14 mins read

TikTok couples: What happens when they break up?

Not to be all “old man yells at cloud,” but we have too much access these days: to information, technology, and, in particular, to people’s private lives. More specifically, to their romantic relationships. Where once our forefathers had to scour the pages of celebrity magazines to unearth mere morsels of hookup and breakup gossip, now there’s whole forums dedicated to the minutiae of even the most D-list celebrities’ romantic exploits.

This is, admittedly, because people are choosing to build their careers on these exploits. While mainstream celebrities — actors, musicians, athletes — have long resented the fact that invasion of privacy comes with the job, a stream of influencers are vying for fame by invading their own privacy. This might seem like a great idea when things are going well in your relationship, but there are risks to building your brand on something so precious and precarious. The biggest one being: What happens if you break up?

From couple goals to breakup videos

In recent years, the breakup announcement has become a mainstay on, shall we call it, “relationship goals TikTok.” You know the one: “Hey guys,” they say, looking very seriously at the camera, before announcing that they’ve decided to “go their separate ways.” These breakups often hit the news, and sometimes they’re lumped together and dubbed things like, “TikTok’s lesbian break-up curse.” Nobody’s immune, either. If a couple doesn’t make one of these videos, but starts to make fewer appearances together, they’re subject to constant speculation about whether they’ve broken up (this is currently the norm in Niamh Adkins‘ and Joe Ando‘s comment sections; there’s even sleuths making ‘gotcha’ videos about the status of their relationship).

It’s often fun to be a bystander in these instances — who doesn’t love gossiping about strangers? — but what’s this whole process like for the couples behind the screens? Is breaking up something they thought about when they started making couple content or, even worse, launched a joint account? And what impact might sharing their romantic lives so publicly at such a young age have on their future relationships, or even their understanding of the boundaries of relationships more broadly?

“I honestly don’t remember having big conversations about sharing our relationship online,” says Casey Hamilton, a teacher and voice actor with nearly seven million TikTok followers, who broke up with his long-term girlfriend Jordyn Maloney in January last year. “We met through social media, so it was kind of a weird package deal with me. I think Jordyn’s reservations may have been that I wanted to share every aspect of our relationship and lives together, which wasn’t what I wanted to do. So we came to an early and happy medium [about how much we’d share].” 

Although Maloney also has a TikTok following, around 47,000 as of publication, she’s nowhere near as prolific a poster as Hamilton. Still, when they were together, they both made regular appearances in each other’s videos, sharing sweet moments, making jokes, or generally just hanging out. “It added a layer of interaction that you don’t normally get in a relationship,” continues Hamilton. “I will admit that it genuinely feels nice to have strangers leave compliments on cute videos that you post of the person that you love. It’s enjoyable to let people have a peek at the joy.”

While this public vulnerability can come with its risks, it can also bring couples closer together. “Influencer couples have more time together, which can speed up and deepen partners’ levels of understanding and strengthen their teamwork,” says Nicholas Rose, a London-based psychotherapist who works with celebrity clients. “We also know ourselves through our relationships with others, so when partners are in the public eye, they have each other’s knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses to keep each other grounded.”

Besides, it goes without saying that a couple chooses what to share and what to hold back. “The part of our relationship that we showed was genuine,” says Hamilton, “but it wasn’t the bellwether of the entire relationship.”

For the most part, fans know this too. But when you get such an intimate insight into someone’s relationship, it can be easy to forget that it’s just a highlight reel of their life — hence why viewers tend to express such shock when a couple breaks up seemingly out of the blue. “We see these relationships pan out, and when they don’t work out, we’re sad as well,” says 34-year-old Brianna*, a member of Reddit’s r/tiktokgossip who was a particular fan of the now-broken up Ben and Evyn. “Everyone loves a good love story, whether it’s theirs or one they get to watch unfold.”

Having to edit a romantic relationship to fit a narrative online isn’t particularly good for couples, though, especially if they’re not in a good place IRL. “People only saw the fun, happy, and sometimes fabricated side of our relationship,” one TikTokker, who was part of a well-known Canadian couple but has asked to remain anonymous, tells Mashable. “Our relationship wasn’t always what it seemed, and, while it was fun [being in a TikTok couple], it definitely took its toll.”

Although it seems to be rare, some couples, like Boston-based Austin Shapiro and Lexi Cohen, better known as Austin & Lexi, do try to share these relationship humps with their fans (which, in their case, is all 5.4 million of them). In May last year, Shapiro announced in a candid YouTube video that the pair had taken a break from each other, but were back together at the time of posting. “We debated for three weeks about that video, and it went through five sets of eyes on our team before it went public,” reveals Cohen.

“We knew that we needed time apart because we really felt like we got to a point where we were putting the content before our relationship,” adds Shapiro. “If we kept doing that, we were going to lose everything.” Part of the reason the pair decided to post the video was to avoid misinformation about why they took some time apart, which stemmed in part from personal matters in Shapiro’s life. “I never thought about what hundreds of thousands of people commenting on every single video would actually be like. It was like one day our relationship was so private and we were able to do whatever we wanted, without a care in the world, and then the next day, every piece of our relationship was being judged online. For a little bit, it affected the way we treated each other.”

