This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “We Need to Talk about Ghosting.” To listen to this episode, click here.
Today we are going to explore the topic of ghosting: the unilateral cessation of contact. Ghosting is defined as, “the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.” Disappearing without a trace. Making a unilateral decision to end contact.
Ghosting can happen in any relationship. In this blog post, I will talk specifically about the dynamics of ghosting in the dating world, in intimate relationships, but much of what I’m going to talk about applies to friendships too. Today, we’ll:
- Contextualize ghosting in this current cultural zeitgeist as well as in this current dating climate.
- Explore why ghosting hurts.
- Identify coping strategies you can use if you’ve been ghosted.
- Build a tool box for what you can do when you’re feeling tempted to ghost.
What we are NOT talking about today are situations in which people NEED to ghost someone who is dangerous or abusive. Self-preservation is real!
Framing: Larger cultural context
Ghosting is not new, but I want to contextualize it. The American Psychological Association has noted a precipitous decrease in empathy among emerging adults. Research for example by Sar Konrath, published in 2010 in the Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that the average American college student in 2009 scored as less empathic than 75% of students in 1979, with the sharpest declines between 2000 and 2009. Note that this data is now 12 years old, so this cohort is now folks in their 30s, and I would suspect this trend of struggles with empathy continues for those who are coming up behind this cohort.
We could do a whole episode on why this is happening. An increase in use of technology could certainly contribute, as technology encourages focus on oneself and less face to face contact. Additionally, compromised social safety nets means people literally have to look out for themselves and their interests. I would speculate that the pandemic likely intensifies all of this.
Survival mode, which we have been for a very long time, activates the parts of our brain that are in charge of self-preservation, ensuring safety, shifting attention and energy away from so-called higher parts of the brain like the prefrontal cortex which is the seat of empathy, compassion, seeing the whole picture. And in the beginning of the pandemic, it was easier to ghost people because no one was seeing anyone in person. The New York Times coined the term “YOLO Economy,” which is based on the idea that “you only live once,” a phrase that millennials really embodied early during the pandemic. The thought here is that since we only have one life, we should only spend our limited time doing the things that bring us the most joy, and take risks getting to that point. Therefore, if you find someone on a dating app with whom you feel you have little chemistry, it is better to move on faster to find your match, so might as well ghost out of ease and efficiency. Because you only live once, you can just leave the people (and jobs) you don’t want/need in the dust.
But let’s be clear: the context is just context. This is not justification!
Framing: Specifically regarding dating
In the era of online dating, ghosting takes on a particular texture and tone. It is more likely to happen because of the sheer volume of contacts. People tend to have a higher number of potential connections open, so there are more opportunities to ghost/be ghosted. Dating apps fuel a low-accountability vibe that normalizes ghosting. Connection screen-to-screen versus in real life feels more tenuous, and less real. Ambiguously-defined relationship statuses are more common these days (the “talking” phase before DTR, seeing each other but not being “boyfriend/girlfriend”, situationships, just hooking up, friends with benefits, this list goes on). Casual relationships can work when all parties are on the same page, when there is adequate meta-communication about the relationship, and when the casual relationship is founded in respect and care. But when there’s a misalignment in expectations or investment or an implicit or explicit prohibition against communication, problems will likely arise. And the stage is set for ghosting.
The mindset that there’s always someone even hotter/smarter/more interesting than the person you’re currently talking to or dating, and they’re only a swipe away, may play into the low accountability dating culture. As my friend, Esther Perel, once said, “Historically, we have asked, ‘Am I happy here?’ and today we ask, ‘Could I be happier somewhere else?’”
Ghosting continues to become more painful due to several different reasons. First, screen-to-screen communication is more stark, so you can quite literally see an unanswered text staring at you. You can see the end of contact. Furthermore, many people have repeated ghosting experiences because the age of entry into marriage is much older than even 20 years ago. There are more years between sexual maturity and “I do,” which means there are more dating partners in between. When something happens once, it sucks. When something happens many times, we risk developing coping strategies like numbing out, hardening, or shutting down. And we risk making it about us!
Ghosting is common.
An actual scientific study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health from 2020 found that 13-23% of a sample of 18-40 year olds reported that they had been ghosted. A 2019 YouGov survey of U.S. adults found that 30% of them had ghosted a romantic partner or friend. This data indicates the same people who say they hate being ghosted are also sometimes guilty of ghosting.
