Ghosting isn’t new: People have been disappearing on friends and lovers for ages. But it has never been so easy or so common as it is today. The ubiquity of dating apps, social media and messaging platforms have enabled people to vanish at the touch of a button. Consequently, ghosting has become increasingly normalized, a fact that The Washington Post describes as “completely bonkers.” What kind of person ghosts another? What are the mental health implications? And what does ghosting say about the hyper-technological, constant-contact world in which we live? 

Merriam-Webster traces the verb “ghost,” meaning “to leave suddenly and without saying goodbye,” to 2004. Two years later, “ghosting” showed up in the Urban Dictionary, though it wasn’t for another decade that the word became more widely used, due in part to media reports of a series of high-profile celebrity breakups. In 2015, the Collins English Dictionary listed “ghosting” as one of its “words of the year”; shortly before Merriam-Webster made it an official entry in the dictionary, defined as “the act or practice of abruptly cutting off all contact with someone (such as a former romantic partner) usually without explanation by no longer accepting or responding to phone calls, instant messages, etc.” 

The literature of academic psychology offers a range of definitions. Some researchers define ghosting as the sudden termination of contact, while others say it could unfold gradually. This can happen in both short- and long-term relationships, but it’s much more common in the early days of dating. A few definitions foreground the idea that ghosting is mediated by technology, and there is debate about whether it can be temporary or must necessarily be permanent. Most accounts emphasize the lack of any explanation from the ghoster, though in some cases an explanation might eventually be provided. In still other cases, participants of studies “reported episodes where they received an explanation, a forewarning or an excuse” from the ghoster, but claimed that “this did not make the episode ‘less ghosting’” because the explanation was deemed “incomprehensible, false or inexhaustive.”

By unilaterally severing all communication, the ghoster traps the ghostee in a state of lingering uncertainty and confusion, making it extremely hard to move on from the experience.

Central to virtually all conceptions of ghosting is its denial of closure for the ghostee. As the psychologist Jennice Vilhauer writes, it “essentially renders you powerless and leaves you with no opportunity to ask questions or be provided with information that would help you emotionally process the experience.” By unilaterally severing all communication, the ghoster traps the ghostee in a state of lingering uncertainty and confusion, making it extremely hard to move on from the experience.

For those most sensitive to the need for closure, ghosting can have severe repercussions for mental health, causing victims to “fixate on understanding why the initiator has gone quiet.” Some people even report feeling the need for closure many years after being ghosted, with one person telling psychologists:

I even reached out to him again years later and asked for an explanation for some closure and he still wouldn’t tell me why he did it. It made it so much harder to move on because I didn’t know the reason. Even today it still bugs me that I don’t know why he ghosted me.

As another commentator put it, ghosting “takes away the opportunity to talk and process, which can allow healing.” Why did the ghoster leave so suddenly? What was going through their mind? Why didn’t I anticipate this happening? How could I have judged their character so poorly? I thought they liked — maybe even loved — me, so how could this have transpired?

The inability to query the ghoster, answer these questions and heal the wounds of ghosting can arouse feelings of insecurity and “mistrust that [develop] over time,” with some inadvertently bringing “this mistrust to future relationships” in ways that could “sabotage those subsequent relationships.” If one cannot understand the “why” or “how” of being ghosted, they may begin to wonder who else in their platonic or romantic circles is capable of suddenly vanishing. Everyone becomes a suspect before another crime has been committed, seriously undermining one’s ability to foster and sustain intimate relations moving forward. To quote one ghostee I interviewed, “I don’t think you can ever go back to that world before you knew someone you trust could be capable of something like this.” Ghosting causes damage that often cannot be undone.

People ghost for a variety of reasons, some of which are justifiable. For example, if one discovers that a new partner is married, living a double life or trying to catfish them. Women, in particular, may encounter men on the dating scene who exhibit creepy, obsessive or harassing behaviors. Preliminary studies suggest that more women ghost men than the other way around; another found that almost half of the study’s participants, which were mostly women, “ghosted due to safety-related concerns.” As an anonymous 19-year-old woman observes, “It’s very easy to just chat with total strangers so [ghosting is] like a form of protection when a creepy guy is asking you to send nudes and stuff like that.” Ghosting is sometimes the only way one can safely escape an abusive relationship or dangerous situation.

