We’ve all been there, haven’t we? You go on a date with your latest Tinder match, or maybe the girl from your yoga class you’ve been crushing on. You grab coffee or drinks at an intimate little place, or at least as intimate as the city allows. The conversation is flowing, and it seems like you’re both feeling a lot of chemistry. After a few hours you part ways, planning to see each other again soon. Maybe you even share a quick kiss. You leave elated, already excited for the next date. There’s just one small problem. You never hear from this person again. No texts answered, no Facebook friend request accepted. It’s like they’ve vanished from the Earth. You, my friend, have been ghosted.
What is Ghosting?
Ghosting is a dating phenomenon that has become remarkably prevalent in our culture. The premise is that rather than saying you aren’t interested in someone, you suddenly stop communication. To the other person, it seems like you’ve vanished or died (hence the term ghosting). It’s a way of avoiding tough conversations with other people, and a way of excusing yourself from a potential relationship without things getting messy.
The magazine Elle ran a survey that found 47% of male identified respondents and 53% of female identified respondents had been ghosted at least once. A full 50% of both male and female respondents said that they had ghosted other people at least once. And, in a surprising statistic, 33% of male respondents and 26% of female respondents reported being both the victims and perpetrators of ghosting in a romantic relationship. As if these numbers weren’t high enough, a survey by the dating app Plenty of Fish found that 80% of Millennial respondents reported having been ghosted.
Clearly ghosting is a phenomenon that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. But what effects does it have on us as daters? What does ghosting do to us psychologically? And what about the ghoster
It’s an awful experience, as anyone who has been ghosted will likely attest. But why? The author Elie Wiesel once said that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” This quote sums up in many ways why being ghosted is so painful for many of us.
First, ghosting forces us to feel the pain of social rejection. Social rejection, on its own, is painful for anyone to experience. In fact, there is evidence that social rejection affects the same areas in the brain as physical pain, meaning that social rejection can literally be painful.
Additionally, ghosting introduces ambiguity into the situation. We have no cues for how to react. Should we be angry? Should we be sad? Should we believe that they’re simply busy and will get back to us later? For those of us that are natural worriers we might even wonder if they’ve been injured or are deathly ill. The point is that because we don’t know what has happened, we don’t know how to respond to being ghosted. It leaves us confused, feeling a variety of emotions without knowing which ones are “right” or “valid”.
Finally, ghosting robs us of an opportunity for any type of closure. We don’t get to hear that someone simply wasn’t interested in us or didn’t feel a connection with us. Instead we get voicemails with no replies, or a string of outgoing texts with no response, or Facebook chats that have been read but not answered. We are robbed of an opportunity to understand what went wrong, and so we must come up with our own reasons.
Most of these reasons, of course, center around ourselves. We question what we did wrong on the date or in the relationship. More often than not, our self-esteem takes a hit as a result of being ghosted. We feel like we did something bad, are inadequate, or should have seen it coming. If we’ve been ghosted multiple times, it’s even worse for our self-esteem.
Ghosting: A Classic Avoidance Tactic
So why would we ghost someone at all? One obvious benefit is how easy it is. We’re human, and as humans we tend to avoid difficult things. Ghosting is no different. It’s much easier to simply ignore someone’s texts than to tell them you’re not interested. It’s easier not to pick up your phone than to tell someone that you want to cancel a date because you don’t feel a connection. Ghosting is a simple avoidance tactic, a way for us to avoid engaging in a conversation that will likely be uncomfortable and emotionally difficult.
My thoughts were confirmed by a New York Times article that asked ghosters to explain why they had engaged in their behaviors. A few themes struck me. First, ghosters don’t want to disappoint or feel bad about themselves. Telling someone you aren’t interested means that you have to deal with the potential consequences. You don’t have to deal with the sadness, frustration, or disappointment that the other person gives back. So, by ghosting you have found a way to end an uninteresting relationship without having to feel bad about yourself.
Finally, technology makes it even easier to engage in ghosting. With apps like Tinder, Grindr, Hinge, etc., etc., it’s easy to strike up a conversation with a random person and then drop them without ever meeting in person. When you’re communicating through a screen, it’s easy to forget that behind the profile pictures, brief bios, and chat bubbles there is a real human being. Apps remind us that there is always someone else out there. Someone else who might be more interesting or engaging than the person we’re currently chatting with.
But, you might be asking, how could someone who has been ghosted, and gone through the emotional distress associated with it, turn around and ghost someone else? Given that a third of men and a quarter of women report to being both ghosters and ghostees, it’s not an uncommon practice.
There’s likely a psychological concept called cognitive dissonance at play here. Cognitive dissonance occurs when people hold two ideas or concepts in their mind that are fundamentally at odds with each other. In this case, ghosting others while also thinking that ghosting is bad. This cognitive dissonance results in anxiety, which our minds resolve by rationalizing our behavior. In essence we lie to ourselves to justify our behavior, even though we know firsthand how harmful it can be. Perhaps we tell ourselves it will be easier for both parties (the ghoster and the ghostee) to not have the tough conversation, or maybe we convince ourselves that turning someone down directly would do more harm than good. In any case we allow ourselves to believe that ghosting won’t do harm, even though we know it will.
So What Do We Do?
I think the first step is in remembering that potential relationship partners are humans, whether we’re seeing them across a dinner table or through a screen. They have thoughts, feelings, and hopes, just as we do.
In fact, many of us have probably been guilty of ghosting as well.
The Golden Rule, as cliché as it may seem, is appropriate here. Dating apps and technology have made it easier for us to treat each other like a set of pictures and a brief bio, nothing more. Let’s try to move past that. Let’s try to have tough, honest conversations with each other (even if via text). Let’s try to treat each other the way we would want to be treated. If we can do that, we can save each other a bit (or maybe even a whole lot) of pain and heartbreak.
KIP Graduate Intern