Milan, now 26, started dating a guy last year who she had met through mutual friends. They went out to dinner and spent time with each other’s friends. She even went home with him one weekend, where she met his dad and high school buddies.
“It very much felt like the beginning of a relationship,” said Milan, whose last name has been withheld to protect her privacy.
One week while he was away on business, they made plans to get together upon his return. Then, radio silence. That was their last conversation. They never hung out again, although they did happen to bump into each other at a bar months later. (He asked if she’d want to hang out sometime; Milan declined the offer.)
A year later, this guy still watches all of Milan’s Snapchat and Instagram stories.
“I don’t think he’s ever missed one,” she said.
This phenomenon ― in which a person cuts off all direct, meaningful communication but continues to engage with you on social media ― is common in today’s dating landscape. Your former romantic interest probably isn’t commenting on your photos or routinely sliding into your DMs, but they might be liking all your Instagram pics, favoriting your tweets, watching your Snapchat stories or interacting with you in some other superficial way.
Writer Anna Iovine aptly named this dating trend “orbiting” in a now-viral piece for Man Repeller.
In the piece, Iovine recalls a baffling dating situation of her own, not all that different from Milan’s. She met a man she called “Tyler” on Tinder and went on two dates with him. She assumed it was over when he stopped answering her texts after the second one. Yet she noticed that he was still watching all of her Instagram stories ― and was usually one of the first people to do so.
“The more I described Tyler’s behavior to friends, the more I realized how prevalent this kind of thing was,” Iovine wrote. “I dubbed it ‘orbiting’ during a conversation with my colleague Kara, when she poetically described this phenomenon as a former suitor ‘keeping you in their orbit’ — close enough to see each other; far enough to never talk.”
“Pre-internet, if someone ghosted but was curious about the ghostee, there wasn’t a way to check up on them. Now we can do it in less than a second.”
Since the piece was published, some readers have criticized the term as being too similar to the already existing (and well-documented) “ghosting.” Iovine, however, argues there’s a clear difference, and it all comes down to social media. The term ghosting has become popular in the last six years or so, but the practice itself is nothing new: People have been going on dates and then vanishing without a trace for decades. Orbiting, however, only became possible in the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.
“Pre-internet, if someone ghosted but was curious about the ghostee, there wasn’t a way to check up on them. Or I guess, I don’t know, they could look them up in the phone book or something?” Iovine told HuffPost. “Point is, it was hard, if not impossible, to see what someone was up to even if we hadn’t seen them in years. Now we can do it in less than a second.”
It’s not only annoying to be orbited ― I mean, if you’re so interested in what I’m up to, why the heck are you ignoring my texts?! ― but the looming presence of a former love interest can be baffling, too.
“I don’t understand it,” Milan said. “If we had some form of closure or agreed we wanted to be friends, it would be a little different. But I don’t get completely cutting off communication with me, yet always watching my stories and occasionally liking my posts.”
It’s also important to draw a distinction between casually creeping on an old flame every once in a blue moon and actively orbiting. You might occasionally peruse an ex’s recent pictures on Facebook or watch their Instagram stories (perhaps intentionally or perhaps by accident due to the app’s autoplay feature). But when the lurking is constant and involves someone you’ve previously ghosted, ignored or explicitly said you were not interested in, that’s another thing altogether.
“Not texting someone back but continuing to look at their social media content almost feels like a betrayal,” Iovine wrote.
“Orbiting is about questioning whether or not you made the right decision to break things off when you did. Was it a good choice or will you regret it?”
So why do people break things off with a person but then still take the time to follow (and sometimes engage with) their every move on social media? Psychologist Ryan Howes, who is based in Pasadena, California, said ambivalence might be the culprit.
“It’s rare that we meet someone who is 100 percent perfect for us or 100 percent horrible. We typically enjoy some parts of them and feel other parts aren’t a good fit,” Howes said. “You break things off because of these differences, but feel the need to keep observing their life because you wonder whether you made a regrettable mistake and wonder if you would have enjoyed yourself on a different trajectory.”
Maybe you ended things with a guy because he was too much of a homebody, but then see him post photos of trips and nights out with friends on Instagram. Or maybe you ended things with a woman because she didn’t have a job, then you find out on Facebook that she landed an amazing position at a great company.
“My belief is that orbiting is about questioning whether or not you made the right decision to break things off when you did,” Howes said. “Was it a good choice or will you regret it? The orbit keeps them in touch in case they find an exceptional reason to get back together. But it mostly serves as confirmation that they made the right decision or as a reason to beat themselves up if they didn’t.”
“Because ghosting has become so commonplace, people are pretty shameless about it and they’re not embarrassed, nor do they feel they have anything to hide,” she said. “Ghosting is the new ‘I don’t think we have a connection,’ and orbiting is the new ‘…but best of luck and keep in touch!’”
A word to all the orbiters out there: Know that your former dates will notice if you’re watching and liking their posts ― especially if they felt like they didn’t have closure when the relationship ended, no matter how casual it was. And if you’re not romantically interested in someone, that’s perfectly OK. Just stop circling that person’s social media profiles and kindly move along.
“You’re going to go out on dates with people you don’t click with and that’s fine, but ghosting or orbiting isn’t the answer,” Iovine said. “I’d like to think these things exist because people are inherently good, and therefore don’t want to cause someone pain by rejecting them. But at the end of the day, rejection will hurt a lot less than stringing them along for a long time. If you’re into them: Shoot your shot. If you’re not: Get off the court.”