You’ve probably seen it: a gorgeous, gorgeous girl posing with a luminous cocktail, or standing outside at golden hour, or draping herself beside some nearby cherry blossom, the dappled light landing on her face just so. Meanwhile, crouched down beside her, head almost scraping the pavement, is a boyfriend wielding her iPhone camera. Snap, snap, snap, he takes photos from different angles, at her instruction. He doesn't know where the photos will end up, but he doesn't care. He is offline, she is online. They are the perfect couple.
While you may have seen some variation of the phrase “Very offline bf/chronically online gf” before, the offline/online couple is gender neutral. Crucially also, the offline partner didn't use to be online before “going off social media for mental health reasons”. No, the offline partner is just naturally offline, in the way some people are ginger or polyamorous. They still think TikTok is just for dance trends and look at you blankly when you make a joke using a meme format off Twitter. Then, when you explain the meme format, awkwardly thumbing through examples on your screen, they reply with something like, “Ah”. You speak two different languages.
However, like tops and bottoms and doms and subs, the offline/online couple has always worked in symbiosis. The online partner can show the offline one viral videos or explain why their boss keeps saying “vibe shift” apropos of nothing. Meanwhile, the offline partner can remind the online one that there's a world out there, with trees and birds and delicious, un-photographed meals to be enjoyed and then forgotten. They are each other's bridge between both types of life, with neither judging the other.
Once you notice it, online/offline couples are everywhere. Phebe May, 29, a digital designer and art director, is part of one. She’s “always been plugged in” and has, in her words, “created a world of communication with other creatives online”. Her boyfriend, however, “works in construction and does not have a smartphone – he's old-fashioned and believes in the value of taking pictures and experiencing life organically”.
Phebe says the dynamic works better than if they were both chronically online. “I prefer having a partner who is offline so we can enjoy authentic quality time and not succumb to social pressures of posting together or other people being involved in my business,” she says. “It gives us a point of difference and a reason for me to unplug.”
Harry Hitchins, 26, a director and screenwriter, says he's as “online as it gets, really. I am no doubt muted-by-many for my incessant posting! But I love being online; having that community feels really special.” His partner, on the other hand, “has no interest in presenting themselves to the world like that… they just couldn't care less!”
While Harry doesn't notice any benefits, per se, he does find the offline element of his partner appealing. “I'd be lying if I said it wasn't attractive that my partner doesn't feel the need to be super present online,” he says. “To be happy with what's in front of you, rather than seeking more from the screen.”
From speaking to online/offline couples, one theme persistently comes up: the idea that while being online can be fun or useful for individuals, especially when it’s necessary for their jobs, it can be detrimental to relationships specifically. A person might feel pressure to post their partner online, for example, or let other people into their private life. Paranoia arises, separate to reality. There are more opportunities for tension or conflict. When one person is offline, many of these issues are eliminated.
“We don’t feel any pressure to advertise our relationship online,” explains Mena Sachdev, 26. They're a musician and spend a lot of time on TikTok and Instagram and “FaceTiming with friends pretty constantly”. Their partner only occasionally uses their phone to read articles or check emails.
Being non-monogamous can also complicate things when it comes to multiple partners being on social media. “We recently transitioned from being monogamous to polyamorous,” Mena adds. “So it’s also been really nice to not have to deal with social media as a big factor when we’re balancing other relationship dynamics.”
To truly understand how the online/offline dynamic works, we need only take a glance at those couples who are always online. Effy Smith, 21, who asked us to change her surname to protect the identity of her ex, says that she “definitely felt a lot of pressure to always be on my phone and answer any message he sent me on any platform”.
This was neither good for Effy personally, nor for the relationship. “It was exhausting,” she remembers. “I felt like our personalities started to revolve around the internet and memes. After a certain point it felt unnatural to just sit down and talk about our feelings or have a conversation that didn't include internet terminology.”
The relationship ended, and Effy is now with someone who's the exact opposite. These days, neither of them are “very online”. They both dip in and out. “It helped me overcome my [internet] addiction,” she says. “Now that I'm online for about two hours per day maximum, I can see how badly it affected me on literally every level.”
Callisto Adams, a relationship expert and coach, says that, in general, social media feeds insecurities (that’s what it’s built for!), and that extends to relationships. “When one of the partners is not on social media there’s a sense of relief,” she says.
Lee Wilson, also a relationship expert and coach, says that when one partner isn’t always on social media, the couple are more likely to go out and do something fun instead. You’re not just laying back to back, on TikTok. “If the other partner isn't distracted with their phone, an intimacy-building activity could occur, like a conversation, sex or another shared moment,” he says.
That said, if you are both chronically online, it’s worth navigating boundaries in the same way you would IRL. “Having a conversation and clearing up what’s a hurtful behaviour and what’s an okay behaviour is important for a romantic couple,” says Adams, giving the example of voicing that you find it uncomfortable if your partner likes photos of random people they don’t know.
The world is full of contradictory messages when it comes to how we should spend our time. We're expected to keep up to date with current events and trends – which change every few hours, thanks to the double-time speed of social media – but it’s considered both damaging and embarrassing to spend loads of time posting and tapped out of the real world.
It is, obviously, impossible to do both. You can’t be plugged in and logged off – unless, of course, there are two of you.