I did some personal research on my Instagram account (disclaimer, this is not a scientific study). I received answers from a sample of 1,299 people (not a random sample, but still, a lot of people). Below are some of the questions I asked.
- Have you been ghosted?
- Yes = 81%
- No = 19%
- How long had you been dating that person before they ghosted you? Average answer = A little over 1-3 months.
Something important to note here is the timing. Being ghosted after sending messages back and forth for two weeks and getting ghosted is different than meeting up with someone for three months in-person and then getting ghosted. To be honest, I was shocked and upset that so many people had been ghosted after 1-3 months. I’ve surely seen this in my practice and in my life, but it hurts my heart.
I try hard to avoid the Suffering Olympics– comparing one set of painful experiences with another. However, an early relationship that hasn’t been defined has one set of pain points: the loss of a possible future, and confusion about why you felt more deeply connected than they did. A later relationship that has been defined, on the other hand, has another set of pain points: a sense of betrayal, “How could you do this to me?” and confusion, “Did I ever mean anything to you at all?” In this blog post, I will highlight themes that transcend both of these experiences, and in places highlight one context or the other.
Why Ghosting Hurts
I want to talk about four reasons that ghosting hurts so much.
Because of the Zeigarnik effect:
You gotta pull out your old Psych 101 textbook for this one! We are more likely to recall tasks that we didn’t have a chance to complete. Our brains (and hearts and souls) hate open tabs. Being ghosted is an open tab.
Because hurt hurts:
Our brains code emotional pain in remarkably similar ways as our brains code physical pain. Hurt hurts because it hurts.
Because it is an ambiguous loss:
Endings, whether through death or divorce or breakup, always evoke emotional pain, as they put us face-to-face with sadness, anger, and sometimes guilt. We use rituals to bind those strong emotions. People send flowers and bring us casseroles. There are touchstones that help us feel that we are neither the first nor the only to walk this path of grief.
But not all losses grant us the ability to use familiar markers to help guide our way. That’s why Dr. Pauline Boss coined the expression, “ambiguous loss.” Ambiguous losses are those losses that leave us lacking closure. They exist outside of ritual and linearity, and our healing can be compromised because of ambiguity and uncertainty. There are two types of ambiguous loss.
- TYPE 1: Physically Present but Psychologically Absent.
This type of ambiguous loss can include a loved one with dementia, a child with special needs, especially the kind that involves a loss of prior skills, a loved one with a traumatic brain injury, a loved one with untreated substance abuse or mental health problems, divorce or separation, or a loved one who has been a victim of crime and is traumatized. The main feature of Type 1: You’re still here, but you aren’t you. I need to therefore reorganize who you have been to me and who we are to each other.
- TYPE 2: Physically Absent but Psychologically Present.
This type of ambiguous loss can include giving a baby up for adoption, a miscarriage, migration (especially that which is sudden or forced), losing someone in a plane crash or other situation where the body isn’t recoverable, a loved one who is kidnapped or disappears, and finally, ghosting or a unilateral breakup. The main feature of Type 2: You are gone, but I don’t have closure. Therefore you feel very much alive inside of me.
Ambiguous losses are more painful than non-ambiguous losses. Pauline Boss defines ambiguous loss as, “You are physically gone but alive in my mind and heart” (or vice versa). When you are ghosted, your person has disappeared but the lack of explanation, communication, or closure leaves them feeling very present. I wanted to introduce this idea to you to validate confusion and that lingering knot of emotion you may feel if you’re living with an ambiguous loss.
Because grief is synergistic:
Loss awakens all prior losses. Yes, breakups are always messy. Yes, closure is always an imperfect process. But, someone disappearing without a trace is next level. There are distinct features. What I want to validate is that it’s painful, not because you are weak, needy, clingy, or silly, but because of the Zeigarnik effect, because of your wise but pain-in-the-ass brain, because it is an ambiguous loss, and because being ghosted is going to awaken prior experiences of loss.
If you have been ghosted, please promise yourself (and me) that you will resist the urge to make it about you!!!! Ghosting says a lot about the ghoster and little to nothing about the ghostee. It’s so easy to attach a story to the fact of being ghosted: “It’s because I’m really X… not enough Y… entirely too Z.” Nope. Drop the story. You were ghosted because that person lacked the skill to turn toward you with their truth. Don’t take on shit that doesn’t belong to you. Here are some things not to do and some things you can do.