Mashable After Dark

“When we sat in front of the camera and said, ‘We’re fine,’ when we weren’t fine, it just killed us on the inside,” continues Cohen. “It was such a heavy weight. I can’t explain how good it felt when Austin posted that video. This was brewing for years at that point, and we just needed a break from social media so badly.” The pair stress that social media wasn’t always the cause of problems in their relationships, but that it added another layer of pressure when things did get rocky.

Downsides of sharing your relationship online

This kind of unprecedented access has the often-negative effect of making fans feel entitled to information, as if the couple owes them an update about every big life event. “It’s so interesting how people will pick up on the slightest differences in your content and then just roll with it,” says Cohen. “It’s a mixture of knowing what we signed up for, but wanting to do this for fun and feeling like we shouldn’t be pressured to [share absolutely everything].”

In some breakups, there’s a perceived “bad guy” and a “good guy.” The same occurs online — it’s just more extreme (think: judgement from millions of strangers, as opposed to, say, a group of friends). In Ben and Evyn’s case, for example, Ben was deemed to be the bad guy, despite little to no endorsement on that fact from either one of them. Shortly after their breakup, he ended up deleting TikTok for a while and has now made his account private.

A similar thing happened to Jesse Crosson, a formerly incarcerated person who now raises awareness about issues in the criminal justice system via his organisation Second Chancer Foundation. Crosson’s TikTok, like Hamilton’s, wasn’t specifically dedicated to his relationship, but his ex Courteney — whom he broke up with in November 2022 — was a regular feature in his videos.

“I did get judgement and mean comments about the breakup, as I’d feared and expected,” Crosson tells Mashable. “They made me feel terrible. I was already struggling with guilt and self-doubt around the breakup and the decisions I’d made, and the comments just picked at that wound. Courteney has talked about women reaching out to commiserate with her about dating a ‘narcissist.’ Thankfully she refused to validate that, and in fact defended me even when she was hurt or angry.” 

He continues: “I think people often project themselves, their expectations, and their prejudices onto a situation that they feel connected to. So it makes sense that people attacked me because of something that had happened to them or some quality that they attributed to others. It’s hard to be objective when emotions are involved, especially when that emotion is pain, sadness, rejection, or disappointment.”

The sad truth is that viewers often don’t care as much about the people involved in the breakup as they do about the drama surrounding it. “This isn’t a great thing to admit, but I’m more invested in the gossip than I am the people,” says 29-year-old Maria*, who follows a number of couples on TikTok. “Like reality TV, it’s a form of escapism; who wants to think about their own relationship issues when they can invest in someone else’s?”

This fact, combined with his recent experience of two relationships going sour shortly after he hard-launched them on TikTok, has led Crosson to be more cautious about what he shares online. “Unless I get involved in a serious, committed relationship that lasts a long period of time, I won’t be posting about my dating life,” he says. “It doesn’t feel healthy for relationships and it’s not healthy for me. People love drama, but that just isn’t my lane.”

The anonymous Canadian TikTokker has come to the same conclusion. “Do what feels right for you, but I’d say there’s more cons than pros to being involved in a public relationship,” they explain, adding that these cons can follow you into future partnerships. “My current relationship is going really well and we’re very happy, but [my partner] recently posted a few goofy TikToks of us and they managed to drum up thousands of hate comments from people who recognised me from the past.”

This will inevitably put a strain on new relationships, especially if one partner is, say, TikTok famous and the other is extremely offline. “When someone who’s used to living in the public eye starts a relationship with someone who isn’t, there’s a potential for a power imbalance to exist that the partners find difficult to resolve,” says Rose, the psychotherapist.

Do what feels right for you, but I’d say there’s more cons than pros to being involved in a public relationship.

– Anonymous Canadian TikTokker

Although Maloney wasn’t exactly extremely offline, she and Hamilton had very different approaches to their breakup. Hamilton felt like he needed to post about it, while Maloney wanted to, as he puts it, “stay away from the limelight.”

“I never thought I’d have to make a ‘breakup video’ in my life,” Hamilton reflects, “and it turns your stomach into a knot. Part of me felt terrible for roping Jordyn into the circus that is the social media world, and I sometimes wish I’d never made so many parts of our relationship public. It just added a lot of extra stress and steps to the break-up process.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Shapiro and Cohen are still going strong — and will likely tell you if anything changes. Their advice for TikTok couples? “It sounds so cheesy to say, but you have to ignore what people say,” suggests Cohen. 

If you can’t do that, you might prefer Hamilton’s advice. “Be incredibly cautious about sharing your relationship online,” he concludes. “Anniversary dinners don’t need to be turned into content. Just go to Chili’s, turn off your phones, stare into each other’s eyes, and dip your french fries into some ranch. Live in the moment.”

* Names have been changed

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