Throughout history, certain couples have captured the public imagination. Antony and Cleopatra had a suicide pact, Napoleon and Joséphine had passionate letters, and Angie and Brad had all those kids. Yet while once-in-a-century romantic relationships have always been held up as unrealistic ideals, thanks to the internet thousands of seemingly ordinary couples are now idolised every day. At the time of writing, the hashtag #RelationshipGoals has been posted on Instagram 11 million times.
For more than a decade, “#RelationshipGoals” has been a quick, easy way to signal approval of a relationship. On YouTube, Instagram and Tumblr, fans of internet-famous couples will uphold them as “goals” and follow their every move. But what’s it like when the internet worships your relationship? How does it feel when thousands of people think you’re perfect? And what do you do when fans start noticing that you haven’t kissed your girlfriend on camera in a while?
Murad Osmann and Nataly Zakharova aren’t exactly famous faces – but you’d probably recognise his left arm and the back of her head. Known online as the “#FollowMeTo couple”, for eight years the pair have shared Instagram photos of their signature pose: an immaculately-dressed Zakharova reaching behind her back to hold Osmann’s hand. They now have a book, a photography exhibition and more than four million Instagram followers.
“I say it takes us five minutes to take our photos, but Nataly will say it takes two hours,” laughs Osmann, who orchestrates the shots at famous landmarks across the globe. “I think our relationship has evolved during the project – like we began to understand each other more, we’re both finding compromises when we’re arguing or being creative.”
Naturally, the internet doesn’t see these arguments. Couples who tour the world together were some of the first to be labelled “relationship goals” online, but their audiences often aren’t privy to the more difficult aspects of travel. “You won’t see us crying or screaming,” says Chanel Cartell – one half of Instagram travel couple How Far From Home. “And yeah – that happens all the time,” adds her fiancé, Stevo Dirnberger.
Like most Instagrammers, Dirnberger and Cartell have chosen to curate what their 171,000 followers see. “I’m sure everybody knows that arguments are happening, but we just want to try to be as positive as possible,” Dirnberger says. “I don’t think you need to be 100 per cent transparent unless that’s the kind of content that you started doing from the beginning.”
To keep their relationship “normal”, the pair frequently schedule downtime where they go on dates that they don’t document, leaving their cameras at home. Yet one of the pressures of being #RelationshipGoals is that internet fans can feel you are obligated to keep them up to date.
“We’ve been quiet on Insta Stories this past month, and there’s been people messaging us saying ‘Where are you guys?’ and ‘How’s it going?’” says Cartell. The couple waited a week before telling their followers they got engaged – not for privacy reasons, but simply so they had time to curate their photos, write a blog post and create an Instagram Story. “After the wedding we will be releasing content and trying to get everyone to share in it because we love love and we celebrate it,” Cartell says.
“People thought they knew everything about us and were so invested in the relationship,” says Cammie Scott, a YouTuber who posted about her relationship with her girlfriend Shannon Beveridge from 2012 to 2016. When Scott and Beveridge didn’t kiss on camera for a while, fans would notice and message them. “It got to a point where I felt like our relationship was for the audience.”
When the couple broke up in May 2016, two million people wanted to know why. On the fan-fiction website Wattpad, 3,000 people read a story that imagined a future in which Scott and Beveridge got back together. On YouTube, 370,000 people watched a video (not by the couple) entitled “THE REAL REASON WHY CAMMIE AND SHANNON BROKE UP”.
“I had people tell me ‘I don’t believe in love any more’ – the most intense things,” Scott says of the audience reaction to the break-up. “At first it pissed me off when people said ‘You owe us an explanation’, but then I realised it’s like if they cancelled your favourite TV show for no reason. Of course you’re going to want to know why.”
Today, fans still tag Scott and Beveridge in posts wishing they would get back together, and people have messaged Scott’s new girlfriend to say they don’t like her. Yet it’s only in hindsight that Scott sees the issues with being #RelationshipGoals.
“In the moment, it just felt nice,” she says. “Like, ‘Yeah, we are great together, I’m glad people recognise that.’” Constant affirmations could also be confusing – like if Scott and Beveridge argued, posted a happy picture and were told they were an amazing couple. “It was confusing for us about when to break up, because we had all these people saying we were great together. We were like, ‘Oh, are we?’”
“Two days ago, we got a message from a girl who was proposed to by her fiancé in a spot in Prague that was in one of our photographs,” Cartell says. “She told us he was going to propose on the bridge, but she was so obsessed with our photo, he took her down to the exact location. For us, that gives me goosebumps. That makes me feel so good, because if that’s the kind of stuff we’re inspiring, then that’s amazing.”