When Maggie first met Ben* on a dating app, she had no expectations—in fact, she’d been casually seeing a couple other guys. But the two of them clicked immediately. “The chemistry was off-the-wall insane,” she says. “On our first date we closed the restaurant down, and it escalated quickly. We got drinks a few days later, had some deep discussions about work and life and family, and spent almost an entire three-day weekend together.” The romance wasn’t Nicholas Sparks movie-levels of epic yet, but things were promising. And then…well, nothing. Total radio silence. “I texted him to set up a fifth hang, and never heard from him again.”
It’s called ghosting, it happens WAY too often, and it occurs between friends and romantic prospects alike. It’s so common it’s inspired a 2019 TV reality series called Ghosted: Love Gone Missing, in which two hosts track down a person who’s vanished from someone else’s life—without so much as a Sex and the City-style “I’m sorry, I can’t, don’t hate me” Post-It note—to sort out exactly why they did it. That premise is bound to appeal to the thousands of people who are checking their phones this very second, waiting for a message that’ll never come.
Here’s what an expert has to say about ghosting, why some people do it, and how to deal with the action.
What counts as ghosting in the dating world?
Ghosting is officially defined as “the act or practice of abruptly cutting off all contact with someone (such as a former romantic partner) by no longer accepting or responding to phone calls, instant messages, etc.”
While my most brutal ghosting experience wasn’t a date but a childhood friend who dropped me out of nowhere, it runs particularly rampant in the world of online dating. Stan Tatkin, psychotherapist and author of Wired for Love, says that’s because apps have created a consequence-free environment—or at least, the illusion of one.
“It used to be when we dated people, we met them at work, or school, somewhere in their neighborhood, friends of friends, and so on. So our behavior would reflect badly on us if we treated somebody poorly, such as just disappearing,” he explains. “It’s much easier today, because people are more anonymous, and they’re getting away with more.”
Maggie’s personal rule of ghosting involves what she calls a “two-date cutoff.” If either party isn’t feeling it after two dates, they can slip away without explanation. “After date number three, you’ve invested a not-insignificant amount of time and energy in interacting with this person, so the least you can do is send a quick text, call, or email saying you’re not into it.”
it’ not about a quantifiable amount of time invested; it’s about how their vanishing act made you feel—even if you were strictly exchanging messages for a few weeks. “If it felt to you that the person just disappeared mid-sentence, and you sensed the jarring effects, then yeah, that’s ghosting.”
What’s the psychology behind ghosting?
The reasons people choose to abruptly halt contact—meaning, the rationale they told themselves to justify it—can certainly vary, since no two situations are the same. But as Tatkin explains, many believe these budding relationships are somehow less real in the age of dating apps and text-based communication, and can be treated as such.
Despite Maggie’s negative experiences as a ghostee (Ben was just one of several instances), she says the majority of men in her social circle insist it’s become a perfectly acceptable practice. “My guy friends maintain that ghosting is a result of us becoming culturally desensitized to meaningful communication while throwing things around in a digital-only environment,” she says.
From a psychology standpoint, Tatkin believes there’s often a deeper motivation—especially for those who are habitual ghosters—and it has to do with something called an attachment style. Attachment theory is a psychological model that aims to identify the different ways people bond with others, going back to their earliest interactions with parents as a baby. In adult romantic relationships, the theory goes, there are four main attachment styles that affect everything from which partners you choose to why your relationships end: Secure, anxious/ambivalent, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant (read more about each attachment style here).
Ghosting falls squarely in the realm of “avoidant” behavior, Tatkin says. “People who are dismissive and avoidant are more likely to ‘rotate’ people,” he continues. “Ghosting is another way of basically not having any conflict, right? People who are conflict avoidant would be natural ghosters, because no muss, no fuss—you just disappear. So it’s ‘good for me, and if it’s not good for you, then sorry.'”
The bright side? You might have dodged relationship challenges down the road, had you continued to see each other. “The group of people who are most likely to do this have a hard time with dependency, and with commitment,” Tatkin says.
Some people ghost to protect themselves from rejection.
Here’s where Tatkin blew my mind: Some people cease communication not because they’re commitment-phobic, but because they’re scared you’ll hurt them. “There are people on the other side of the spectrum who are much more afraid of abandonment and rejection,” he says. Those with an anxious or ambivalent attachment style may ghost as a sort of preemptive strike—either out of fear that you’ll disappoint them in the future, or because of a perceived slight on your end (regardless of whether you actually did anything wrong).
“If I was really sensitive to abandonment, withdrawal, and punishment, I may try to get even,” Tatkin says. “So in doing that, I would ghost you, and that would give me some satisfaction—the idea that I’ve hurt you in the way that you’ve hurt me.”
Try not to blame yourself if you’ve been ghosted.
Due to what psychologists call negativity bias—the natural human impulse to dwell on negative events over positive ones—those whose texts and messages go unanswered often wonder what they did to deserve it. “What’s particularly cruel about this, is that without knowing why or what happened, the person is now left with their imagination, which is more likely to be negative,” Tatkin explains. “They reflect on themselves. ‘This person feels aversion towards me. I must be ugly, I must be stupid. It must be something I said.”
Tough as it is, the healthiest thing is to avoid self-blame, cultivate the self-love you deserve, and keep it moving.
Confronting them isn’t the best option.
Yes, telling them off would be a gutsy, *possibly* gratifying move. Or, it’ll reopen the emotional wound, particularly if the ghoster acts cagey about why they did it. “To confront somebody who’s ghosted you risks further rejection,” Tatkin says. “So it would take a lot of courage to do that, hopefully with the realization that it’s not going to turn out well.”
Getting even post-ghosting isn’t the best idea, either.
Calling them up to tell them off may leave you feeling worse, and spreading the news of their poor behavior might not make you feel better, either. “Some people will make sure this person has a bad reputation, if they can,” Tatkin says. But that won’t soothe your rejected feeling. “It just sucks, because ghosting is an aggressive, cruel thing to do. There’s no other way of looking at it.”
Surround yourself with people who care about you, and reconsider your dating strategy.
As with an actual breakup, this too shall pass, and in the meantime, you’ll want to spend time with friends who’ll build you back up. Trying to meet new people offline, while taking a break from dating sites, can’t hurt either. “If I’m going to play on a field that’s anonymous, then this is going to happen, because people abuse this whole thing,” says Tatkin says. “If you can be just a picture and words on a screen, you can be dispensed with easily.”
Know that ghosting in dating is absolutely rude.
Tatkin will say it one more time for the back row: Ghosting is lousy. “It should bother people doing it, and it should bother people when it’s done to them.”
As painful as it is, Maggie’s learned this herself. “It sucks to be on the receiving end, but it gives me clear information on where to direct my energy so I don’t waste any days, she says. “Ghosting is a really great way to tell someone that you don’t respect their time.”
*Name has been changed
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