The reality of relationship ghosting
We’re more connected than ever, yet we can be less communicative as a result. Ghosting, when a person ceases contact for reasons unclear, is prevalent. For the “ghosted”, it can be an upsetting and confusing experience.
Dating has its challenges anywhere in the world, but New York City is known to be a tough landscape for finding your match. Hannah*, 36, an Australian living — and dating — in New York was recently ghosted by a man she clicked with.
“I met him on a dating app and we went for a socially distanced picnic date in the park,” says Hannah. “Everything went really well and we made plans to see each other again. We spent the whole week texting daily in the lead-up to our second date, which was also to be drinks in the park. Again, our conversation flowed naturally and we parted with ‘Speak to you soon.’ And then I never heard from him again.”
It’s not an uncommon scenario, with silence filling the space where communication used to be. There is no break-up text, no “It’s not you, it’s me” nor vague platitudes of not wanting to be in a relationship, explanations of being double-booked or even just not wanting to follow through with plans.
And unfortunately ghosting, especially prevalent in the online dating world, is here to stay. “We are really spoilt for choice when it comes to dating, as matching with someone on a dating app is quite easy,” says Hailee Walker, the director and head counsellor at Hills Relationship Centre in Greater Western Sydney.
“This isn’t helping the issue with ghosting as we are beginning to treat people with a little less humanity and more like they are disposable,” says Walker. “With one swipe right, we can quickly move on to the next option. We seem to be forgetting that every person has feelings and deserves to be interacted with respectfully.”
The impact of being ghosted
Being ghosted by a romantic partner is painful as we feel it as a huge rejection, explains Walker. “When we experience rejection, it activates the same pain pathways in our brains as physical pain,” she says. “It also can leave you quite emotionally distressed with lots of unanswered questions circling your mind, such as, ‘What did I do wrong?’ or ‘What is wrong with me?’”
With one swipe right, we can quickly move on to the next option. We seem to be forgetting that every person has feelings and deserves to be interacted with respectfully.
The sudden radio silence from her date made Hannah feel bad about herself, as she took the rejection personally at first. “I internalised a lot, thinking ‘What did I say?’ and ‘Maybe I looked hideous?’,” says Hannah. “Then I realised it was more about him, so I did nothing and just let the moment fade away into ‘Oh well, his loss, next!’”
“I’m very hard on myself and it taught me a good lesson in actively changing my thought patterns from ‘What did I do?’ to ‘He’s just not the one for me’,” she says.
Becoming the ghost
It’s not uncommon for the ghosted to become the ghost, as Hannah has found. “After moving house, one of my movers texted me asking to meet up for a drink,” she says. “I was too flattered to say anything but yes.”
“I suffer from a few mental health disorders and unfortunately on the day of the date I was not in a good headspace,” says Hannah. “I’m not sure why I decided to just ghost, but I rationalised it by the fact we hadn’t really talked, had no set location or time to meet yet — it was very casual. I also judged him a little as a good-looking removalist texting a single girl out for a casual drink, so I doubted this was his first or last time. I didn’t even know his name.”
Lucy*, 38, also doesn’t know the name of the man she ghosted, who she casually dated for four months around 10 years ago. “Isn’t that terrible that I can’t remember his name?” Lucy remarks. “I nicknamed him ‘Shorts’ because he turned up to our first date in a pair of shorts.”
Having recently ended a long-term relationship, Lucy considered this new fling as casual, while he thought of it as something more serious. After seeing each other for several months, Lucy headed down to the coast on a weekend break. She ended up meeting a man who was to become her new partner and who she is still with today.
Ghosting behaviours occur across the genders and are not limited to a particular age bracket; however, some small studies have shown that women ghost more than men.
“I saw both of the guys for a couple of weeks — they didn’t know each other existed,” says Lucy, adding that her long-term partner still doesn’t know about the other man. “I decided I liked the new guy more and literally just stopped returning phone calls and text messages from Shorts. He sent me a couple of text messages and called me for a few weeks, but then I suppose he figured I wasn’t coming back.”
Walker says that ghosts have at least one thing in common, and that is being emotionally avoidant. “They run from feelings that are uncomfortable and often try to avoid conflict,” she says.
Yet this is not a trait Lucy identifies with. “I’m someone who needs resolution on most things and I like to understand what’s gone wrong so that I can address the issue and fix it,” she says. “I certainly like things to be resolved, which probably gets me over my fear of having to have tough conversations.”
“If I look back to where I was in my life at that point, I was probably burying my head in the sand,” says Lucy about why she cut off contact with her date. “I wasn’t mentally in a great place; I didn’t have a good relationship with my family and I was trying to establish an independent life for myself in Melbourne. I guess I just thought, ‘I can’t be bothered dealing with that, so I’ll just ignore it and then it will go away.’