Do not do a single thing to shrink/minimize your pain. This includes saying any/all of the following: “It was only 1 month.,” “I should have seen this coming,” or “My brother didn’t like him anyway.” Let the feelings be just what they are. Feelings have a time stamp. They have a rise and fall, and ebb and flow. They won’t last forever, but they will hang around longer if you don’t honor them. Constriction of emotion creates stuckness.
Do not do a single thing to make this your fault. This includes saying any/all of the following: “This always happens to me,” “If I was thinner/sexier/funnier/chiller, it wouldn’t have happened,” or “I had it coming.” You were ghosted because that person lacks the skills necessary to co-create an ending. Period. It doesn’t mean they are a terrible person. It means they bumped up against a relational roadblock, a skill deficit, and you’re the collateral damage.
Do seek support! Who can be in your corner? Who can host a pity party for you? Even if just for a little while. Visit the party, don’t move in! Who can remind you of what you have to offer? Who can distract you?
Do give yourself a chance to catch your breath. There is an old adage that goes, “The best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.” We will do a whole episode about starting over, so for our purposes here, I just want to invite you to pause. Let this settle. This does not mean tapping out of the dating world forever.
One final coping strategy that is not so clear cut is this: the idea of reaching out to the person who ghosted you. The decision to reach out is highly personal and depends so much on the context. What I know for sure is that I want you to check in about your motivation first. Perhaps you are wanting to reach out from a place of lack, In other words, if you feel like you need them to tell you that you are a good person, pause. Ask yourself, “How else might I receive that affirmation?” “How might I be able to nourish myself?” “Why am I giving someone who has shown this behavior the power to define me?”
If you are wanting to reach out to teach them a lesson or to make sure they know how much they hurt you (i.e. revenge), here again, pause. There is no guarantee that you explaining how shitty that was will lead to them understanding and apologizing. Here the question I would invite you to ask yourself is, “Can I reach out to share my feedback without attachment to any particular outcome?” One very real outcome is that they may continue to ghost you. Your ability to heal and move on is not contingent on them recognizing that what they did was shady.
Here is an example for you. A former student of mine had been ghosted and she decided to reach out to him. She paused first and checked in about her motivation. Her motivation was a blend of emotions but the strongest aspect was a desire to spare a future woman from this pain. She wanted him to understand the impact in the hopes that he would take this as a learning opportunity. There was an element of altruism and activism for her. She reached out with no expectation of how he’d respond. She shared the impact that his ghosting had on her. He acknowledged it and said that he’d explore why he had done that and how he could keep from doing it again. Then she let go.
Before we move on, I want to share one more coping strategy: taking in the wisdom of the collective. I mentioned earlier that I had queried my Instagram audience about whether they had been ghosted. I also posted a sticker and asked people to share what they would want to say to someone who had been ghosted. We heard from 200 people from around the world. My team and I did an informal qualitative analysis. In other words, we grouped people’s responses in a thematic way. There were four main messages that the collective wanted to whisper into the ear of someone who is hurting:
- “It’s not about you! It’s them, not you.” 93 Responses
- “Don’t take it personally as much as you can. Trust me, it reflects them, not your worth.”
- “It speaks volumes about them and their cowardice and has no reflection on you.”
- “Ghosting speaks to who the ghoster is and where they are at in their healing journey.”
- “You deserve more, you are worthy, and be kind to yourself.” = 22 Responses
- “They don’t deserve you”
- “You are worthy of love and someone staying with you. And they didn’t know better.”
- “You dodged a bullet!” = 21 Responses
- “Gratefulness in learning their flight character sooner rather than later…”
- “You don’t want to be with someone that cannot communicate.”
- “They did you a favor by demonstrating they’re not mature enough to communicate.”
- “Rejection is a gift – it moves you closer to the right people / person.”
- Validating the Complexity of the Experience = 7 Responses
- “It’s okay to hold space for yourself to both miss them and feel deeply betrayed.”
- “I’m so sorry I know it hurts, but please don’t blame yourself as you grieve their actions. I’m with you.”
