These days, finding out what our partner is up to when we’re not around (and sometimes when we are) is a matter of a few taps or clicks. Instagram is more than willing to show you which photos they recently liked or commented on — you know, like that model they’re following for whatever reason — and if you want to know if they’re still in touch with their ex, comments or likes on a recent photo may clue you in to that.
When it comes to social media, though, it’s hard to know which behaviors are “acceptable”— a like is just a like, right? — which ones should raise an eyebrow, and which ones are full-on red flags. That’s why we asked Nicole Richardson, a therapist specializing in relationships, to weigh in. Here’s what she had to say.
1. When they “like” and comment on photos of people of their preferred gender who they know…
According to Richardson, these likes and comments are harmless for the most part. “There are some people who feel like it’s etiquette or good manners to like photos of their friends,” she says. “The only time I would really pay attention to this is if they seem to like everything one person does. If they’re free with their likes, however, I would let that go pretty quickly.”
2. When they “like” and comment on photos of their preferred gender who they don’t know…
This is a tricky one. When Rachel, a 31-year-old woman living in Manhattan, noticed her boyfriend was constantly “liking” photos of Instagram models, she “let it go for a few days, then confronted him about it,” she says. “He got a little defensive, but the overall takeaway was that it was meaningless. They were strangers he found attractive, but that was it. Our relationship did end eventually, but it wasn’t for that reason — I was able to let it go pretty quickly.”
Richardson believes that if this behavior bothers you and you feel like you can approach the conversation with curiosity rather than in an accusatory manner, the resulting discussion could help you better understand your S.O. “But if you bring it up and make them feel as though they have to defend themselves, you may do more harm than good,” she says.
She adds that the best approach to talking about this — particularly if you don’t approve of the types of photos they’re liking — is a patient, calm one. “For example, if you feel as though your significant other has liked a post that you feel is sexist, berating them about it will not win them over,” she says. “You can express your point of view without having to prove that you’re right or ‘win’ the conversation.”
3. When they’re openly communicating with an ex on social media…
This one might just be a problem, plain and simple. But as with most things, it depends on the circumstances. “If it’s a recent ex, then yes, this could be a red flag,” Richardson says. “If this is a person they dated years ago and the flavor of the communication is polite and platonic, it is completely possible that there’s nothing to worry about.”
For Sarah, a 29-year-old woman living in Portland, Oregon, that wasn’t the case. “My boyfriend was openly communicating with his ex on social media pretty much constantly, and I chose to look the other way, thinking the openness meant he wasn’t hiding anything,” she explains. “I was wrong — he dumped me and got back together with her a few months later!”
Still, it is possible for your significant other to maintain a friendly relationship with their ex, and that can be a positive thing — as long as they’re not too close. But if you happen to discover that they’re exchanging private messages, don’t ignore it. As Richardson puts it, “If they’re broken up and nothing is going on, what is there to hide?”
4. When your partner’s ex is constantly liking and commenting on their photos, but your partner isn’t doing it back…
There’s probably not much to worry about in this scenario, according to Richardson. “If they aren’t responding, that’s on the ex,” she says. “Your significant other can’t control the behaviors of others. If the contact becomes inappropriate — for example, if they start posting about how much they miss your significant other — then it may be time to consider asking them to block the ex. But if they’re just liking things, is it really worth your time and attention?”
5. When they put up photos with someone that look “coupley,” even if they insist it’s just a friend…
Richardson says this one is probably a red flag. “There are absolutely ways to pose in a photo that do not look ‘coupley,’” she explains. “In relationships, I think it’s a good rule of thumb to behave as you would when your partner is there. Would your significant other have posed for that picture in the same way if you were the one taking the photo? And how would they feel if the shoe was on the other foot?”
She adds that if your S.O. doesn’t see the problem when you point it out, that’s definitely a red flag. “It may not be worth ending the relationship [over], but it may be an indication that you two want different things.”