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Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have not known rest from relationship content.
Every time I open Instagram, or TikTok, or (in dire situations) Facebook, I am reliably greeted with photos capturing a mystery man’s side profile, a wedding announcement, an engagement ring reveal, or a boyfriend photo dump.
This morning it was someone’s one-year anniversary post on Instagram. A part of the equation has to be my identity as an early twentysomething from the Midwest, but I know that I am not in this purgatory alone, witnessing heterosexual people live out rom-coms via Instagram stories.
It’s what I have come to call “the long-term relationship aesthetic,” the aspirational digital trappings of being in a long, comfy partnership. There’s always been an ecosystem specifically around dating on social media, from the acquired skill of lurking on someone’s profile to sharing potential red flags in dates. But since the pandemic began, there has been an influx of content specifically around it — the soft launch, the photo dump, the couples TikTok dances, Instagrammable homewares after moving in together, and the obsession with proposal videos.
So what is long-term relationship aesthetic (LTRA), really? It’s Jennifer Lopez announcing her engagement by posting that glitzy green ring on her Instagram story, with a Ben-related song in the background. It’s Joe Ando-Hirsh, who went viral in early pandemic times for making clothes for his girlfriend Niamh Adkins. It’s the rise of internet language like being “down bad” and “simping” being baked into our vernacular as euphemisms for having feelings, acknowledging the optics of being publicly in love.
Did everyone get cuffed in the pandemic, or are we just posting about it now? Leanna Campos, 22, first entered a long-term relationship in May 2020. She’s one of the culprits who first blew up my Instagram feed with boyfriend photos and started my whole exploration into LTRA.
“Having a boyfriend is kind of part of my aesthetic,” she told me. “When I’m with someone, I just want everyone to know I’m in love with them.” She met her then-partner on a dating app, in the heady beginning months of the pandemic when app usage soared, and spent almost the whole summer together due to social distancing guidelines.
They fell in love quickly, but she didn’t post a boyfriend reveal until they became official in the fall.
“I did do some soft launching, like if we were painting in a park,” she said. “I’d take a video of his painting and then pan upward or something. But I didn’t show his face without a mask until we were in a relationship.”
The soft launch, an initial introduction of a love interest to your social media followers, has distinct elements of unposed mystery and romance. Think a pair of hands amid a dinner date. Or perhaps the back of a head and a pair of shoulders observing art at a museum (this was my last, admittedly premature, beta test soft launch). Leanna said she’s even seen ones that involve an arm wrapped around a girl’s shoulder in a helicopter, before the camera pans to capture the view from above. There’s a necessary combination of visual taste and publicity strategy that not only reveals a new character in your life, but sells them to your followers as someone you’re planning on keeping around.
Once the relationship has been hard-launched onto the feed (congratulations on your boyfriend reveal), more LTRA opportunities arise. There’s the classic: a happy, filtered post on Instagram, captioned “expectation vs. reality” or “we’re so awkward” to show that not only are you hot, you’re also funny. Viral apps geared toward couples dominated App Store downloads earlier this year, a new way to show the double-whammy of personality and cuteness.
“I posted a lot of the relationship on TikTok,” Leanna said. “I did a lot of couples’ challenges and dances with him on TikTok. It’s fun and cute, like an activity you can do together. And on TikTok, you can dance and move around and show your expressions. Instagram pictures are cute, but you can capture these cute moments on TikTok.”
We’ve seen LTRA playing out online long before COVID. More than 22 million posts on Instagram are tagged #relationshipgoals, and the tag #couplestiktok has 10.6 billion views. But in quarantine, we watched Hoe Instagram (Fashion Nova sets, Cardi B’s mantra “a hoe never gets cold,” Instagram stories from the club, sinstas) become Cuffed Instagram. The clubs closed down, the frilly Princess Polly skirts took over, and the girlies took their boyfriends to Hawaii.
That’s in part because young people are having less casual sex, and in the midst of a global health crisis, people are reevaluating their personal relationships more so than ever. Nondating social platforms like Discord have become a hotbed for love during lockdown. According to data from a statement provided by Google, livestreamed weddings were a global breakout trend. Searches for couples’ vlogs and proposal videos peaked shortly after isolation began, in May 2020.
This particular dating season has already been dominated by the discourse of social media. TikTok has dubbed it “short king spring,” with more couples sharing the benefits of dating a man under 5’11” (I’ve found the closed height gap means they’re better able to listen to you). Moments like West Elm Caleb drew national discussion around the dos and don'ts of dating online. What we know about and seek in love will continue to be shaped and molded by the aesthetics we see online now.
While I might have cringed at the relentless pulsation of everyone’s candid couple pics a few years ago, now I welcome the celebration of something good in all this chaos. I have begun considering soft-launching nonserious relationships just because I want to post something happy, when previously I would have waited months before allowing someone’s elbow on my feed. The LTRA comes for us all, I guess.
“This part of our lives is a weird transition,” Leanna said. “It makes sense that in this time period, where we’re not taking COVID seriously anymore and giving ourselves a fresh new beginning, that people are getting engaged and married. We’re out to celebrate our lives.”
Of course, not all relationships last. The newly single revenge post is an art in its own right, perhaps the LTRA in its final form. Leanna’s was unveiled last month during St. Patrick’s Day, a flirty collection of photos featuring the Chicago River with a butt-forward emphasis. “Anything where my butt looks good,” she said. “I never publicly post that I’m single again, but so many DMs just begin to appear.”
And she’s already thinking about how she’ll portray her next relationship online. “I want to make sure my next soft launch is fashionable, and that it’s clear they’re adding to my life,” she said.
Until then, my feed will continue to be overwhelmed with photos of these random men you all are releasing there. I’m very happy you’re happy.