The Psychology of Ghosting and Why People Can’t Stop Doing It

My ghost is named Tom.

He’s persistent, this ghost. He likes haunting my dreams, catching me off-guard in the milk-sweet land of sleep, slipping into my unconscious and rattling the cage of my brain. I dream he’s back in my life, unapologetic and unreformed, still cheating and gaslighting and drinking too much. In these dreams, I am still desperate for answers, asking him over and over why he vanished, why he gave up his flesh-and-blood self and became this ghost that — even after seven years, three new cities, countless dates and the love of a good man, the best I’ve ever known — I still can’t shake.

Ghosting (the term we’ve assigned to the sudden disappearance of a romantic interest) has become synonymous with modern romance: A 2016 Plenty of Fish survey revealed 78% of users had been ghosted. When I did my own Insta-investigation, I received dozens of responses, ranging from righteous indignation to extreme chill. “Rude but inescapable” seems to be the general agreement among those I spoke to about ghosting in the age of online dating.

It’s not that the dating “slow fade” is new (one girl told me she had a friend in high school who called it “two-weeking”: After hooking up with a girl, he’d ignore her entirely for two weeks — just long enough, he said, for her to get the picture), but technology has shifted the landscape by presenting a version of the world that feels both impossibly small and intoxicatingly large. One unreturned letter in the 1800s and you could warm yourself at night with the strong odds that he perished of scurvy; now, we’re able to see our ghosts out in the world, eating brunch, Instagram Story-ing the weird bird they saw on the walk to work. Combine that with the inherent dehumanization of online dating, in which complex individuals are reduced to swipeable avatars, and what we’ve created is a flourishing breeding ground for people for whom honest, direct communication feels not only unpalatable but unnecessary.

F. Diane Barth, a New York-based psychotherapist and the author of the new book I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women’s Lives, says that while ghosting as we understand it isn’t new, the way we have pathologized it is. “In the past, a person could stop calling or dropping by,” she says, “but now we have so many more ways of disconnecting from a person, like being unfriended or unfollowed.” Online dating also provides the comfort blanket of partial anonymity: There likely aren’t mutual friends to call you out on your callous behavior, nor shared physical spaces that force interaction. “Our communities are larger now,” says Barth, “so it’s entirely possible you might never, ever run into them again.”

The Anatomy of the Ghosted

Modern ghosting can impart a distinct and isolating feeling of shame for those who experience it. “People who have been ghosted often feel that they are the person who has done something wrong,” says Barth. “You’ve been dropped off the edge of the earth, which is very traumatic. You don’t think about how many other people this has happened to, but rather that there must be something wrong with you.”

Barth notes that shame is the brain’s natural reaction when “something or someone interrupts us in the middle of doing something we are enjoying.” Our natural instinct is to “undo the situation” so we can get back to that feeling of happiness. When we can’t — when we are, in fact, cut off completely from the source of the good feeling — we look for ways to explain away the bad feelings: She didn’t want to commit, he didn’t like my laugh. “No matter how you explain it to yourself, though,” writes Barth, “your psyche is trying to undo the sense of disruption of the good feelings. Shame is a reaction to having a circuit in your emotional system broken.”

Am I not funny? Do people not get my jokes?

It’s a very particular wound and one that is becoming inescapably familiar. Former online dater and ghostee Kelsey says her primary reaction to being ghosted was the feeling that she must be the problem. “We’re obsessed with fine-tuning and laboring over our superficial appearances (both in-person and online),” she says. “So when we’re ghosted, I think we often jump to trying to figure out what in that outer shell wasn’t well-received, and we let that disapproval soak into our inner layers that define us. We cycle through our insecurities. … Oh shit, did he not think that was funny? Am I not funny? Do people not get my jokes? Oh crap, is that what I’m giving off?

