—she gets a sure-fire dose of it. I would not say that’s a bad thing. It is human to want to connect and be seen. But like you, I am concerned that your friend may not be in a good spot.
You say your friend’s attempt to airbrush the bad moments out of her relationship is what alarms you, but I cannot help but wonder if you aren’t doing the same thing. You say their relationship is mostly good, but you have a laundry list of explosive incidents. You say this is true love, yet readily admit that they openly disrespect each other. You say there’s no evidence of physical abuse, but describe a moment where her partner experienced a serious injury. You say she isn’t in danger, but you tell me she came to you seeking safety.
I cannot affirm for you that your friend is OK. Nor can I say with confidence that she is in grave danger. But I can assure you that no one has ever protected a friend from potential abuse by politely keeping their mouth shut.
As you point out, many adult relationships involve the occasional fight. Some couples prefer the opportunity to voice their passions freely. Others will not tolerate an outdoor voice in the privacy of their own home, let alone in a public setting like you describe. But regardless of your friend’s temperament, a pattern of violent outbursts is not a lifestyle choice.
What you describe is a cycle of toxic behaviors that surely leave your friend, her partner, or both feeling injured and drained. That is not to say that they do not care for each other deeply. Abuse and love are not mutually exclusive categories. And certainly, many couples have worked through ugly moments to come to a place of greater understanding and respect.
Unfortunately, just as many fall into patterns of explosive fighting as a way of feeling intimately connected. Trauma bonding can trap couples in unhealthy relationships for years and years. Just as your friend seeks affection through images of perfection online, she may be seeking affection through behaviors that are quite ugly in real life.
Your choice to operate from a place of non-judgment is admirable. I believe your friend turns to you in times of need because you have a calm and collected approach to conflict. She comes to you when she is seeking a safe harbor. Offering her tea, a chat, and a quiet spot to collect her thoughts is a very kind gesture. I’m sure there are many who would want to stay far away from the chaos of what you’ve described and it’s possible others who are close to her have already made the choice to disengage.
However, your friend may also be turning to you because you are willing to gloss over the rough edges of her relationship.
I can imagine the gut reaction you have when you see a gushing post from your friend on social media. You may feel complicit in the airbrushing she does to avoid wrestling with the deeper issues of her relationship. It is not your job to help her deny the very real problems in her relationship, nor is it your job to fix her relationship. And you are wise to recognize that her choices are her own to make, but she also deserves to know that someone who loves her has real concerns.
Do not wait for the next knock-down drag-out fight. Do not wait for a sappy social media post to irk you. Reach out to your friend on an ordinary day and ask her how she’s doing. Let her know you will hear her story no matter how ugly or beautiful it may be. Offer her support. Let her know she can get your attention and affection, even if, and especially when, she hasn’t applied a picture-perfect filter.