March 24, 2023

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A few weeks ago, a woman I follow on Instagram, Dee, posted a birthday tribute to Brendan, a man she called “the love of my life, my soulmate”. In one photo, she’s in his arms, flinging her head back on the stairs of a museum as he holds her around the waist – the picture of comedic, over-the-top drama. In another, Brendan and Dee are posing for a family photo with their cat. Every picture presented the same story for me – this was a couple that had a lot of fun together, two people so completely in sync they likely never had an argument, a lull in conversation, or a night on the couch glued to their phones.
Brendan and Dee seemed perfect. 
I get a lot of anxiety around relationships, and have forever. I mean forever – there was that time in year 6 when the boy I had a crush on sent his friend to ask me if I’d want to go to the school dance with him (I had a rush of panic and immediately declined, then felt devastated when he took another girl in my class). There was my first boyfriend, who had to cope with me spiralling every few weeks over whether we were ‘right’ together. Today, I’m happily living with my partner – we own a dog, and it’s the first relationship where I can be my complete self – but anxiety still rears its head every so often, and social media is often the catalyst. I compare my relationship constantly to others online.
Are we funny enough? Cool enough? Stylish enough? Do we talk enough? Spend enough time together? Too much time together? The list of concerns never ends.
This time, however, I decided I was going to ask Dee to give me the real story. Was her love story as idyllic as it looked? Well, it turns out, it definitely wasn’t. At least, not in the way I’d assumed.
“That’s my best friend Brendan,” she said. We had a good laugh about this – she calls him her “platonic life partner”, and yes, they’ve been confused for a romantic couple before.
To be fair, Brendan and Dee live together in Melbourne, co-own a cat, and “do everything as a couple”, even though they are, you know, not a couple. So my assumption wasn’t entirely chaotic. They are very happy, very in sync and soulmates. They’re just not in a romantic partnership – and before you think this is a When Harry Met Sally situation, it’s worth noting that Brendan is gay. “It’s one of the healthiest relationships I’ve ever been in, and he’s taught me so much about secure attachment and love,” Dee explains. “We call each other platonic life partners and soulmates, and while we date/sleep with other people, no one has ever really come close to what we have.”
This twist had me thinking about other couples I’d compared my relationship to in the past. There’s my friend Alisha Aitken-Radburn, who met her partner Glenn on the reality tv show Bachelor In Paradise. We all watched their love story unfold on national television, and while it’s true that they’re a great match and have a genuinely beautiful love between them, Alisha has always been honest with me about how normal their day-to-day is. 

A post shared by ALISHA AITKEN-RADBURN (@alisha.aitkenradburn)

“We have a really healthy, happy relationship but it’s definitely not as exciting as it may sometimes seem on Instagram,” she says, explaining that they both work full-time in demanding jobs, which means the hours they do spend together during the week can be pretty mundane. “Sometimes we’re so zonked that we just want to lie motionless on the couch and watch whatever reality TV show is on at that moment,” she says. “While that’s exactly what we both need and feel like doing, it’s not exactly the picture of romance.”
Social media is the land of the highlight reel – we are all posting our best moments, because naturally we like sharing the fun stuff, not the mundane. Many of us are also relatively private – I’m not going to share a photo of a date night with my partner that went sour, using the caption “a lovely dinner ruined by an argument about our finances”. This isn’t because I’m actively pretending my relationship is perfect, but because I love my partner and don’t want to air our dirty laundry for everyone to see. Some moments are private, and they’re usually the less-glossy ones.
Then there’s the boring stuff. The mundane tends to happen with little to no fanfare – we rarely think to document it, and if we do it’s usually stylised and doesn’t necessarily reflect the sheer volume of these moments we have in our lives. 
But what’s interesting is that I know this. I’m writing about it right now! I’m acutely aware of social media being a highlight reel, and yet all that awareness flies out the window when I’m observing the way other other people share. 
Easily one of the most adored couples on social media, Laura and Dalton Henshaw might also be one of the most honest, regularly sharing the normality of their lives like dealing with their two adorable (but often chaotic) Golden Retrievers and the exhaustion of demanding careers. If anything, their transparency makes them even more envy-inducing – but that transparency doesn’t equate to a complete insight into their lives, which Laura stresses isn’t all roses.

A post shared by Laura Henshaw (@laura.henshaw)

“I probably share less than one percent of our relationship on social media,” Laura tells me. “So in between the cute pics and silly videos, there is the hard stuff.” Like Alisha and Glenn, Laura and Dalton work hard during the week – and that can lead to “becoming each other’s stress balls” and difficulty finding quality time together. “Sometimes you spend weeks ‘together’ in that you live together, but don’t actually connect during that time,” she explains. 
Raised on Disney movies and angsty, hyper-romantic teen dramas, it’s easy to reach adulthood and expect butterflies/seeing stars/love at first sight from relationships. The truth of the matter is that, just like every experience we have in life, romantic partnerships have highs and lows – and, most importantly, a lot of middle ground where life just continues on, and you have to do the food shopping and make Ikea furniture and go to work.
What was most interesting about these conversations I had with Dee, Alisha and Laura was that they too struggled with social media comparison. The people we think have the perfect relationships? They think other people have the perfect relationships – and so the cycle continues.
“My comparison issues kick in with TikTok,” Alisha says. “You’ll consume couple-content where they’re travelling the world, having fun all the time, joking 24/7. I’m exhausted just fitting in standard stuff like work, the gym and dinner.”
Dee also falls into the comparison trap. “​​Obviously Brendan is my ride or die, but the idea of touching each other… we’re both like, yuck,” she says. “So I guess I see that kinda love and intimacy from romantic couples on social media makes me wish I had that too.“
Alisha says it’s important we remind ourselves that we’re only seeing a glimpse of people’s lives – something we have all learned recently, with both Emily Ratajkowski and Olivia Wilde’s seemingly charming marriages breaking down, seemingly out of nowhere. We just don’t know what’s happening behind-the-scenes, and we need to remember that.
Laura learned this lesson early on after spiralling over a famous Instagram couple years ago. “Everything about their relationship looked perfect,” she tells me. “They went to New York for Christmas together and they posted this photo kissing under a tree on Christmas Eve. I used to compare their ‘perfect’ relationship to the one I was in at the time, but then a few months later they broke up. I remember thinking at that moment how important it is to remind myself any time I get stuck in the comparison trap, that nothing is as it seems online.”
Something I personally have found refreshing about Laura’s social media relationship content is that both she and Dalton champion independence. It makes my independence-led relationship feel ‘normal’. “We don’t ‘need’ each other to survive, but doing life together makes life better,” Laura says. Another important lesson I’ve realised over the years – there is no perfect relationship, because every relationship is different. Where one couple may value independence, another may live and work together 24/7. Neither is wrong.
Still, I’m not completely enlightened yet. I’m not sure I ever will be, but the more I remind myself in moments of weakness that what I’m seeing on social media isn’t the whole truth, and that a happy post doesn’t represent someone’s entire life, the less triggered I get. That, teamed with focusing on all the great aspects of my relationship, has helped me actually enjoy it. 
Funnily enough, when you fill your brain with negative thinking, it’s hard to have fun with your partner. Once you throw yourself into your own love story, analysing everyone else’s becomes far less tempting.
Melissa is a freelance writer. You can find her on Instagram.
topics: social media, Relationships
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