Dear New Romantics,
Well, shit. You’ve done it.
You’ve gone on a few dates with a new Tinder cutie, but you find yourself exhausted by the idea of a committed relationship. They text you to see when you’d like to hang out again, and you make a mental note to text them back later — maybe. I mean, you’re busy.
The next day, they send another feeler text (by now, they’re probably hoping you’ve been hospitalized to explain your absence), and you’re suddenly turned off: This feels excessive for what you thought was casual.
You’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for, but you feel like you’d know it if it was right in front of you. And that feels kind of rude to say, right? So you just don’t say anything — ever again. Or maybe you’ve convinced yourself that the two of you simply drifted apart due to a mismatch.
But let’s face it: You’ve ghosted.
Ghosting, as we all know, is a disappearing act, usually reserved for romantic relationships, in which one person seemingly suddenly drops off the face of the planet: No more calls or texts, no more social media, and maybe even no more contact with mutuals.
And if you’ve ghosted someone (I certainly have — oops), you’re not alone: One-fifth of people have been a ghoster, and one-quarter have been ghosted.
The problem is, people kind of hate it: Over 80 percent of people consider ghosting an unacceptable way to end short-term relationships. And almost 70 percent say they would “think poorly of a ghoster.”
I reached out to my friend (and, more importantly, brilliant sex educator) Cameron Glover to get her take on why we ghost. She said, “Ghosting’s appeal for the average person stems from simply the disconnection of personal accountability.”
That is, we ghost because it feels convenient.
Maybe you find yourself less and less attracted to someone, and it feels uncomfortable to name that. Maybe they said something to you that made you feel angry, frustrated, or embarrassed, and you want to avoid an awkward conversation about it. Maybe the relationship is casual, so you feel less responsible for the other person.
If you’re looking to end the connection in a less emotional and labor-intensive way, simply disappearing can feel like a practical move.
And that makes sense: In a dating culture where healthy communication skills aren’t prioritized, the vulnerability involved in discussing our feelings can be terrifying. So if we can avoid it altogether, why not?
Well, here’s why not: What I came to learn later in life is that relationships take work — all relationships.
Whether it’s a friend, partner, or casual hookup, connecting with someone, even briefly, comes with responsibility: Unless you feel unsafe, you are accountable to communicate your intentions, expectations, and — yes — disinterest to others.
Communication comes more naturally for some folks than for others. People with stronger growth beliefs — that relationships involve intentional work to nurture — are more likely to feel negatively toward ghosting and avoid engaging in it. But people with stronger destiny beliefs — that relationships are fated — tend to feel and do the opposite.
Yep, the way you believe relationships should work can have a significant impact on your likelihood of ghosting.
But the assumption that ghosting is a product of technology and social media? It may actually be less of a #MillennialProblem than we think.
Sure, the term just started to gain linguistic traction in 2006, but the practice of gradual disinterest and conflict avoidance may be as old as breakups themselves.
According to research from 1984, breakups follow a behavioral script. Most things in our lives do. We expect, and therefore follow, a sequence of behaviors in any given situation. It’s why when we watch a true crime documentary, we suspect the mom of murdering the child just because she didn’t cry at the funeral.
These scripts — like “Hi, hello, when your child dies, you should cry at the funeral” — are so deeply written into our psyches that we tend to follow them subconsciously.
And breakups? Their behavioral script tends to be 16 steps long, according to a 1998 study. In long-term, committed relationships, people tend to work through 16 stages before the relationship finally comes to an end.
Before even considering communicating feelings and trying to work out problems, you may feel (1) growing disinterest, (2) attraction to others (um, yes, like the meme), and (3) withdrawal from the relationship, emotionally and physically.
Those first three steps are interesting when considering short-term relationships because only afterward does the fourth step — trying to work things out — happen.
For a potential ghoster in a casual relationship, though, that fourth step might never happen. And why would it? If you don’t find the vulnerable conversation worthwhile, you can just start swiping to meet someone else who excites you (!). So when you ghost, you end the relationship at withdrawing — permanently.
It hurts people. When you ghost, the script is halted and unfinished for your former romantic interest. They’re left to their own devices to try to understand what went wrong — and why they weren’t even worth a simple breakup text. What is conflict avoidance for you is actually conflict perpetuation for someone else!
As I learned from Kristine Seitz, who is researching ghosting in the same doctoral program I graduated from, “Ambiguity and lack of closure is a recipe for increased anxiety.”
She explains, “The mind is a meaning-making machine, and people will typically fill in the gaps with their own — often self-critical — story.”
The only person who benefits from ghosting is the ghoster. And if you’re a ghoster, especially if you ghost regularly, it might be because you’re dodging the hard work of difficult feelings and conversations. And that’s important to take a closer look at.
“What am I avoiding?” can be a helpful introspective question. Seitz suggests you reflect on what you’re afraid of: “Be curious of what comes up, and to be intentional in unpacking it.”
But ghosting doesn’t have to be our new normal. We can teach ourselves a new script for breakups that, while more vulnerable, is more responsible.
I challenge you to try to strike a balance the next time you’re considering ghosting. You don’t have to plan out a sit-down, in-person conversation (although you certainly can). A simple text — “Thanks so much for our date. I’m going to explore other options, but good luck!” — can go a long way.
“I encourage folks to end relationships with kindness and lucidity rather than with ambiguity,” Seitz says. “One alternative to ghosting can be a simple and brief message, valuing the time together but stating the boundary.”
“There is a healthy balance,” Glover agrees. “You can take responsibility and be up-front about your feelings but also have boundaries in place that remind folks that protecting your emotional well-being is also important. We’re more capable of doing both than we give ourselves credit for.”
To hold yourself accountable for communicating eventual disinterest, you can even outline from the get-go that you’d like to touch base 24 to 48 hours after each date to reevaluate how you feel about one another (I do!).
Communication is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. And, insofar as it’s safe, you owe it to people you’re casually dating to be honest and up-front about how you’re feeling.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.