It’s a scenario we know all too well: you meet someone, flirty banter ensues, dates are had, vibes are high, feels are flowing, then in the blink of an eye, radio silence.
Bewildered and confused, you give them the benefit of the doubt, throwing a casual message out there, because maybe something happened? Nothing. Searching for answers, you discover the remnants of an “active” presence online. A “like”, a distant hovering over your Instagram stories, a new post on their feed. It’s then you know, they haven’t fallen prey to a cruel and painful fate … you have. You’ve officially been ghosted.
A cultural epidemic?
“Ghosting” — the act of vanishing without a trace — has fast become the new norm for millennials attempting the dating game. And despite its M.O. it doesn’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon.
A survey from dating site Plenty Of Fish found 80 per cent of millennials have been ghosted at least once, while Bumble has attempted to curb the problem by implementing prompts to encourage people to end or reply to a conversation and asking new users to “vow not to ghost”.
Mary Hoang, senior psychologist and founder of the Indigo Project in Sydney, says it’s no longer confined to dating; she believes it’s now a cultural phenomenon. “Ghosting now applies to any experience where someone you are in communication with (romantic, professional or personal) abruptly and without explanation withdraws contact,” she says.
So that dream job you never heard back from or that friend who stopped replying to your texts? Yes, also perpetrators of ghosting. For Rebecca, a Sydney marketing manager, “ghosting” surfaced in the sudden disappearance of her best friend.
“Two weeks after my wedding, my best friend stopped talking to me. She blocked me on Instagram and then got married without including me,” explains Rebecca. “Five years on I don’t know why she stopped talking to me and it still hurts. In a lot of ways, I think being ghosted by a friend has felt worse than any ex-boyfriend.”
While every generation experiences their own heartbreaks and hang-ups, Mary believes millennials and gen Z are feeling it more than ever thanks to, you guessed it, technology. “The reality is, smartphones have limited our ability to learn to communicate face-to-face. Studies show young people are less comfortable making eye contact and spend less time in embodied company of friends. As a result, they are less adept at having uncomfortable conversations, if at all,” she says.
Why so silent?
Can technology be solely to blame for cowardice or is there something more complex at work? While technology makes for a great scapegoat, Mary believes at its core it’s conflict avoidance. “Ghosting indicates a strong desire to avoid the discomfort of communicating honestly when the subject matter is less than rosy, such as, ‘I don’t want to keep seeing you’ or ‘We gave the job to someone else’.”
She also believes that in a backward way those who ghost often think they are being thoughtful. “To leave someone on ‘read’ rather than explain ‘why’ often gets justified as an act of kindness — because aren’t we told saying nothing is better than saying something hurtful?’” says Mary.
Then there’s the current hook-up culture, where a lack of commitment comes with a lack of etiquette. “By ‘playing it cool’ people believe they have given the impression they aren’t ‘all in’ and therefore the ‘ghostee’ shouldn’t care if suddenly they are stopped being talked to.”
Scientists from the University of Alabama have also sought to shed light on the emerging epidemic by interviewing students about why they ghost. Five common themes surfaced: convenience, lack of attraction, negative interactions, relationship length of time, and fear of safety. However, sometimes it’s none of the above. It’s option E … someone else. Annabelle, an artist based in Tasmania, shares her story.
“I dated a boy for a couple of months and one day invited him to a friend’s barbecue. Later in the evening he had another party to go to but said he was coming back. He never did… I was supposed to be meeting his parents the next day,” says Annabelle. “I found out later his ex was at the party and he had got back together with her.”
Why does it hurt so bad?
The truth is, as humans we don’t deal well with being ignored. Research shows when we experience rejection it’s not merely a bruise to the ego, it threatens our fundamental human needs (sense of belonging, self esteem and life purpose), increases anger and sadness and registers as physical pain in the body.
In one study, the emotional pain experienced from rejection was found to be so similar to that of physical pain that scientists found it could even be somewhat remedied with painkillers.
For Brigit, a Sydney-based yoga teacher, the pain was all too real when it happened to her not once, but twice. “I was dating a guy who was serious straight away. He said he told his mum about me and we hung out at least four nights a week. Then just as I thought he was my boyfriend — bam! Ghosted! I was so angry that I got sick. I got ulcers all through my mouth, something my acupuncturist told me was a result of the anger I was holding onto.
“Not long after I met another boy who knocked me off my feet. We dated for five months and he filled my head with dreams of a future together. I got so excited, then… nothing. This time I was a mess, worse than before. I curled up on the floor and barely left my apartment for a week. I’ve been through a lot in my life but for some reason this was the final straw that broke me.”
How to deal with getting ghosted
There’s no sugar coating it, rejection hurts. Like a punch to the stomach, it bowls you over and leaves you in a state of shock and insurmountable pain. But unlike a punch, emotional wounds take a lot longer to heal.
While confronting the ghosts of relationships past for answers would be nice, that option is often taken away the moment they go silent. Rather than stay in a place of helplessness, choose to take back the things that are in your control (your life and emotions) and actively tend to you. Mary shares her tips on how to move through hurt.
Honour your feelings
“Know it’s okay to feel hurt. Feelings work like release valves — when we block them, they do a world of damage. Instead, find healthy ways of being with your feelings. Listen to sad songs and cry, punch out anger in a boxing class, or fling paint on a canvas in artistic rage. Honour the feeling, give it expression and move on.”
Disrupt your thoughts
“When someone ghosts you and you default to ‘I am unlovable’, ask yourself: ‘Is this true?’ Would someone who loves you agree? Replace the thought with something more accurate and affirming such as: ‘I am lovable and strong enough to move through disappointment even when it’s hard.’”
“You can’t control how you’re treated but you can take time to nurture your inward relationship. Regular acts of self-care will build resilience, strength and optimism. Rather than herbal teas and bubble baths, implement self-care strategies that deepen your relationship with yourself such as therapy, mindfulness, deep breathing, journalling and gratitude practices that help you see the good in life.”
It’s not you, it’s them
I remember the day I confronted the serial “ghoster” who had been haunting me for a year and a half, promising dates and leaving breadcrumbs all over my social media feed, but never following through. His response? “That the reality of meeting him would have been a much greater disappointment than the reality of being ghosted.”
Apparently, he thought he was doing me a favour. It was in that moment I finally got the answer I needed. I realised I could no longer continue the endless “why am I not enough?” commentary, because the truth is, it wasn’t about me. It was all him, he was harbouring serious self-doubt and wasn’t ready to be dating. And realising that finally gave me permission to let myself off the hook.
This is a mindset Mary believes really helps. “Rather than looking at it through the lens of cruelty imposed on you, reframe it as the character of someone your life is probably better off without.”
Struggling to see an upside? Remember that every experience is a lesson in self growth and a step towards deepening the most important relationship in your life — the one you have with yourself. “It was the wake-up call I needed to take an honest look at myself,” shares Emily, a Byron Bay-based photographer. “I finally saw the way my low self-esteem had eaten away at me until I had become this woman with no self-respect or standards about how I deserved to be treated in a relationship.
“So, I did a lot of reading, I stopped drinking as much and started meditating to work on forgiving him and myself. I’m proud to say I managed to get to a place where I felt at peace with it, long before he got in touch to apologise.”
*Names have been changed for privacy