Dear Prudence

Help! Is It a Red Flag That My Boyfriend Keeps “Liking” Bikini Photos on Instagram?

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

Picture on a phone of woman in a bikini, hearted.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Benjaminrobyn Jespersen on Unsplash and Aleksander Kaczmarek/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. 

Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Good morning! “I promise I shall improve, and will not keep on chewing over some morsel of misfortune doled out by Fate.” Let’s chat.

Q. Instagram killing my romance: I’ve been dating this guy long-distance for four months. Recently, I noticed some odd activity of his on Instagram, and this has devolved into a teenager-esque drama that I loathe. He is on a vacation trip now, for a destination wedding of a friend of his, somewhere exotic. So I all of a sudden see him adding some girls on Instagram and liking all these photos of women in bikinis. Some are apparently random models, others are what he claims are friends of his from back home, and others are the girls he met over there. I wasn’t “spying” on him. I was casually looking for something else and spotted that. I had never noticed his Instagram likes before; apparently he does this all the time. Many of these photos are quite graphic—not nudes, but almost, and some are even vulgar, IMO. He is always saying he is head over heels for me, wants to marry me, spend his life with me. But I went crazy about him liking all these photos on Instagram. Because it meant he was meeting people on this trip—coincidentally, mostly women—and going through their photos, and giving them “likes” exclusively on the revealing bikini shots. (For some reason, no likes on the photos without skin.) These women are, of course, all beautiful.

When I confronted him, he said a bunch of stuff that had some inconsistencies and was hard to believe. He promised to stop liking all these revealing photos, and then three hours later he did it again, and I just lost it. He claims he did it by “inertia,” without thinking.

What am I to think? To me, it’s a sign he is flirting with other women over there, and a red flag. It became a huge issue and I told him I am not sure I can trust him anymore, that he used to make me feel like the only woman in the world to him and that, now, that is gone. Distance is hard enough without this BS that just leaves room for mistrust, I believe.

It made me feel so betrayed, because he gets jealous over the tiniest things, yet he’s over there meeting girls and liking their bikini shots. Or something. What am I to think? He insists they’re just casual acquaintances, that they’ve added him on IG and not the other way around, that he only has eyes for me … I know I can be jealous, but am I taking this too far? Am I overreacting? Or should I run for the hills? If he does stuff like this so early in a relationship, what can I expect down the line?

I know he likes to party a lot, and I’ve told him that I’m not sure we’re compatible for this reason, because my partying days are (mostly) over. He tries to reassure me and say that he would want to go out with me or do something with me if I didn’t want to go out. But when I’m in a relationship, I know I mostly like doing laid-back things. I do like concerts and going dancing once in a while, but not every weekend.

My fear is that, if I end up making a life with him, someday I will find him shagging one of his “model friends,” or I will be left at home with the baby while he goes out and drinks with his buddies, or we’ll just fight about these issues. He seems to have mostly female friends, who are coincidentally all good-looking. He seems to like to surround himself with beautiful women, and I just am not sure what that says about him as marriage material. But my gut is screaming RED FLAG.

A: Reread your own letter! I think you know what you want to do here. I think you’re very aware of the issues that make the two of you incompatible, you feel hurt by the way he talks to you when you two disagree about something, he’s inconsistent in terms of what’s fine for him and what’s fine for you, he insults your intelligence by pretending he turns into an Instagram zombie whenever he opens the app and can no longer control his thumbs, and you are 100 percent right that if you marry him you will eventually find him having sex with someone else. It’s been four months and the two of you don’t even live in the same place. There’s no reason not to break up over this. Break up over this! Find someone who doesn’t make you feel like you have to slog through their social media feeds scanning for evidence that they’re on the verge of cheating on you.

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Q. Frustrated bridesmaid: I am a bridesmaid in my cousin’s wedding, which takes place in our hometown (on the family farm) in just a little over two weeks. This cousin is notoriously bad at communication, so I wasn’t too surprised that I had not yet received details for the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner. Finally, I reached out to her over text and asked for some details about when and where to meet for the rehearsal so my partner and I could plan accordingly, as we are flying in from out of town and have many logistics to manage. It was then that she told me only spouses were invited to the rehearsal dinner, not significant others, “to keep it special.” I have been with my partner for a year, so although he hasn’t been in my life that long, he has already accompanied me to multiple family events in the past year, and he RSVP’d as my wedding guest.