Ghosting might also be the result of communication overload. Sometimes people receive too many messages to respond to everyone, in which case, ghosting, especially if temporary, may be an understandable consequence of feeling overwhelmed. It could even be a warning sign that someone is dealing with a mental health crisis or has relapsed with drugs or alcohol.

However, this is not why most people ghost. The primary reason is that they lose interest in the other person and no longer want that person in their life. According to a 2019 BuzzFeed survey that describes ghosting as a “crummy dating behavior,” 81% of respondents said they ghosted because “I wasn’t into them.”

This sort of ghosting is more or less unanimously singled-out by experts as “the most hurtful way to end a relationship.” Psychologists characterize it as among the least compassionate and empathetic strategies for dissolving social relations, since “the ghoster is concerned only about him/herself, without considering the partner.” Many classify it as a kind of “emotional cruelty” and “emotional abuse” — claims that appear frequently within the academic literature on ghosting — while others call it the “ultimate silent treatment,” where the “silent treatment” itself constitutes “a form of abuse” by virtue of being manipulative and controlling. Ghosting is the worst manifestation of this.

One study found that victims of ghosting are left “lonelier, sadder, less happy and less proud,” while another list identifies low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, trauma and loneliness as potential consequences.

Some psychologists write that ghosting is “passive aggressive” and “callous in that it is done with selfish and unempathetic intent.” Still others conceptualize it as a particularly harsh kind of “ostracism,” which denotes “an extreme form of rejection in which one is excluded and ignored.” Studies show that ostracism “threatens fundamental needs, such as belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence and can, consequently, increase loneliness, depressed mood, frustration, anxiety and helplessness.” As one ghostee says, “Ghosting is one of the cruelest forms of torture dating can serve up.”

Given the selfish and callous nature of ghosting, it should be unsurprising that “being ghosted by romantic partners often causes intense psychological harms.” One study found that victims of ghosting are left “lonelier, sadder, less happy and less proud,” while another list identifies low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, trauma and loneliness as potential consequences. These experiences “can be devastating,” writes Vilhauer, especially “to those who already have fragile self-esteem.” They can also be persistent, negatively impacting one’s quality of life for months or years after the ghosting occurs. According to one study, 44% of participants who had been ghosted “reported that it had long-term effects on their mental health,” including lowered self-esteem, distrust in other people and “the world” in general, and even, panic attacks. 

“Long-term effects show that the ghosted person will have an increasingly difficult time trusting others and may develop self-blame, insecurities and low self-worth,” notes a clinical psychologist. Ghosting is thus a kind of bloodless violence, one that can leave permanent scars on the psyche of its victims.

One reason that ghosting can harm so profoundly is that it can feel, to the ghostee, like the ghoster has abruptly died. That is to say, the phenomenology — or subjective experience — of being ghosted may be more or less indistinguishable from one’s partner or friend being struck down by a deadly heart attack, stroke or car accident that no one saw coming. Such feelings of sudden, catastrophic loss may be more pronounced the longer and more intimate the relationship was.

Imagine a hypothetical situation in which you’ve been with someone for many years, during much of which you lived together. Then, your partner takes a job in a different city, and the long-term relationship becomes long-distance. This is important because technology-mediated relationships are much easier to terminate via ghosting than in-person ones. You then come down with a serious illness and, after reaching out to your partner for love and support, they respond by unexpectedly cutting off all communication overnight. They do not want to deal with someone who’s struggling, and hence decide to simply delete you from their life. Though this may sound extreme, it’s an experience that more than a few people have been through. Sometimes people aren’t there for each other, and sometimes this takes the form of abandonment-by-ghosting.

One way of treating victims of ghosting might be to utilize the same methods and approaches that psychologists use to help those dealing with the death of a friend or partner.

What would this feel like for the ghostee? What’s the phenomenology of being ghosted in this situation? Is there any experiential difference between your partner suddenly removing you from their world and your partner being removed from the world by abruptly dying? As one study of ghosting observes, “the sudden disappearance of the [ghoster] can be compared (to some extent) to that experienced with the sudden death of a partner or friend, which seems to increase the difficulties of the mourning process.” The therapist Bree Jenkins echoes this in saying that ghosting is “almost like sudden loss [or] grief,” as does the author Shani Silver in an article for Medium: “We gave it the name ‘ghosting’ because it mimics the behavior of someone dying. That’s how quick, confusing and permanent ghosting feels [and it’s] morbid.”