The shame is compounded by a feeling of being duped. Alexandra was ghosted by a guy she’d been dating for a few weeks. “On our first date, we talked for six hours straight and ended it in a moonlit make-out,” she says. “He talked about cooking together after we had sex in my kitchen. We went on mini field trips — to the beach! to the cliffs! — and had after-work check-ins where he’d call me on his way home to hear about my day. And then, one day, he went from telling me he was addicted to me to only speaking if spoken to. He would weasel out of committing to a plan. He would hit me with a ‘Hey!’ on the Sunday evening of a weekend where he’d assured me he would be seeing me.”

Eventually, she says, she’d had enough. “I told him I was an adult and needed planning, that I couldn’t just keep my schedule endlessly open for him on the off chance he was free. He apologized, promised he’d do better, promised we’d see each other with more regularity. But it dwindled until our interactions were reduced to him watching my Insta Stories while I was halfway across the world on a hiking trip.”

She’s now happily cohabitating with someone else but still has trouble shaking the experience. “I think he was dishonest about how he felt about me, which made me feel like a fool. And yet he didn’t have the strength to just tell me.”

The Anatomy of the Ghoster

To state the obvious: It’s rude, plain and simple, to fail to consider another person’s feelings. We’re talking preschool lessons, the golden rule. We all learned this. So why do the ghosts ghost?

“For me, the motivation was rooted in a strong aversion to being honest about my emotions, usually for fear of hurting feelings,” says Andy, reforming ghoster. “I found that it was easier to let silence do the talking than force myself to utter, ‘I had a nice time, but I don’t feel a connection’ or whatever you’re supposed to say.”

Others, like the man I have decided to spend my life with, are less apologetic. “It was the path of least resistance,” he says. “It was often because I’ve met someone else [Author’s note: It me.], and I’m just anticipating that awkward conversation and want to avoid it. When it’s someone you haven’t been dating long or you’ve been casual with, I think that there is this emerging establishment of a new norm, which is just — that’s now the way we break up with people. I do think that it’s kinder than telling someone you’re not interested in them or that you met someone better.”

He’s not alone in this; numerous people I spoke to said that in our dating universe, ghosting is both acceptable and even considerate. “It’s almost polite if the relationship was casual enough,” says Aubrey, a former ghoster and ghostee (now married). “There is something humiliating and patronizing in a dude I’ve gone out with twice ‘breaking up’ with me.”

Ghosting seems like a cop-out for people to avoid adult conversations.

Andy, turning over his new leaf, says he gives himself a pep talk before communicating his emotions to keep himself from ghosting. “The question I ask myself when the situation arises is: What’s the absolute worst thing that can happen after telling someone you don’t want to go out again? Maybe they’d be like ‘Fuck you!! You’re a sad pathetic loser! Boy bye.’ I can live with that.”

Barth agrees that some explanation is (almost) always better than none at all. “People say they ghost because ‘they didn’t want to hurt feelings.’ And yes, people who are broken up with directly will likely experience some hurt, but the thing about ghosting is that there’s no closure.” Ghosting, she says, leaves the person who was ghosted with the humiliating impression that whatever relationship they believed existed was all in their head, that they were not worth so much as a farewell text.

Julia, happily single and dating, made it a practice to always offer an explanation after a blind date called her out at a party six months later for not responding to her texts. “I had to sneak out of the party because she wouldn’t drop it,” she says. “I have a hard rule now that I always send a text to say if I don’t want to hang again. It’s awkward, but it saves the drama.”

When I was first dating in New York, I found myself making up excuses and dodging calls to avoid telling guys I didn’t want to see them again. At the time, I was terrified of seeming rude or unlikable, and the attention I received (whether wanted or not) felt like an affirmation that I was worthy and wouldn’t be alone forever. Eventually, the stress of trying to be likable while simultaneously dodging contact became absurd. A few friends and I collaborated on a standard text we’d send when we didn’t want to see someone again (please feel free to borrow, copyright not necessary, works for all genders, just trying to do the lord’s work): “Thanks for a great night! I didn’t feel any romantic energy between us, but I wish you all the best out there.”