Normally I am all about making your wedding your own and I think brides shouldn’t give in to obligation, but I feel like this is an arbitrary rule that is unfair to those of us who are unmarried but have serious partners. Not to mention she didn’t tell me until two weeks before the wedding! I did a quick poll of other wedding party members and they had not received any details regarding the rehearsal dinner either.

I don’t want to be dramatic and fight before the wedding, but I think this whole situation is inconsiderate and rude. I have been in multiple weddings at this point in my life, and it seems like common etiquette when you ask someone to be in your wedding to include their significant other in the events. Am I being unreasonable, or should I confront her?

A: I think you are being perfectly reasonable, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should confront her about it. Let’s be generous and assume that it’s at least possible she used “keep it special” as a euphemism for “we can’t afford to pay for as many guests at the rehearsal dinner as we had hoped.” Your partner is still coming to the wedding, so it’s not as if you’re suddenly out of the cost of a plane ticket. (If that had been the case, I think it would definitely be time to speak to your cousin.) I think your partner should enjoy his suddenly free evening to go out to a movie and meet up with you afterward; the two of you can enjoy the low-key, petty pleasure of thinking one of your relatives has acted badly, and in two weeks all of this will be over.

Q. Diagnosed by my mom’s therapist: My mother has been seeing a therapist for several months, and the change in her has been incredible. She’s more outgoing and confident, she’s taking painting classes and going to live music events, she has an energy and liveliness I’ve never seen in her before, and I couldn’t be happier for her.

The problem is that she loves telling me all about her therapy sessions, and what her therapist is saying about our family makes me uncomfortable. This doctor apparently thinks my dad is on the autism spectrum and must’ve been abused as a child. He said my brother’s drug addiction obviously stems from untreated borderline personality disorder. He told my mother that I’m a closet lesbian with a major depressive disorder (which is scarily accurate, but he didn’t need to say it!). Am I wrong to think this is a strange thing for a therapist to do? He may or may not be correct about our family, but it seems unethical to diagnose people from a third-party description. I’m so grateful to see my mother actualize her ideal life, but I fear that these “diagnoses” will help her rationalize our actions in inaccurate, perhaps hurtful, ways.

A: My one question here is whether your mom is accurately recounting what her therapist is saying to her—I could imagine a scenario wherein your mother spins out some speculation and her therapist says something vague yet affirming along the lines of “That could be possible. How do you think that would change things between you?” and your mother choosing to really run with that and assume that means her therapist has signed off on all of her armchair diagnoses. I don’t know what kind of treatment your mother is undergoing, but psychiatrists, for example, are not allowed to diagnose someone they haven’t met and assessed, according to the Goldwater rule.

Whatever’s going on, however, since your mother is so newly confident and self-possessed, I think she can handle a mildly critical question. Tell her you’ve been thrilled to see the changes therapy has wrought for her but that you’re not comfortable hearing about what conditions her therapist is apparently assigning to people he hasn’t met, and you’d like her to stop discussing that particular aspect of her treatment with you—and potentially reconsider whether it’s a useful avenue for her to go down.

Q. Yes, that’s my name: I’m a nonbinary person who goes by a shortened version of my given name (a far less common shortening than, say, Samantha to Sam). In my job, I answer the phone regularly and do my best to articulate my name, but people often mistake it for a different name, and nearly every single day, after I spell it, at least one person says, “[Name]? What kind of a name is that?” and I cringe so hard. Got any scripts to let them know how rude they are without losing my job?

A: “It’s my name.” (Let me also recommend “I’m sorry?” offered in a baffled tone so they can have a moment to collect themselves and abandon their rudeness.) If anyone persists after that, you can say something like “I think we’re getting a little off track here. Let’s discuss how I can help direct your call.”

Q. Breadcrumbed by a BFF: One of my best friends has been with her boyfriend for about a year. She has always been a bit of a flake, but in the past year, the time my friends and I have spent with her has dwindled to almost nothing at all. My general approach has been to let her know when a group of us hangs out so she knows she and her boyfriend are welcome without any actual pressure to attend.

I mention her boyfriend because when we have spent time together in the past year, he makes it clear when he wants to leave early, and on multiple occasions, he has been the reason she decides not to show up in the first place. This was fine with me for a long time, but in the past few months it has made me progressively sadder to be ditched at the last moment, especially when we all make plans around her schedule and her promises to be there.