In fact, the noun “ghost” derives from gast, an Old English word meaning “the disembodied spirit of a dead person,” which may have been “imagined as wandering among the living or haunting them.” Morbid, indeed — and spooky.

One way of treating victims of ghosting might, therefore, be to utilize the same methods and approaches that psychologists use to help those dealing with the death of a friend or partner. As a document published by the University of Idaho notes, “the most overwhelming and common reaction to a sudden death is shock and uncertainty,” causing one to feel “disconnected to your feelings or to other people; it can seem as if you are living in a dream.” It adds that “the initial news and stages of grief are often characterized by disbelief,” which “can be accompanied by feelings of numbness or a belief that the person is still present.” This is precisely how some ghostees describe their experiences, especially those who were in longer-term relationships: shock, uncertainty, disbelief and numbness, paired with overwhelming grief, sadness and confusion — not to mention the profound loneliness of now occupying a world in which the loved one no longer “exists.”

Yet ghosting is, in a certain sense, even worse, because the ghoster wasn’t the unsuspecting victim of circumstances beyond their control. They made a deliberate and intentional decision to unilaterally terminate all communication, thus giving rise to the phenomenology of sudden death. Hence, ghosting is more than an event, it’s a message: You, the ghostee, don’t deserve closure. You aren’t worthy of understanding why or receiving an explanation of how. You are something to be discarded when I, the ghoster, no longer need you.

Ghosting, in effect, denies the ghostee their inherent dignity by treating them like a disposable “thing” rather than a human being who, by virtue of their inherent dignity, demands a certain degree of moral respect. One person who I spoke with about being ghosted told me that, after it happened, they couldn’t stop thinking: “I didn’t know that was humanly possible.” Yet in a very important sense ghosting isn’t humanly possible, because it’s a deeply inhuman act. We may treat a piece of trash as if it has no dignity — because it doesn’t, which is why no one thinks twice when discarding it into the waste bin. But we generally don’t treat human beings like this. Ghosting someone is thus tantamount to telling them: “I think of you as if you’re a piece a trash.” That’s the core message it conveys. To quote a Psychology Today article,

for many people, ghosting can result in feelings of being disrespected, used and disposable. If you have known the person beyond more than a few dates then it can be even more traumatic. When someone we love and trust disengages from us it feels like a very deep betrayal.

Ghostees are thus struck by a double trauma. They must cope with the grief of losing someone they loved or cared about, as well as the demeaning message that, in the eyes of the ghoster, they lack the dignity necessary to be treated with respect, as all humans ought to be. In this way, it is a profoundly dehumanizing experience. Ghosting strips people of their essential humanness, their dignity, treating them as mere “things” that can be discarded when the ghoster no longer finds them convenient or useful.

It should be unsurprising at this point that, given how cruel and abusive ghosting often is, many ghosters exhibit appreciable deficits in compassion, empathy and emotional maturity. Some ghosters are just plain immature, because part of what it means to be emotionally mature is to care about and be sensitive to how one’s actions affect others. With maturity comes empathy, and with empathy comes behaviors that treat others with dignity and kindness. Others argue that people “with narcissistic tendencies may be more likely to unexpectedly end contact with a partner,” and that “the narcissist might use ghosting to punish, control or disorient the other person, often leaving them feeling confused, hurt and seeking closure or understanding.” One academic paper reports that “those who ghost … are more likely to exhibit self-centered, avoidant and manipulative personality characteristics and behaviors.”

Another study found that ghosters who score high in “Dark Triad” traits like narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy tended to see ghosting as a more acceptable way to terminate short-term relationships.

Yet another study found that ghosters who score high in “Dark Triad” traits like narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy tended to see ghosting as a more acceptable way to terminate short-term relationships, and that those who had ghosted people in the past “were more Machiavellian and psychopathic.” The study concludes that ghosting is “an emotionally cold, if not abusive, way of terminating relationships,” and hence “those who are characterized by dispositional callousness, like those high in psychopathy, may engage in ghosting” more than those who aren’t psychopaths.

Despite the self-serving nature of ghosting, it can also harm the one who does it. According to one study, many ghosters “admitted that although ghosting was the wrong way to handle the situation, it felt easier than having an awkward, difficult conversation”— the sort of conversation that emotionally mature people don’t try to avoid. Yet feelings of guilt can develop over time, with another article reporting that “some people who have ghosted others may eventually regret their actions,” because “as people mature and gain life experience, they might reflect on their actions and realize that they hurt the other person by ghosting.”