Some (again, I’m MARRYING this man) argue that silence is, in fact, an answer of its own. “If you text someone once, twice, and they don’t respond — I mean, that is a response. That speaks very loudly. You just don’t want to hear it.”

The Anatomy of Closure

But the problem with silence is that it leaves a deep, dark hole — one it is all too easy to fill with a foggy combination of insecurity, self-loathing and confusion.

Lauren was platonically ghosted by someone she considered one of her closest friends. “I literally did almost everything with her,” she tells me. “And then one day, she just quit calling and texting and responding to me. And then she unfollowed me on all social. … It was heartbreaking.” There were signs, in hindsight, that this woman had a callous streak; still, Lauren said, she’s unable to come up with any explanation for her behavior, and years later, it still feels like a betrayal. “I feel like I’m a pretty nice and reasonable person, so if something were wrong, I feel as though she should have discussed it with me,” she said. “Ghosting seems like a cop-out for people to avoid adult conversations.”

In the absence of closure, what we are left with is a bewildering array of questions — questions that, it’s important to remember, might never be answered even if the relationship had ended on our own terms. “Relationships are always two-sided, and we can’t know everything that is going on in the other person,” reminds Barth. “If you’ve asked for closure and they haven’t been able to provide it, you’re going to stay stuck if you keep asking. You need to give up the idea that it can be solved.”

Barth recommends talking openly to friends about your experience. “Keeping [ghosting] to yourself increases the feeling of hurt and pain and isolation,” she says. “The more you can talk about it, the more you can get feedback that will help you process it.” Building this support system can also remind you of all the connections you do have: strong, beautiful friendships, a loving family, coworkers who respect you — relationships that rely not on superficialities, but on another person seeing you fully and embracing who you really are. “You need to work really hard to remember that it isn’t about you,” says Barth. “The reason that someone [ghosted] — it’s their difficulty in having to be honest.”

After multiple ghostings through online dating, Kelsey deleted her apps. Getting over being ghosted was going to require a new outlook, she realized. “It took some time and a lot of distraction, but I was finally able to ask myself the underlying question — why were these strangers making me feel bad about myself? Why was I giving up my sense of worth as a companion entirely to this pool of bachelors? Why was my vulnerability extending to all aspects of self, instead of just limiting it to what it actually was — the viability of compatibility with this particular individual?”

When she did start dating again, she says, it felt completely different. “I wasn’t checking the app constantly. I wasn’t eager to swipe and double-tap and labor over the wittiest retort. I didn’t feel the need to calculate the perfect time between responses and, most importantly, I didn’t fill the idle time with all of the reasons I had come to believe he thought I wasn’t worth it. I went out on dates and gave myself one rule of my own — hang out with guys if it sounds fun, and if it doesn’t sound fun, then don’t.”

And when she wasn’t interested? “I would tough it up and politely decline a follow-up date,” she says. “I did that both in-person and over texts, and both are uncomfortable but important. And every guy I did that to replied with appreciation and understanding.”

My ghost and I dated for eight years, and then we didn’t. Tom stopped coming home at night, stopped answering the phone and moved all of his belongings out of our apartment while I was out of town. It wasn’t as linear as all that, of course — he’d call crying or show up unexpectedly and then disappear again over the course of a few months — but when he finally did leave for good, when I found out he had been sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend, the closest I ever got to an explanation was, “I just can’t do this anymore.”

He’s still out there — married, balding, in the city where I left him — but we haven’t spoken since. I do not imagine he ever thinks of me. I hate that I am the one left with these questions, although maybe what I am really left with is simply my own obstinate feeling that I was owed more than what I got. I have filled the space he left behind with narratives I wrote to suit my own purposes, but the truth is, humans are just bad sometimes. We do bad things — things we said we’d never do. Sometimes, the simplest, kindest thing you can do is try to explain why.

Illustrations by Gabrielle Lamontagne.

Meghan Nesmith

Meghan Nesmith

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Boston.

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