Why does Gen-Z prefer soft-launching their relationships?


As summer comes to a close, be prepared to see a wave of soft launches on your social media feeds.

“Soft launch September” was dubbed by The Cut back in 2021 as the natural precursor to “cuffing season,” defined as the period between fall and winter when lonely singletons get “cuffed” or “tied down” by a serious relationship or at least a relationship long enough to last the cold weather. But unlike cuffing season, the soft launch trend is specific to social media, as summer flings take things to the next level by hinting at their relationship on their platform of choice.

The term “soft launch” initially went viral thanks to a since-deleted tweet from Bottoms actor Rachel Sennott. In 2020, she aptly described the social media trend when she wrote: “Congrats on the Instagram soft launch of ur boyfriend (pic on story, elbow and side profile only).”

Although the term is more widely used among online circles, it has slowly made its way into the pop culture vernacular. The slang term refers to the common practice of gradually introducing a new significant other to one’s social media following, originating from a marketing practice in which they tease a new product to drum up interest and excitement. From a carefully choreographed snap of a pair of significantly manlier hands diving into a romantic meal or a picture of your significant other’s literal shadow beside your own, a soft launch can come in many forms, but the number one rule is you never show their face.

Whether you have used the term or not, you’ve likely soft launched someone at one point or another, but the reasons why someone might choose to soft launch can make or break a relationship.

Susan Winter, a relationship expert and the bestselling author of Older Women/Younger Men, tells The Independent that the practice of soft launching “tests the waters of this new romance, as well as the reaction from our friends and family”.

Dating can be an emotional minefield and people can easily get hurt if they jump the gun. “It’s prudent to be cautious in today’s world of modern dating,” the New York City-based relationship expert says. “The partner that acts oh so into us today, can just as easily ghost us tomorrow.”

That’s why Winter stressed that it’s “wise to proceed with optimism and restraint” in a new relationship, because “a romance that begins too hot too fast can burn out just as quickly”.

Hurt from past relationships can widely inform just how public people choose to take their next romance, and many Gen-Zers find themselves apprehensive out of fear. Concerns stem from a belief that posting someone too early in the relationship could spell disaster, and scrubbing an ex from your social media can oftentimes be a painstaking process.

Austin-based production coordinator Chloe McKenna remarked to The Independent that soft launching can be “an easy way out if [the relationship] goes south,” while Casey Siefert - a restaurant host in Portland, Oregon - said it’s easier to end “a relationship that never existed” on social media if you decide to soft launch.

However, some people prefer to “hard launch” their relationships, choosing to fully post photos of the person they’re dating - face visible and all. They may even go so far as to caption their posts “hard launch,” as Lizzo did when she announced her relationship with boyfriend Myke Wright earlier this year. Hard-launching is like the digital version of wearing your heart on your sleeve, but being that vulnerable online isn’t for everyone.

In May, dating app juggernaut Tinder revealed that soft-launching is far more popular among its Gen-Z and Millennial users. According to Mashable, data suggested that one in four, or 26 per cent, of 18 to 34 year olds would rather soft launch their new significant other, while only eight per cent would commit to a hard launch.

Because there’s so much uncertainty that comes with dating in a digital age, many people have decided to keep their relationships offline. For ballerina Olivia Starling, who often finds herself torn between hard launching a new significant other on social media and “not posting about [them] until there’s a ring,” soft-launching is a happy medium. As someone who has “moved around a lot for work” and is often in long-distance relationships, the Miami-based dancer told The Independent that she finds soft launching can be a way to not only “reduce strain and pressure on the relationship,” but also reassure her significant other.

According to Starling, there’s also the added perk of being more present in the moment. By posting only glimpses of her current relationship on social media, Starling can keep their romance more sacred. “I love our cooking time, wine nights, and chill nights in. I never feel the need to whip my phone out and document it publicly,” she said.

By easing your nascent relationship onto social media, it can be healthier for your relationship in the long run. According to a 2021 study, psychologists linked increased activity on Instagram with a decrease in relationship satisfaction.

Publicising relationships on social media can not only put undue pressure on them, but also make the relationship vulnerable and subject to scrutiny, especially in relationships between celebrities. Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly hard-launched their relationship with a music video for his single “Bloody Valentine” a mere two months after meeting on the set of Midnight in the Switchgrass. They’ve since become a frequent tabloid fixture and courted controversy, with many of their intense declarations of love, like proclaiming they drank each other’s blood, maligned by the public and turned into a pop-culture punchline.

In May 2018, Ariana Grande famously hard-launched Pete Davidson after less than a month of seeing each other and only a month after her break up with the late rapper Mac Miller, who she had dated for two years. After they became engaged in June of that year, the couple was subject to frequent online criticism and ridicule that ultimately pushed Davidson to remove all his photos on Instagram and let his account go dark that July. In an Instagram Story at the time, he wrote of his decision, explaining: “The internet is an evil place and it doesn’t make me feel good.” At the time, Grande turned off the comments on her account as well, and has since exercised caution when introducing new relationships to her fans.

Fear of public backlash is especially prevalent in queer relationships, according to Madeleine Ciano, a television program coordinator who identifies as bisexual. It’s hard enough with societal pressures, but the added layer of homophobia and bigotry raises the stakes, according to Ciano, especially when it calls your safety into question. Ciano explained that she didn’t hard launch her girlfriend, knowing that she would “open [herself] up to a lot of vitriol” on social media.

“People comment horrible things… people go out of their way to find and target social media accounts of people who happen to be queer,” Ciano explained, acknowledging that the potential backlash scared her. But after soft-launching her girlfriend, she said that she was able to “weed out” those who were nasty and unsupportive. She said that with a soft launch, you can “see what kind of initial response you get and know whether the reaction will be fine, or too much to handle”.

In an increasingly digital world and a decrease in privacy, it can be hard to figure out how much you want share online, that is, if you want to share anything at all. Although regular people are not beholden to a fanbase like a celebrity might be, the pressure to go public can still be overwhelming.

By soft-launching, you’re essentially putting training wheels on your relationship. Conversations concerning privacy and past hurts can be given their due dilligence, and explored between you and your significant other without external pressure. But at the same time, you are indicating to others - whether it be with a faceless elbow or a cinematic silhouette- that when you take the next step, it’ll be when you’re finally ready.