Should You Keep Following Your Friends’ Exes On Instagram?

Some questions on social media stalking etiquette

As a perennial single person who—for unknown reasons—keeps trying to date, I now have the breakup protocol down to a trusted science. I strip my bed and wash the linens on very hot settings, block out my social calendar with friend hangs, and cut all social media ties right away with the latest ex. No second thoughts, no mercy.

But it gets tricky when navigating another avenue: friends’ exes. Somewhere between memorizing their vague work credentials and regular infiltration to weekly trivia nights, you likely followed a friend’s new boo. That’s great! That’s supporting your friend and welcoming their partner to your friend group (assuming they weren’t part of it before; this will be the assumption throughout) with open pixelated arms.

Facebook is the expanding hot car sandwich metropolis of the web, populated by distant relatives and girls you met exactly once in line to pee at a Toronto club eight years ago. I say pretty much, across the board, you are obligated to keep Facebook friendship ties with friends’ exes unless it’s a horrendous outlier situation. “Hiding” options exist, but as a rule, you’re stuck with them. Forever. I’m sure some people treat Twitter in a similar way, but as I am petty and selective with who I follow there, it’s very likely I never followed a friend’s fling/partner/husband there to begin with. So that’s fine. What I’d like to focus on here is etiquette as it pertains to Instagram best practices and manners. 

Instagram is the most social of social platforms. Consider the group shot. It’s bad form to tag TF out of a 10-person ~casual~ pyramid pose during a lake weekend; however leave these uninitiated faces floating, totally unobscured by the black tag, and that could translate to “I MATTER [to this insane person’s account who is posting this].” These people eventually must matter, thus entering your orbit (simply tagging without a related follow is rude), at least for the duration of this person’s romantic interlude with your friend. 

However, once ties are severed, what’s the polite move? How do you continue to support your friend? Is it possible to be both polite and supportive at the same time? Among my very scientific research, polling Twitter and Facebook, women largely translate textbook friend loyalty as a swift unfollowing of friends’ exes. 

Although with some splits, you may feel psyched to ditch this dummy from your feed immediately—be it because they were crummy to your pal or because they would post nine photos in a row of the same pile of leaves (why?). I have made the mistake of pulling the trigger too soon, and the repercussions are real.

“I usually wait to make sure it sticks,” my much smarter friend Caitlin cautions. Should the breakup actually be more like hitting the pause button, she has a valid point: It is impossible to casually refollow. They will notice and, in my case, uncomfortably ask you about it in a bar you wish was louder.

Once the breakup has gelled, evaluate the relationship you had or currently have with this person in question. It’s a beautiful thing when we click with friends’ partners, elevating conversation past stilted observations about a shared city or rice cakes. At that point, camaraderie goes beyond straight respect to your friend who brought this new person into the fold. If you sparked and facilitated an independent friendship with a friend’s ex while they were still a current, it stands to reason continued Instagram following can happen—taking into account how the breakup went. 

That should frankly be consideration No. 1: How is your recently single friend doing? If the relationship was long or the breakup rocky, regardless of where you stand with their ex, it’s probably kind to cool it on social media interaction—out of respect for your friend. Especially if said ex identifies with a gender to which you’re attracted. Don’t be tacky.

Though I have been tacky myself. I’ve hung on to friends’ exes on Instagram for pretty bad reasons, namely if I thought they could give me a leg up with my career. In hindsight, I recognize my continued likes exchange with friends’ partners past their relationship was problematic and not the tightest friend move. Even if they boast really grade-A posts on the ‘gram, your allegiance and support to your friend first should be clear. If mashing that like button on a friend’s ex’s image of a pile French toast fresh from the breakup would make your friend’s stomach churn, is it worth it for you to do that? We’ve all been through extra crappy breakups and know how those feelings of betrayal can singe. It’s 2017, and the internet has plenty of French toast content for you to enjoy that doesn’t come from people who put your friends’ hearts through the shredder.

Keep in mind said friends’ ex may not continue following you out of your brilliant, curated feed. They could be following to keep tabs on their ex, your friend. Recently, hours before lifting off on a tropical girlfriends’ vacation, my travel companion’s volatile ex followed me on Instagram, two months after their split. I know he wasn’t subscribing to see my mug hovering over tacos. Feel free to block these people. You don’t need ‘em! And they can find creative avenues for their research.

Similarly, it can be helpful to pseudo-passively continue following friends’ exes, should an emergency arise. Another pal, Katie, says she always keeps following friends’ exes in case said friend blocked them “but wants to stalk them. Girl Scout loyalty badge unlocked.” And how.

Occasionally you forge a legitimate bond with a friend’s partner, one that could outlive the romantic one that brought them into your peripheral. To unfollow this person post-split could feel a little cruel, like cheapening the courtesies and warmth extended during the relationship. So don’t (again, assuming the breakup wasn’t rooted in something truly vile like emotional or repeated physical infidelity) stress over that, but do measure your like reflexes till everything calms. And for the love of stretchy pants, there are instances in which it’s never acceptable to like a friends’ exes’ posts—when they fall into one of two categories: a selfie of said ex doing something unremarkable (in their home, with a normal-looking bowl of cereal, etc.) or said ex’s new current. Following a friend’s ex on the ‘gram may not be savage, but validating such content sure is.

A good general rule of thumb is a swift unfollow (most adult folks should register the move as “not personal”) or to keep following but keep unenthusiastic. Like I said before, there’s plenty of superior French toast content available. Outsource in a way that legitimizes your friends’ feelings and experiences. At the end of the day, they’re the true follow-back you need.