Dating and Relationship Advice

What is Orbiting?

So you’ve probably already heard of and understand ghosting. (Maybe you even understand this too well. Oh, just me? Oops.)

Orbiting is similar: It’s a mix of ghosting and “submarining,” though it’s much more confusing to experience. It’s become especially popular in the age of social media.

Coined by Anna Iovine in a viral article, “orbiting” is when someone ghosts or breaks up with you… except they still watch all your Instagram stories and like your social media posts. So why do people do it? Is it technically unhealthy? How do you handle it? A couple of psychologists shared all you need to know.

Why do people orbit?

Have you ever dumped or been dumped by someone you were still in love with? You’re not the only one. According to Michaela Thomas, a clinical psychologist and the author of “The Lasting Connection,” some people orbit others because they don’t want to let go.

“You’ve not only lost the person you loved but also the prospect of a future together,” she explained. “If you keep checking social media for updates on your ex and find something new, you give your brain a little dopamine kick. You’re rewarded for the behavior of checking.”

According to Dr. Betsy Chung, a relationship expert at XOXO dating app and a clinical psychologist in Southern California with over 10 years of professional experience, people may orbit exes for other reasons. They may want to keep someone on the back burner if they don’t find someone better, or as to not lose that person’s attention, or see if getting back together could be an option.

Is orbiting unhealthy? It depends

Thomas said the level of unhealthiness or healthiness depends on the function it serves and how it affects each partner.

“If you check compulsively, having a strong urge you can’t resist can become unhealthy,” she said. “It can preoccupy your mind and make the process of letting go and moving forward harder.”

But if the relationship ended on a (relatively) good note, it might be a different story. “If you ended the relationship on good terms and agreed to stay friends, it won’t take on this quality of secrecy, of skulking around and hoping to not be caught,” Thomas explained. “That is amicably staying in each other’s lives. Orbiting is more about not letting go and staying in the past.”

Chung agreed interest is different (and healthier) than orbiting. “It’s normal for a person to have curiosities about their exes and be tempted to look them up,” she said. “That’s not the same thing as orbiting. Orbiting is scheming, and sometimes even manipulative because it’s a deliberate attempt to play mental games with an ex after at least one person has expressed the desire to end the relationship.”

So you’re the orbiter…

Just realized you’re orbiting someone? Thomas shared some suggestions: Tracking your emotions to see how orbiting makes you feel, removing your ex’s accounts from your feed or limiting how often you check, reducing how much you look over time, telling a friend you’re working on this to help with accountability and practicing mindfulness in which you recognize your urge before giving into it.

Chung recommended understanding your needs and finding healthier ways to meet them. “For example, if a person orbits their ex due to a fear of losing positive attention, perhaps going to therapy to work on self-validation or investing in other fulfilling relationships can fill the void,” she said.

So you’re being orbited…

How do you cope with the feelings of discomfort and confusion that may arise? One option is setting a boundary. “Request that they don’t follow you or engage with your things,” Thomas said. “If they have friends in common with you, and you don’t want it to be about ‘taking sides,’ express to joint friends how you feel and that you don’t want them discussing you with your ex.”

She also warned about cyberstalking. If your ex doesn’t honor your boundaries and leaves you alone, you can get a restraining order (if you want to).

You can take both direct and indirect routes — whatever makes you most comfortable. The direct option Chung mentioned is having a conversation with them and setting clear boundaries. However, if you’d rather do things indirectly, she encouraged blocking them, unfriending them, and/or ignoring them.

“For many, [orbiting] could feel very violating, and maybe even anxiety-provoking to know that an ex is still so invested in their lives,” she said. “While one cannot control the behaviors of others, they do have the power to protect themselves from unwanted interactions.”

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