How To Not Lose Your Mind Dating In The Instagram Age, A Dating Coach Explains

Written by Clara Artschwager
Clara Artschwager is a New York-based dating and relationship coach. She has a degree in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, and her work has been featured in The Cut, Well Good, SHAPE, Man Repeller, and more.
Woman on Her Phone

Image by visualspace / iStock

I cupped my hand over the receiver, hoping it was enough to drown out the surrounding horns and make it so that my potential client could understand more about my coaching services and less about Tuesday afternoon traffic patterns on Eighth Avenue. 

A few yards away, I spotted another person attempting to do the same thing. He wore a tightfitting baseball cap. Jet-black locks fell out the side of his hat. I knew those locks.

This wasn't the first time I'd run into someone on the streets of New York that I'd previously dated. This was, though, the first time I'd run into someone who'd blocked me on Instagram shortly after we'd slept together.

Just as I was turning to face the other direction in hopes he hadn't seen me, he looked up. He smiled and raised his hand as a way to say, "Hey!" while we were both still on the phone. I waved back and then averted my eyes, doing my best to focus on the conversation at hand. I still had a solid 10 minutes remaining in the consultation, and securing a new client was far more important to me than making small talk with an old fling who'd deemed it necessary to restrict me from his feed.

Ten minutes later, though, nearing the end of my call, he was still standing there. Except he was no longer on the phone. He appeared to be waiting. It would have been more awkward to ignore him, so upon hanging up I made my way over.

"Hey," I said with a smile but doing my best not to feign too much enthusiasm.

"Heeeeyyyyyy!" he shot back. "How are things?" He then went in for the hug.

We exchanged how-are-you's and what-are-you-up-to's. He had a new job, as did I. 

"I got into life coaching," I said. "Dating coaching, specifically." (Side note: It is always weird delivering this news to someone you formerly dated.)

"Wow! That's awesome!" He said, his forced enthusiasm palpable. But then, his tone changed. Quietly and with a more thoughtful intonation he said, "We should get together again sometime."

His words caught me off guard. They sounded oddly...genuine. In the moment I didn't think too much of it and immediately blurted out, "Oh aw, yeah um well...I'm actually in a relationship right now."

He quickly pivoted. Said that was awesome and how happy he was for me. But then he shocked me again: "Well, then maybe you can be my dating coach." 

I laughed it off, said I had a policy of not working with friends, and shortly thereafter we went our separate ways. But it was clear that relationship aside, this guy wanted to spend time with me. He wasn't bullshitting me on that.

On the ride home I kicked myself for not asking him about the social media block. For not saying "Riddle me this: You blocked me on Instagram, and now you want to spend one-on-one time together?"

But in a way, the direct question wasn't necessary. All the facts and insights could be gleaned from our five-minute interaction. And it wasn't really about him or me or our specific situation but rather the dubious role Instagram plays in modern dating.

The false promise of Instagram dating.

When Instagram and dating first started to intersect—when folks first began leveraging likes, follows, and DMs as a softer and safer way to broach the subject of going on a date (i.e., hinting you liked someone versus directly asking for their number), we had to repeatedly remind ourselves of the following: Instagram is only a window into someone's life, not a direct reflection. Thirstposting became a thing, and it was important to take what your crush posted with a grain of salt, knowing we all fall prey to presenting more of our highs and less of our lows. And while that's still very much the case (if not more so), in my mind, being cognizant of the inherent faulty nature of Instagram content as a direct reflection of someone's life is only scratching the surface when it comes to dating. 

Instagram became a thing in dating culture because it brought more ease (supposedly) to a very non-ease-filled experience. You could be out with a group and meet a friend of a friend and, instead of boldly asking them for their number, direct the conversation such that asking for their Instagram handle was a natural question. You could have a thing for them, but you weren't saying it outright.

The pain and angst we experience in dating is not just the product of poor communication, but this loose language we've developed around what things could mean. Could being the operative word. So in the case of an Instagram follow, if you're on the receiving end, you could think that someone's implying they'd like to get to know you, like to go on a date with you, like to sleep with you. Maybe they like a ton of your photos, slide into your DMs, and make the ask. Or maybe they spend several weeks liking a photo here and there, watching all your stories, but never send a direct message. This could go on for months on end with no follow-up, and you're left thinking "Did they not like my feed? Did I post something weird? What could I post that might ignite a response from them?" 

In a similar vein, years back when this guy had blocked me following our last date, my thought pattern was, "Was I so bad in bed he had to block me? Was he seeing another girl now, and he didn't want me to know? Did he just decide he...didn't like me?" I assumed the absolute worst, which was what made our sidewalk interaction so jarring. My conclusions drawn from his Instagram activity had me thinking if he ever were to see me in public, he'd immediately turn in the other direction. And yet, the exact opposite happened. Here were all my faulty assumptions, all based on Instagram behavior, staring me right in the face.

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A better alternative to analyzing your crush's Instagram behavior.

In a 2017 New York Times article discussing Instagram as a dating platform, clinical psychologist Leora Trub, Ph.D., remarked, "The truth is you can't look at someone's Instagram account and know how they're feeling." I believe when Trub was referencing someone's account, she was including their collective activity on the platform, too.

I'm not denying or vilifying the fun of flirting with someone in the form of likes and DMs, getting a window into their world (even if it is just a window and perhaps more so a facade), and developing a playful banter from there, which leads to an in-person interaction

But the meaning we've given to all these indirect actions, while initially they make it easier to maintain contact with someone, they're not an exact clone for "Hey, wanna grab a drink?" or "Hey, I like you."

Maybe your experience isn't as extreme as mine. Maybe someone didn't straight-up block you and then suggest you get together again, likely with the desired outcome of having sex (because that's all that relationship was, just FYI). But we've all felt the peril of conflicting social activity. Of thinking a follow or a like means something and then having it mean nothing at all? Or maybe it would in time? Or maybe we should describe to our bestie and our neighbor and our barista and see what they think?

We can leverage Instagram to help meet our next special someone. That's not the issue. The issue is when we take these actions to mean something more than they do—be that good or bad. Nothing will ever trump direct communication. It's up to us to decide which we find more painful and difficult. Is it boldly asking someone for their number or suggesting getting together in the moment? Or is it spending countless hours debunking their Instagram activity?

Instagram guy never did unblock me, but every time I receive a notification he's looked at my LinkedIn profile, it makes me smile. Maybe there's more in store for us, but social media, most definitely, won't be the determining factor.

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