Photo by Robert Kamau/GC Images and via Instagram

The rise of the normcore boyfriend

How did having zero internet presence become the most attractive trait in a partner?

by Laura Pitcher
12 August 2021, 8:00am

Photo by Robert Kamau/GC Images and via Instagram

Power couples are the height of celebrity culture and the last few decades have given us some beloved ones. From Brangelina (or Bennifer) to Kimye, we love to become heavily invested in our favorite stars’ inter-romantic business. But what about when one of the partners is essentially off the grid?

Last month, Bella Hadid debuted her new boyfriend, Marc Kalman, on Instagram after supposedly dating in secret for over a year. Marc’s own Instagram is private, and we know very little about him, other than that he worked as an art director for Travis Scott. After previously, and very publicly, dating The Weeknd, seeing Bella thriving with her new (extremely low-key) beau feels like permission to scrap the power couple notion all together. And Bella is not alone. We’re entering the era of the normcore boyfriend.

Just over two weeks ago, Issa Rae posted photos from her surprise south of France wedding to Louis Diame. He’s reportedly a businessman but even his LinkedIn page is private. While it’s not uncommon for celebrities to marry non-famous people — George Clooney met his wife Amal (a human rights lawyer) at a dinner party and Meryl Streep married a sculptor, Don Gummer — more and more ‘it girls’ opting for a partner who’s offline seems to speak to a larger revolt against social media relationships and, perhaps, our nostalgic longing for simpler times.

Psychotherapist Rachel Wright, who’s based in New York, says this may be due to the impact social media has had on all of our relationships — romantic or otherwise. “When we're looking through the lens of relationship issues that come from heavy social media use, I've seen everything from big news being shared on social media first — and the partner feels hurt by this — to someone being upset because photos of them they didn't consent to be posted, were posted,” she explains.

Rachel says the pandemic might also have something to do with the shift. “I don’t think we’ll ever not have power couples, but I do think that one of the effects of Covid was deep personal reflections on how we spend our time and the relationships in our lives,” she tells i-D. “It seems that many people enjoyed the solitude and privacy that the quarantine and stay-at-home orders provided — an unexpected silver lining of this horrific pandemic.”

28-year-old Lorna Denholm went from dating someone who was “big on TikTok” to someone with “zero photos of himself”, something she says she finds “way more attractive”. “The main difference with this new guy is that I can actually talk about myself and he can ask questions and I genuinely know he hasn’t just seen it on my story earlier in the day.” This feeling is shared by 25-year-old Lauren Ferreira, who lives in New York, and says that if she meets a man with over one thousand followers she “doesn’t want him”. “I just feel like [dating someone offline] takes away the inevitable drama that social media often brings to a relationship,” she says.

For Paris-based Meme Meng, finding an offline partner is like meeting the “cool guy in school who doesn’t seem to care about popularity”. “Being gay, we are all very aware of how sexually driven online culture is, so many of my friends and I have experienced other gay people liking photos and sending story replies to our partners,” Meme says. “I think because we all secretly wish we could live off-grid, seeing someone who can means they’re doing something we can't, which makes them more desirable.”

The search for an offline partner is also increasingly (and ironically) being shared online. Girls on TikTok are openly discussing their attraction to men with little social media presence and their desire to be the only girl he follows on Instagram. “It must be said: support mixed-clout relationships,” wrote one Twitter user. While some may feel this way because of their own desire to be offline, for many, it’s also a result of insecurities around cyber-cheating (which was, unsurprisingly, on the rise last year as a result of the pandemic).

“I think a lot of people have sadly been hurt through social media,” Dr. Lexx Brown-James, a sex therapist based in Pennsylvania told i-D. She says she has seen countless relationships impacted by social media, often over boundaries being crossed. “I also, sadly, think there is the idea that if a potential partner is offline there is a belief (although false) that there is less risk of boundaries being violated or insecurities being triggered.”

Lexx says having a potential partner who’s offline doesn’t guarantee relationship security. This means that, despite what Bella and Marc might have you believe, finding someone who’s offline won’t ever automatically solve your relationship issues or insecurities. She does, however, hope that people are looking for partners who are offline so that they “have less worldly distractions from their potential lovership”.

“Sometimes people get so caught up in their social media posting or branding that they miss the moments that really matter and the connection that can further a lovership,” she says. “Dating a potential partner who is offline can nip some of that. The great thing is, whether social media is involved or not, when a potential lover wants to be with you, they let you know in word and action.”

There’s no denying the often negative impact that social media can have on romantic relationships, but for many, it serves as an important vetting process. “It’s less about being attractive or unattractive and more about safety as a queer non-binary person,” says 22-year-old Gabriella Etoniru. “Someone being completely MIA on the internet is a little bit of a red flag, depending on how I met them. For example, if I meet someone in a cafe but I can’t find them anywhere on the internet, I’m going to be put off.”

While the internet may be simping over normcore boyfriends, the reality is that (like the power couple) social media isn’t going anywhere. How you navigate dating in amongst it is entirely up to you. “In the words of sexologist Shamyra Howard: ‘Be your own couple's goals’,” says Dr. Lexx. “I think people will always idealize true and caring relationships but people now are redefining their power couple for themselves and it's beautiful to witness.”

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