In the dating world there's a looming presence that haunts us all: Ghosting. I've watched friends get ghosted, been ghosted on and I've even been the ghost many times. But I decided to stop. Not just because I realised how impolite I was being, but because I also saw that vanishing into the ether was actually a disservice to myself.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
What Ghosting Is
There are a few definitions of ghosting floating around out there, but I'm strictly speaking of it in the dating sense. If you're not familiar with the practice, it's the process of cutting off all communication with someone and ignoring their attempts to reconnect. It's like flaking, but you don't offer any explanation or even try making a lame excuse. Here's a very basic example:
Person 1: It was great to see you last night :) We should do it again next week.
Person 2: You too! Yeah, definitely :)
A few days later…
Person 1: Hey! So I'm free Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday this week? You? I was thinking we grab dinner if you're interested!
No response, forever and ever, amen.
It's become a common practice these days, especially if you've ventured into online dating. I'm not proud of the times I've done it — maybe you've done it too and feel the same — but I knew I wanted to try and fix it.
Why People Ghost
There are a lot of reasons people ghost. Some of them are perfectly understandable, like women who are afraid that saying they're not interested will ignite an explosion of douchebaggery or endanger their lives. It's often their best option in a messed up situation in a messed up world. But some reasons are a bit more shallow. Maybe we're afraid to disappoint and feel guilty. Maybe we don't like conflict and avoid it at all costs. Or maybe, as Vanessa Marin, licensed marriage and family therapist and Lifehacker contributor, suggests, it's that we're uncomfortable being vulnerable:
We ghost because we're too uncomfortable with being open and honest about our feelings. There are lots of different shades of ghosting. Sometimes people are just being rude and thoughtless. But a lot of people think that ghosting is a kinder option than honesty. They think it's easier to slip away into the night instead of saying to someone, "I don't think we're a good fit."
That's why I did it. That and the fact that it took zero effort and other people did it to me. Our relationship with technology and social media is a big piece in the puzzle; the distance it offers empowers ghosting. As Anna Sale, the host of the podcast Death, Sex & Money explains, avoidance is now more possible than ever:
As people have gotten less and less comfortable talking face to face about hard things, it's become easier to move on, let time pass and forget to tell the person you're breaking up with them.
I assumed silence was a clear enough hint — one where nobody would get hurt — so I didn't feel the need to say anything. Silence, ghosting, is easy. But I started to realise that what was easy for me in the moment could be confusing and difficult for others, and there were lasting, unseen negative effects for me.
How Ghosting Haunts the Victims
When somebody ghosts you, you're often left confused, disappointed and searching for answers in a whirlwind of uncertainty. You might even start diving into your deepest insecurities, latching onto things you think make you unlovable. A ghost sidesteps conflict and confrontation, but it's passed onto the victim. Suddenly you're at conflict with yourself, wondering what you did wrong.
Additionally, the silent treatment creates what Jennice Vilhauer PhD at Psychology Today calls "the ultimate scenario of ambiguity". You have zero social cues to go on, so you don't know if you should be worried about the person (are they hurt?), upset at the person (are they really that rude?), upset at yourself (did I screw the pooch again?) or if they're just so busy they haven't had a chance to text you back for a week and a half (it's fine, everything's fine). If you've ever been in that position, you know how maddening it can be.
"I need to feel something, but I don't know what, so I'll just feel EVERYTHING!"
In a recent study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, researchers found that ghosting, or "avoidance", was one of the worst ways to handle ending a relationship. It led to the most anger, hurt and rejection for those on the receiving end. Those who were dumped with open confrontation, however, were less angry and hurt. I came to realise that I wasn't helping anyone by dropping all contact. In fact, I was probably making them feel worse. Most people deserve an explanation, or at the very least, closure.
Having been on the receiving end of ghosting, I can also say that it hardens you when it comes to the possibility of future relationships. You stop letting yourself be vulnerable because you get jaded and expect it to happen again and again. The blast shields stay up and everyone you chat with and meet is just another potential ghost. And you can't really let yourself open up and fall in love with a ghost — unless it's, like, Patrick Swayze.
How Ghosting Haunts the Ghosts
Ghosting was easy for me in the moment, but I wasn't doing myself any favours in the long run. Confrontation and conflict might give me anxiety, but the more I backed down from it, the more I wanted to avoid facing other issues. Think about it. Eventually you will have to deal with something — like issues in a relationship you actually want — and you want to be ready for it. But you won't be mentally prepared if all you know how to do is run.
If you have trouble being open and honest, ghosting only entrenches you in that state of mind. If you can't share your honest feelings through a text message or phone call, how are you supposed to share them with someone in person? Vulnerability is a good thing, especially when it comes to forming healthy relationships.
And the more you ghost the more you become desensitised to it, suggests Vilhauer. What seemed like an easy way out of confrontation became my only way out. Instead of dealing with social consequences, I simply avoided them. Over time, I realised that I was jading myself by ghosting just as much as I was being jaded by others ghosting me. I wasn't making things easier, I was unknowingly shifting my perspective to a robotic, unauthentic mindset. I wasn't being myself.
How I Stopped Ghosting
As simple as it sounds, I just practised empathy and put myself in other people's shoes. I thought about what I would want if the situation was reversed and made a conscious effort to lay it all out — the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I found that being honest isn't always easy, or comfortable, but it still feels right.
Ghosting has become an accepted drawback of the modern dating scene, but it doesn't have to be. Just say something, anything. You don't have to vanish into the ether. There's no need for a novel or explanatory speech either. Something as simple as a text that says, "I don't think this is going to work out. [insert optional reason here]. It was nice to meet you, though! Take care," will help both of you.
That said, I realise it's much easier for me to make that step as a man. As Marin points out, it's perfectly acceptable to ignore people that are too persistent or intimidating. No matter what, you should never have to deal with people who are mean, rude or too aggressive. If you genuinely don't feel safe saying "no thanks" to someone, get your ghost on. Shit, get your "block all communication" on. And you should always take some precautions and use a burner number for your dating ventures, look people up online before you meet up with them in person, know what's fake and what's not and know the red flags you should be keeping an eye out for. Attempting to be honest and upfront with people should never mean putting up with arseholes or putting yourself in danger.