How to Build Your Toolbox to Prevent Yourself from Ghosting
Tool 1: Do not beat yourself up. We don’t do that here! Self-flagellation is not our pathway toward evolution! As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Tool 2: Self-reflection. What might fuel your ghosting behavior? Here are 5 possibilities:
- Discomfort with hurting or disappointing someone. By the way, this doesn’t make you weak, it makes you empathic. It makes sense that you don’t want to hurt or upset someone. Knowing your choice is hurting someone feels uncomfortable. The tough thing is that the cruelty of ghosting hurts more. And it conveys a lack of respect.
- Impression-management. This comes from a fear of seeming like a mean or cruel person in their eyes. This is one that I hear a lot about, especially from men. Clarity is not cruelty. This can be really hard if you grew up for example hearing stories from your mom about how cruel your dad was, or if you grew up in a home with a cruel father. Your effort to avoid being anything like him is valiant but there are so many shades of gray between cruelty and clarity.
- A history of conflict avoidance and people-pleasing. People opt for ghosting or a slow fade to avoid having to deal with the other person being upset.
- Low self-esteem that makes you believe that the other person won’t miss you anyways. (If that one lands like an “oof,” pause, hand on your heart, send yourself some love!!!). If that did or does happen, here’s the takeaway: that person has just taught you a lesson about where your boundaries are. From here on out forevermore, you do not need to share your time, space, sexy ass body with ANYONE who would ever tell you that “this” is something that doesn’t require closure. It’s what I call an FGO— a f*%#ing growth opportunity. Integrate the lesson and move along.
- Fear that you’ve misperceived the whole dang thing so if you “end it,” they will laugh and be like, “omg we aren’t and weren’t ever anything! There is nothing to end!” If you opt to end things directly with them and that is their response, wish them well. That is deeply unempathetic and reveals a struggle with vulnerability. (Not a great candidate for a strong, healthy intimate relationship anyway!)
I am sure there are so many more potential blocks. Journal or meditate on this question, “What keeps me from being able to close a loop with clarity and directness?”
Tool 3: If you’re aware you have an assertiveness skill deficit, start to notice little places where you can choose the more direct rather than less direct path: Ask your barista to remake your coffee rather than drink it. Call to raise an issue with a friend instead of texting. Tell family members you need some alone time after an event, or letting your friends know that you want to spend the night in by yourself (instead of making up a fake excuse that you have other plans). Even something as small as holding the door for a stranger or initiating a bit of small talk in line can help you feel more comfortable being seen and taking up space. Witnessing yourself being brave will help you grow.
Tool 4: If you are actively dating, it can be helpful to keep a note on your phone with language you can use when you’re in a position to close down a potential connection. The point here isn’t to have a canned response. The point is to stack the deck in your favor that you will choose a response you can feel good about instead of just disappearing. Here’s some sample language. Obviously figure out the words that feel most like you:
- “Thank you for a fun night, but I’m not interested.”
- “It was nice to meet you, but I am not feeling enough of a connection to meet up again.”
- “I enjoyed our time together, but I don’t see this progressing.”
Tool 5: If you have been seeing someone consistently, I’d recommend that you close the connection down with more than just a one or two line text. Remember that in the data from my Instagram community, most people had been ghosted at the 1 to 3 month mark. In those situations, I’d like you to consider meeting up to end the romantic connection or at least doing a facetime or a phone call. You do not need to spill out the entire contents of your soul, but ending with directness does two things at once. It helps the other person feel closure and begin to move on and helps them know it’s really over and they should not hold out hope. Additionally, it gives you the chance to experience yourself being brave and kind.
My best friend, Ali, talks about sharing the essential truth. People need to come up with what to say based on the specifics of: the nature/length of the relationship thus far, the reasons they can’t continue, etc, but these are some statements that might be helpful to incorporate. Here is some sample language that captures the essential truth:
- “I am working hard on myself right now and I am realizing that I am not in a good place to be in a relationship.”
- “I am not feeling invested enough in this connection, and it doesn’t feel good or right or fair to you.”
- “I am sorry. I don’t want to hurt you, but I also don’t want to stay in a situation in which I’m not seeing a future.”
- “I respect you as a person, and I wish you well.”
Dating is a crucible, rich with opportunities for growth and expansion. Show up as a student, treating your experiences as data not definers. If or when you’ve been ghosted, be careful not to confuse disappointment and shame. Remember that behind that other screen is a three dimensional human being with hopes and fears. Dating in the modern world needs to follow the Golden Rule: treat others the way you like to be treated… even when it makes your palms sweaty.