I understand her boyfriend provides a lot of moral support for her in her times of need, and I appreciate him for that—but at the same time, I can’t help feeling neglected as a friend, especially as one who gave her that kind of support before they got together. I’m reluctant to give up on seeing her, but every time I get my hopes up she cancels at the last minute or stops answering any text messages until the event is over. Oftentimes she will send apology messages to my friends and me, thanking us for being there despite her neglect, but these messages are usually identical and have gotten tiresome. I don’t know how to proceed with this friendship—my friends and I feel unappreciated, and my attempts to spend time with her leave me wondering if she’s just waiting for me to give up so she won’t have to bother with me anymore. I’ve attempted to talk to her about it, but she either stops answering my messages or sends me another boilerplate apology. What should I do?

A: I think texting isn’t an especially productive avenue for dealing with your friend, because she’s fallen into a pattern where she can use that particular medium to keep other people at a distance and offer generic scripts instead of real, in-the-moment responses. I think you’d be better off trying to get her on the other end of a phone call. I can understand why she’s dodging everyone—most people aren’t eager to have a conversation with their friends, even if it’s worded kindly, about how unreliable and disappointing they’ve been lately. But I think there’s a way for you to explain to her how you feel without putting her on blast. Tell her that you generally understand she can’t always make it out and that you’re not asking her to account for every time she’s had to abandon plans at the last minute, but that it’s become such a frequent occurrence, and it’s so difficult to have a meaningful, beyond-surface-level conversation with her, that you genuinely don’t know if she’s waiting for you to give up and leave her alone. “I don’t want to assume that you want us all to leave you alone. I want to be able to see one another, even if it’s less often than we used to, because your friendship means so much to me. But if that’s what you want, I hope you’ll let me know. It would make me sad, but I’d respect that boundary if space is what you really want from me.”

I think it’s better for you to speak only for yourself, rather than on behalf of the rest of your friends; even if they all feel the same way, it’ll be easy for your friend to feel cornered and defensive if she thinks you’re representing her entire social circle. You should, I think, clarify that you’re not looking to extract more apologies or admissions of guilt from her, that what you really want is to figure out ways in which you can actually see each other, whether that means coming over to her house, meeting up one on one instead of in bigger groups, whatever. At that point, if she’s evasive or dismissive, I think you’ll have to back off. But I hope she can let you know a little bit more about what she wants.

Q. Opening closet doors: For years, my significant other and I were living as what looked like a straight couple. However, we are anything but, the most notable facet of that being my S.O. is trans-femme and wants to look into transitioning. Our families both showed questionable opinions of LGBT+ stuff, so we weren’t sure how it would go. Unfortunately, the conversation ended up being rushed due to a sudden and time-limited opportunity for us to move in together and get my S.O. space to figure out her transition. Needless to say, bundling conversations of moving in with my S.O. and gender identity stuff was not a comfortable situation, and I regret not having a better way to space those conversations out.

At the time of informing my family about all this, my grandparents were going through a lot of health issues, and it was requested of me not to reveal all the gender identity stuff at that time, for concern it would just add to the stress. I felt this was a misjudgment, because at least saying, “Hey, we’re not straight” would give my Catholic relatives a solid reason I wasn’t sticking with tradition. At the time, though, it seemed a small concession to make. Almost a year later now, my S.O. and I have started sitting down and talking about what we picture our wedding looking like and what it should include. I’ve had the realization now that, as my S.O. will be the one wearing the white dress that day, I need to readdress the “don’t tell the grandparents” situation. Not inviting them is out of the question; I would love to have them there if they are willing and able to travel. It seems right to address this with my parents before I go to my grandparents, but I’m not sure how best to go about it when our relationship is already strained from the rushed reveal. On top of that, I am concerned how to broach the topic with my grandparents. What do I say if they ask, “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” The honest truth is “I would have said something if my parents hadn’t told me not to,” but that feels like I am throwing my parents under the bus.

A: So a lot of parents play the “let us direct how you tell the grandparents” card when it comes to coming-out, and the key here is that you don’t actually have to do that. You don’t need your parents’ permission or approval in order to talk to your grandparents about your partner’s transition, and in fact you should not have let them make that decision for you. One of the main problems with that sort of request is it’s almost as couched as “They’re not ready, give us time,” and yet the sort of people who ask others to delay coming-out so they can supposedly “prepare” their older relatives almost invariably do nothing with that extra time. It’s a stalling tactic disguised as concern; presumably you weren’t planning on bursting into an operating room and interrupting the surgeon to announce your partner’s transition, so the health angle doesn’t really wash either.

