Few thing are more confusing than going through a breakup, trying to move on with your life, and then realizing your ex is watching your Instagram stories. They might not even be following you anymore, or liking your photos. And yet there they are, mysteriously viewing everything you post.
It can leave you wondering what their deal is. Do they want to get back together? Are they keeping tabs on you? Do they have something they need to say? While you may never know the real answer, there are a few possible reasons why they're lurking behind a screen, and it can help to keep them in mind.
"Viewing Instagram stories, to begin with, is often done in two ways —habitually and intentionally," Chelsea Leigh Trescott, breakup coach and podcast host of Thank You Heartbreak, tells Bustle. "For this reason, there are two ways in which your ex may be engaging with your own stories."
It could be they watch everyone's stories, with one streaming right into the next, and thanks to the Instagram algorithm, yours just happened to be in the mix. In this situation, the burden will fall on you, Trescott says, to think about why they're watching these stories, and whether you're reading more into the situation than necessary.
While they may be enjoying your content, it's possible they didn't seek it out, or watch it with any hidden motives. If your ex was someone who spent a lot of time scrolling through social media, this may very well be the case. And it's something you can simply notice, ponder, then try to forget.
"On the flip side, there are those who pick and choose whose stories they view," Trescott says. "If your ex uses social media from a place of intention versus habit, then looking at your stories is coming from a place of deliberate choice."
Watching these curated flashes of your life, Trescott says, may help them feel like they still know what you're up to, and what's going on in your life. "It’s important to remember that what many people fear in the wake of heartbreak is the uncertainty that comes with it," she says. "To counteract this uncertainty, your ex may be viewing your Instagram stories to provide themselves with a sense of being in the know, which provides them with a momentary sense of control and relief." And possibly even hope that you may, someday, get back together.
Seeing what you're up to can also relieve breakup pain, which has a tendency to be pretty intense. "While dating, seeing your partner's face, hearing their voice, or thinking about them triggers our reward system in the brain as well as a burst of feel-good oxytocin," Gabrielle Applebury, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle. After a breakup, a legit withdrawal period can set in, and it can be tough to adjust.
"Re-watching Instagram stories can provide your ex with a burst of feel-good oxytocin even if it's just for a few minutes," Applebury says, "making the icky withdrawal period feel a bit better short-term, despite more challenging long-term consequences." While doing so makes it tricker to move on, it's understandable why they might be tempted to take a peek.
Exes can also watch Instagram stories as a way to gather more information. They may be popping by out of friendly curiosity, to see what you've been up to. Or they may be checking in to see how you're doing, as a way to gauge where you're at in the breakup recovery process.
"If you’re out and about smiling with friends, this might heighten their sense of urgency to look at the bright side or at least fake it till they make it," Trescott says. "Basically, looking at your stories is a way of comparing your lives which might act as a motivator to step into a new identity and move on or may cause them further grief, anxiety, and mourning over what’s so obviously been lost."
It's not up to you to help them move on, but if you're wondering why they keep watching your stories, this could be a factor. You can go ahead and ignore it, or take a few extra measures to create better boundaries.
"As long as you're comfortable with them seeing what you're up to it's not a problem," Applebury says. "If you feel uncomfortable or feel like they are crossing a line, you have every right to block them [...] if you feel it's necessary to keep you physically and emotionally safe."
It's also possible to simply hide your stories from them so they can't watch. But this can also be an interesting experiment for you, too. "Hiding your stories may [...] be an opportunity for you to find out whether you were taking comfort in seeing that they were still keeping tabs on you and caring about you post-breakup," Trescott says. "This may give you the insight you need in your own healing journey."
Of course, it's impossible to say what, exactly, is going through your ex's mind when they decide to watch your Instagram stories. It could be as simple as a friendly check-in, a sign they miss you, or a way to feel better after the breakup. You don't have to do anything about it, though, unless you want to. Because at the end of the day, it's a choice they're making.