“It must have been awful for him,” she says. “I suspect that I was someone for him that he trusted and who he wanted to build a relationship with. It was pretty early days so who knows what it could have been like, but he could have been left thinking, ‘What happened? Was it something that I did or something I said?’ He might have been wondering how he can stop it from happening again.”
Wanting not to hurt someone’s feelings or to avoid the situation entirely are common reasons people ghost, but Walker says it’s important to be genuine and kind by giving closure. “Simply say something like, ‘It’s been nice getting to know you, but the connection we have is not the type of connection I am looking for,’” she says.
Ghosting as self-protection
Ghosting behaviours occur across the genders and are not limited to a particular age bracket; however, some small studies have shown that women ghost more than men. “The reason for this is believed to be that women have been socialised to avoid conflict more than men, and at times feel fearful about ending a relationship with man and what he may do in response,” says Walker.
This was the case for Olivia*, 30, who used ghosting as a last resort to get an obsessive ex to stop contacting her. After the breakdown of her long-term relationship, Olivia had a rebound fling with a friend of hers who had helped counsel her over the split.
“I wasn’t thinking there was anything more to it, but it eventuated that he did,” she recalls. “He ended up telling me that he loved me after a few times we had been together, but I didn’t feel that way. He thought we were dating but I didn’t think about it like that. I realised we were misaligned so I made it really clear that I wasn’t looking for a relationship and that I didn’t love him.”
Despite being honest with the man, Olivia found that her words were not sinking in. The man continued to contact her, messaging and calling her every day. “It didn’t matter how clearly I communicated,” she says. “I straight up said ‘You’re making me feel uncomfortable,’ and he didn’t stop.”
While not ghosting in the traditional sense, in that Olivia had clearly communicated her intention prior to cutting off communication, refusing to engage became a way to protect herself. “I told him to please not contact me any more,” says Olivia.
“After I said that I just stopped responding because if I gave him anything, even if it was ‘Don’t talk to me,’ that was something of a reward for him.”
Blocking his number and his social media accounts were the only option for Olivia, who says the experience caused her significant stress. She regularly speaks with her psychologist, which she has found helpful, but is still shaken by the incident.
It can also be frightening to even communicate your needs before ghosting someone, as you might fear the repercussions of doing so. “If you’re in a situation where you don’t feel safe being direct with someone who is pursuing you, speak with someone who can assist you in what the safest and best steps forward are,” advises Walker.
Coping with being ghosted
Recognising how common ghosting is doesn’t make it feel less personal and hurt any less. “Accept that it hurts and you feel rejected,” says Walker. “It is OK to feel hurt, disappointed or mad at them — feel your feelings and don’t bottle them up.”
Self-care can boost your confidence and give you a chance to focus on yourself, rather than occupying your mind wondering why you have been wronged. It’s also a good time to surround yourself with people you trust and who make you feel good about yourself.
“Take care of yourself and spend time with people who love and value you, do things you enjoy, and just remember that ghosting says a lot about that person and their emotional maturity,” says Walker.
You deserve to be partnered with someone who cares for and respects you. If they can't have a challenging conversation while dating you, the relationship is unlikely to be a healthy and happy one in the future.
As much as you may want to let that person know how much they hurt you, trying to contact them has already proven to be pointless, and you can end up becoming more obsessed with seeking closure. Accept that you may never know why you were ghosted and try not to waste your energy on it any longer.
This of course can be easier said than done. If you feel you cannot let it go until you understand the motivation behind the ghosting, talk it through with a psychologist or counsellor rather than expecting answers from the person who has cut off contact. Delete their number from your phone if you haven’t already and put the situation in your past rather than dwelling on it in the present.
“Let the ghost rest in peace,” says Walker. “Yes, it hurts, but they did you a favour. You deserve to be partnered with someone who cares for and respects you. If they can’t have a challenging conversation while dating you, the relationship is unlikely to be a healthy and happy one in the future.”
The good news is that the pain of being ghosted isn’t likely to linger for long. A 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reported that respondents who had been ghosted in the past 12 months didn’t experience significant effects on their wellbeing. The research paper points out that while this doesn’t mean the respondents hadn’t experienced psychological discomfort, they were able to recover from the incident.
Unfortunately, you can’t prevent it from recurring with someone new, but you’re likely to be more resilient and will be able to move on quicker should you be ghosted again. You can also be a support to your pals should they also get ghosted, by helping them feel good about themselves after this hit to their self-esteem. It’s also worth thinking about the way you communicate with others to ensure you don’t ghost others if you don’t need to, but instead communicate openly and compassionately.
*Names have been changed.