After a bad breakup a few years ago, my ex spent the first few weeks of our split “liking” every photo I posted on Instagram. While in theory it may sound nice to know that your ex is still interested (and looking) at what you’re doing, in reality, seeing his handle pop-up again and again actually made me feel worse. They felt like pity likes to me — something he was doing to soften the blow. His potentially mindless double-tapping forced me to break our non-contact with a text; I felt pathetic asking him to knock it off. It’s just social media, right? So why did I care so much?
I didn’t know what to call it at the time, but in a recent piece for Man Repeller, writer Anna Lovine used the term “orbiting” to describe when a person leaves your life but still appears in your social media world — by watching your Instagram stories and Snapchats and even liking your Facebook posts, they’re still in your orbit. As she describes it, you’re “close enough to see each other; far enough to never talk.”
After reading the article and finally having a concrete name for my experience, I discussed the trend with friends and found that most of them had experienced orbiting themselves, and not always from an ex-romantic partner. A few mentioned that they’d noticed friends and family members with whom they’d experienced a falling out were “orbiting” them — interacting with their social media without communicating in a real, meaningful way.
My friend Megan recently had an argument with her cousin, but says she still sees her name popping up on Facebook and Instagram. “I’m sure we’ll resolve it soon enough, but it’s just interesting to me that we’re not speaking right now, for real reasons, but she’s still watching my Instagram stories and liking pretty much everything I post,” she says. “Maybe I’m overthinking it, but it’s definitely confusing.”
So why do we do this and are there any negative ramifications of being on the receiving end of this common behavior?
Why do people orbit eachother?
If a relationship has been severed in real life, why do people feel the need to keep ties on social media? Could it just be human nature? Michelle Crimins, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist based in New York City, says that “as social beings we have very voyeuristic and social tendencies. We are actually wired to gossip, so that part of it is huge. We used to only have tabloids, then reality TV. Now, social media is reality TV for people we know. What’s more salacious than that?”
It’s human nature to be curious about the people you used to be close with or have feelings for.
A recent discussion with a friend confirmed this sentiment. In his opinion, we just can’t help ourselves. “It’s strange, but I think orbiting is something that’s very hard for people not to do,” he told me. “It’s human nature to be curious about the people you used to be close with or have feelings for. All this digitally-created proximity makes it very hard to escape or ignore those very human tendencies. It becomes harder to move on.”
There’s no denying human nature, but could orbiting be more than that?
For some, keeping the lines of communication from closing completely may be a way of holding out hope: Perhaps that good friend or family member you had a falling out with may see your ‘orbiting’ as a sign you still care. While reaching out with a text or a call might feel like a bridge too far, watching Instagram stories or liking a Facebook post can serve as a small, positive gesture.
But Dr. Crimins warns that reading too much into behavior like orbiting can be dangerous. “People are so used to looking at and interacting with social media, that a lot of this stuff is just automatic,” she says. “Someone’s likes or views are not necessary signaling anything.” She’s quick to add that the most challenging aspect of discussing social media with her clients is that every situation really is different, and without speaking to the person directly, you’ll have a hard time answering that lingering “Why?” in your head.
Orbiting is a power move when the person doing it knows full well that you will see their name at the top of your list of views.
Taking it one step further, Lovine posits that it may be a strategic power move, especially when it comes to orbiting former romantic partners. Orbiting can be a power move when the person doing it knows full well that you will see their name at the top of your list of views. It’s a way to let a former flame know that you’re still tepidly interested, and allows you to keep one foot in the door, so to speak, to keep it from closing. You’re aware that you will at least cross their mind when that “like” pops up, even if it’s for a fleeting moment, and it likely will make you wonder: Why is this person still interested in what I’m doing?
“People want to stay relevant in your head,” says Crimins. “It’s a way to remind you that they exist. It could also be a subconscious invitation like, ‘hey, I’m here,’ in hopes that they’ll get reciprocal attention.”
How orbiting affects our mental health
We’re so used to seeing likes and notifications pop up that it’s almost like white noise. But it’s important to be aware of how orbiting can be affecting us emotionally even if we aren’t conscious of it.
The mixed messages are confusing. Crimins explains that it’s the mixed messaging of orbiting that proves to be the most upsetting for her clients. “It’s not black and white,” she says. “These situations are so nuanced. People are constantly confused about how other people handle their social media and what it means to be connected to someone else. It’s hard to turn off the questions about why people are behaving the way they are.”
Those mixed messages result in mixed feelings. “For some it’s upsetting, some people are flattered and for some it keeps their hopes up,” says Crimins. “But in general, we should be checking [in with ourselves] about how it feels to be on social media. Just because we’re all doing it, doesn’t mean it feels good to everyone.”
The orbiting made me feel like he was still interested and created this false sense of intimacy. Curiosity is not intimacy.
Case in point: My friend Amanda recently decided to block a former flame when she realized his orbiting was preventing her from moving on. “It sounds harmless, but it creates a false sense of investment,” she says. “You become convinced that they care because they’re watching. But really, it’s so low-effort. It is the least someone can do to maintain a presence in my life. But it works! I had to cut this guy off because the orbiting made me feel like he was still interested and created this false sense of intimacy. Curiosity is not intimacy. He was probably just bored, and yet it drove me crazy.”