None of which is to say your parents are cruel monsters. They just made an unreasonable request that you don’t have to respect. Tell your grandparents, and if they ask you why you’ve waited so long, tell them that you were anxious and unsure (which is true!) and then move on. Tell your parents afterwards that you’d reconsidered their request and decided that you needed to tell your grandparents well in advance of the wedding, and that you judged now to be a good time. You’re not a child and your parents can’t restrict the kinds of conversations you have about your own partner with the rest of your family. Good luck wedding planning!

Q. Re: Frustrated bridesmaid: Please do not make this a thing. This is not unusual at all. I recognize that having the event on a family farm is a complicating factor, but you are bringing your partner to the wedding, which is all you should really expect. You haven’t lost anything on travel expenses, and assuming you are all adults, your partner can find something to do at these times. Unless you are literally the only member of the wedding party who is unmarried and not allowed to bring your partner, drop it. Be of service; that is the point of being in a wedding party. I say this not only as a married person, but someone who has been to three wedding parties in various stages of single/dating/married.

A: That’s good to know that it’s somewhat common! The bride and groom do sound a little bit scattered if they haven’t yet mentioned it to the bridal party two weeks out, but at least the letter writer can take comfort in the fact that it’s not unheard of and that she’s not being unusually slighted.

Q. Aunt: My husband and I adopted the child of his cousin. She had a serious mental illness and would self-medicate with alcohol. She had been in and out of institutions for years. Her mother was unable to take the baby, and the biological father didn’t want to. We finalized the adoption when our child was 2½. Relations with my husband’s aunt soured by this time; she wouldn’t respect our authority as parents and insisted she knew better than us. We cut ties after she went behind our backs and brought her daughter over for a “surprise” visit. Her daughter had a meltdown and kept trying to grab the baby out of my arms. It was a mess.

We have since moved and been circumspect about social media. Our child is 6 now and understands what adoption is. My husband and I are debating whether to open relations with his aunt again. She has a cancer diagnosis and it has been several years since we left. Both of our parents are gone, so this might be the only chance for our child to have a relationship with a grandparent. The daughter has disappeared again, so no one knows where she is. Should we do this?

A: I think you should proceed very carefully, given how badly things went off the rails the last time you permitted your husband’s aunt to spend time with your daughter. Six is still a pretty vulnerable age, so I’d start small. Maybe you and your husband could call his aunt or send her a message offering your sympathy for her diagnosis and letting her know you’d be available for a phone call or FaceTime if she’s feeling up to it. That doesn’t mean you have to start developing a grandmotherly relationship with her. Plenty of kids grow up without grandparents and they do just fine! Better to make sure first that your husband’s aunt won’t go out of her way to hurt or distress your daughter before suggesting an in-person visit or anything more than occasional contact. And if you decide to keep your distance, I think you have sufficient justification to do so.

Q. Re: Yes, that’s my name: As a cis woman with a typically masculine first name, I get a lot of rude people asking rude questions. For me, I try to make a joke of it before pushing the phone conversation forward. “Haha, yeah, it’s kind of a strange name, but I like it a lot. So do you have any more questions about X today?”

A: I think that’s probably the best approach if you’re liable to get in trouble for appearing rude to clients. It’s a little less bold than one might like, but work doesn’t always provide us with a lot of opportunities for boldness.

Discuss this column with Dear Prudence on his Facebook page!

From How to Do It

I’m a late-20s woman. I recently went on few dates with a “nice,” cute guy, and we hit it off enough that I invited him up after the third date. When we started having sex, all was fine—uninspired maybe, but fine—until, when we were marching to the finish, he started saying pretty horrible things to me. First it was “whore,” then “you like that, you stupid slut?” and then one other thing I’m not even going to type. I was extremely turned off and wish I had said so immediately—if he had been paying attention to my face at all, he would have noticed. It was weird after, and he left. He is now texting me as if he’s confused why I was distant. I know I should have told him on the spot, but I was kind of stunned. Is there any hope with a guy who thinks it’s normal to do that? Does any man really think this is what a woman (or a man, for that matter) wants to hear, unless they’ve asked to be degraded? Others have told me this is more of a tic than anything for a lot of guys. Like, really?