Ghosting could also inhibit the personal growth of ghosters, denying them the opportunity to foster better communication skills and a deeper sense of compassion for others. “Many of those who have ghosted,” a New York Times article explains, “are contrite, citing their own fear, insecurity and immaturity” as reasons for having ghosted people. Choosing to end a relationship through more humane means — for example, by keeping communication channels open to allow ghostees some degree of closure — might provide opportunities to address these fears and insecurities, thereby promoting greater emotional development.

Most people don’t have a positive view about ghosting. As one study notes, it’s “generally perceived to be less acceptable than other methods of ending a relationship.” Another found that participants identified ghosters as “rude,” “mean,” “stand-offish,” “cowardly” and “immature.” To quote David Peña-Guzmán on the Overthink podcast, “in general, there is widespread agreement that ghosting is unethical.”

Unfortunately, while most people “don’t condone ghosting, that doesn’t seem to influence whether they’ll do it to someone else.” Many ghostees are also ghosters, and in fact being ghosted could increase the probability that one ghosts later on. In Vilhauer’s words, “the more it happens, either to themselves or their friends, the more people become desensitized to it and the more likely they are to do it to someone else.” The result is a self-perpetuating cycle — abuse, trauma, desensitization and more abuse — that may explain why ghosting is on the rise. 

“Years ago this kind of behavior was considered limited to a certain type of scoundrel,” writes Vilhauer. But “in today’s dating culture being ghosted is a phenomenon that approximately 50% of men and women have experienced — and an almost equal number have done the ghosting.”

This might be unsurprising given that young people use social media and dating apps more than other demographics, and ghosting someone by unfriending, blocking or deleting them in cyberspace requires only the flick of a finger. One wonders if this is linked to the fact that members of Generation Z are “significantly more likely than any other generation to say they experience” feeling “alone, isolated, left out, that there is no one they can talk to.”

So, what can be done about ghosting? How can we counteract this form of emotional cruelty and abuse that’s becoming increasingly widespread? My guess is that ghosting is a symptom of deeper problems. In my experience on the dating scene and interacting with ghostees, many people embrace a “transactional model” of relationships, in which people see others as means rather than ends, as commodities that can be discarded and replaced when necessary. The fundamental value of others is based on their usefulness, and decisions about whether to pursue or dump someone is ultimately determined through a kind of cost-benefit analysis. People “invest” in romantic partners on the relationship “market,” and when the “return” dips below the “losses,” it’s just economically rational to dispose of those partners and move on.

Networking, whereby we cultivate superficial social connections to further our career ambitions, is one expression of this way of thinking. Dating apps are another, because they render the process of finding a partner analogous to browsing the shelves of a convenience store: if someone doesn’t suit your fancy, you leave them on the shelf. If they do, you put them in your basket and hope they do the same.

We’re all just replaceable “things” in a late-capitalist society where everything is being commodified and consumable.

Ghosting could be seen as the logical end of this pernicious paradigm: if people are selected like items from a shelf, why not discard them like trash once they’re no longer useful? We’re all just replaceable “things” in a late-capitalist society where everything is being commodified and consumable. The inhumanity of ghosting thus reflects the underlying inhumanity of this system. Ghosters are just doing what good capitalists do, except within the domain of interpersonal relations: maximize the bottom line of personal gain without letting empathy, compassion, or kindness get too much in the way. If a partner must be “fired” because their “performance” is inadequate, then so be it. Nothing personal, it’s just business.

To be ghosted, then, is to be victimized by this system and the way it makes people think, interact with others, and run their lives. We should still place moral blame on ghosters for their callousness and cruelty, since ghosting is, after all, a deliberate choice that individuals make, and some ghosters really are just awful people. Furthermore, by willingly engaging in bad behavior, ghosters perpetuate and reinforce this toxic system, further normalizing actions that dehumanize the ghostee.

From a nearby perspective, however, the ghosters also deserve pity, as they are fellow victims of a system that encourages us to see each other, not as ends-in-ourselves with inherent dignity, but as more or less useful means for getting whatever we want. It’s precisely because ghosting is such an inhuman act that it dehumanizes not only the ghostee, but the ghoster. Ghosting is undignified for everyone involved.

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