It can encourage confirmation basis. According to Crimins, orbiting can also trigger a deeply wired psychological concept called confirmation bias. Essentially, if we are feeling a certain way — like we think that a fight or a breakup happened for a specific reason — we will go onto someone’s social media profile to confirm what we already believe; looking for clues to support those feelings. When I saw my ex liking my photos on Instagram, I assumed that he felt sorry for me. It made me feel pathetic. With every like, I felt more and more deeply convinced that I was right; he did feel sorry for me. On the flip side, Amanda allowed herself to believe her ex cared because he was watching her Instagram stories. Neither of us ever found out the reason behind our exes actions — but they did hinder our ability to move on and heal.
We may become complacent in setting boundaries. The trend of orbiting seems to highlight a bigger, more fundamental problem people face after a falling out: setting boundaries. “Why are we being so complacent about setting boundaries?” asks Crimins. “In an age when anything can be made public, we have to have better boundaries.” Setting that clear boundary can be difficult; a lesson I learned firsthand when my orbiter triggered feelings of self-doubt.
The trend of orbiting seems to highlight a bigger, more fundamental problem people face after a falling out: setting boundaries.
As bad as I felt, my hope that his likes meant he wasn’t ready to close the door kept me from cutting him off. I wanted him to see my posts, too: to see that I was doing great (traveling, looking cute, being social) and realize he was missing out. I was performing for him; everything I posted had his eyes in mind. At first, his likes made me feel curious, and slightly rewarded for my “try hard” behavior. But when they didn’t evolve to any real communication, my curiosity crumbled into anger and grief. It felt ridiculous that his most-likely innocuous behavior was causing me actual pain, but once I admitted that to myself and set a boundary, I was able to make tangible strides towards moving on.
It can make healing harder. For some, the lack of setting clear boundaries after a split or a falling out may make healing nearly impossible. “The expression ‘out of sight out of mind’ holds true,” says Crimins. “It’s an expression for a reason. But with social media it’s really amplified because if say, you see someone on the street by accident, they might not be at their best. But on Instagram, you only see them at their best. You get the highlights, and what you’re seeing is curated specifically to make the people who are seeing it feel jealous. The emotions that crop up when you see someone after a falling out are always difficult, but they are seriously amplified by the way we present ourselves on social media.”
WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE BEING ORBITED
Only you can decide if being orbited is hindering your ability to find closure in a failed relationship. But if it is, Crimins has some steps you can take to work towards healing and closure — and establishing healthier boundaries online.
- Don’t read into it too much. The truth of the matter is, you’ll likely never know exactly why someone is behaving the way they are on social media. Our confirmation bias will usually step in and run the narrative for us, so doing our best not to read into those likes and views is the healthiest course to take. If you can’t stop reading into those actions (or thinking about the person making them), that’s a sign that it might be time to bite the bullet and establish your boundaries.
- Consider blocking or unfollowing. You have the power to decide who you see and interact with. “These decisions don’t even have to be permanent,” says Crimins. “It’s about checking in with yourself and seeing how you feel in that moment. If you start off being okay and then transition to feeling [negatively], you might need to take a break from being connected.” She notes that if blocking feels too extreme and might be more damaging to a relationship you hope to repair, muting that person (which hides their activity without unfollowing or notifying the person) is a less drastic, but still helpful, action that can be undone at any time.
- Ask yourself: Am I guilty too? Chances are, you may also be guilty of watching the story of a past fling or liking that post of an estranged friend on vacation. But how do you know if it’s a problem? “A strong warning sign is if you’re keeping your behavior a secret,” says Crimins. “When you’re doing something you wouldn’t want someone else to see or know about, it’s probably not good for you.” She likens the experience of orbiting to consuming junk food. “So often, people do things without paying attention to how it feels. Junk food looks good, and it tastes good, but sometimes you feel terrible after you eat it. In the same way, when you’re orbiting an ex or an ex-friend, if you don’t take note of how you feel after, you’ll keep doing it over and over again, and it becomes a habit. Then you’re feeling depressed, lonely, insecure or jealous. We need to pay attention to our feelings, so that when the negative effects start to outweigh the positive, we’re able to stop.”
- Examine how social media in general makes you feel. If you find yourself frequently thinking about online interactions or they are triggering negative emotions, try taking a break from social media and see how it feels to be cut off from that addicting “reality TV” loop. Crimins notes that breaks from technology are beneficial for everyone, but especially those who have anxieties or upsetting feelings that seem to stem from social media. She suggests asking yourself the motivation behind your time spent on social media. Is it out of habit? Is it FOMO? Are there people still in your orbit that bring up negative emotions? A social media detox can help you answer these questions, leaving you better equipped to heal and move on. And if you miss the likes or views from a certain someone, consider inviting them out for a cup of coffee — it may be a relationship worth mending IRL.
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