“My boyfriend likes the photos of tons of girls on Instagram, whether they’re former flames, hot friends or Instagram models. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bikini pic or a shameless grab for attention, he will like it—even if he knows I am watching, because I’ve joked about it before. I really don’t know how to bring this up without seeming like a ragingly jealous and insecure girlfriend. But every time I see what he’s liking, it drives me nuts and I feel terrible about myself. I know it’s not cheating, but it feels like cheating in some ways. How do I bring it up?”
Ahh, we are living in the Age of Instagram. Yes, your boyfriend’s Instagram behavior is a reflection of the time and not uncommon—who’s not taken by Emily Ratajkowski? Not only do social platforms create FOMO and comparison traps, but they also allow for slip-ups from the nebulous “like” to the problematic sliding-into-DMs catastrophe. If you want to address your specific concern with your boyfriend—which you should—here’s what I suggest.
Step 1: Acknowledge the vulnerability
The first thing you should and can actually do in this situation is analyze your own feelings. Retrace your feelings to understand what they actually are—hurt? Jealousy? Doubt?
Then ask yourself why? Why do you feel this way? Are you afraid he’s looking at models because you’re not enough? Or are you concerned he’s a little too close to female friends and exes? Is it undermining your security in this relationship? Or is it simply uncharacteristic of the boyfriend you thought you knew?
Whatever it is, identify your root feelings and your fear. Are you afraid of your boyfriend being unfaithful? Leaving you? Both? Articulate this to your partner. And while it may feel awkward or silly talking about Instagram of all things, try not to make light of your own feelings. Truly showing your vulnerabilities will help your boyfriend understand the significance of this issue.
Step 2: Set expectations
Great, you got your feelings out. Now, you need a plan to move past this and onto higher ground. Here’s where you should ask him to meet your need. And give the kid a helpful blueprint to follow.
“[Boyfriend], watching you like so many of your female friends and exes’ Instagram posts is making me feel insecure and dragging up those old worries I have about my partner cheating like my ex did. It would help me a lot if you toned down that behavior.”
Or maybe something like:
“[Boyfriend], when you like all these Instagram models’ photos, it makes me feel like I’m not good enough and you’re eventually going to leave me for someone hotter, better. It would help me a lot if you stopped liking these photos.”
Or, OK, even something like:
“[Boyfriend], when you like your exes’ thirst traps, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Instragam is a very public platform. Not only are you telling your ex that you’re watching and liking her, but you’re telling me and any friends that follow your Insta trail that you’re watching and liking her. It makes me feel embarrassed and not good enough. It would be healthy for our relationship if you explained your impulse behind this and stopped in the future.”
Step 3: Thoughtfully consider his response
You’ve done the hard work and put your heart on your sleeve. Now, the ball is in your partner’s court. In a perfect world, his reaction would be tossing his phone out the window and begging your forgiveness, “I never want to do anything to hurt you, so I will stop.”
There’s also the flip side: Your openness gives him the opportunity to also put his feelings on the table if there’s something bigger going on. If he has feelings for an ex or sexual desires you weren’t aware of, consider this a checkpoint for your relationship. Can you move past this together? Or is the writing on the wall? As hard as this conversation may be, his honesty is more valuable to your future self than hearing what you want to hear.
And then, there’s also the possibility that there is no honest conversation on his part—he negates you with a, “I don’t do that,” or simply doesn’t comply with your wishes. At this juncture, you should weigh the situation—is this a one-off issue? Does it bleed into other aspects of your life? How detrimental is his behavior to your happiness?
The thing to keep in mind is that functional couples can count on their partner to be steadfastly on their team. A good partner will want you to relax into their love, not swim in anxiety they cause. If your boyfriend can’t help you here, is he really on your team? Or perhaps this digital blip is easy enough for you to ignore if it’s contained. (Spoiler: It probably won’t be.)
A long time ago, I remember a moment with my own partner that was deeply significant to me. I had a friend who was dealing with insecurities in her own relationship, and she asked for my boyfriend’s perspective. He said to her, “There is absolutely nothing I would not stop doing if it was causing Jenna anxiety.” And he’s made good on that. There are men out there who will; I hope your boyfriend is one of them.
Jenna Birch is author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life and Love, a dating and relationship-building guide for modern women. To ask her a question, which she may answer in a forthcoming PureWow column, email her at email@example.com.