First, it’s just one text that goes unanswered.
Then, it’s 10. Your calls go to voicemail and the silence grows deeper by the minute. You may start to worry: Could something have happened to your friend? What else could explain their sudden disappearance? Eventually, a social media update or a mutual friend will give you the answer. Your former confidant is alive and well.
But they have just vanished from your life. They are ghosting you.
Ghosting, which means cutting off all communication without offering an explanation, has only recently entered the popular lexicon. But it’s a behaviour likely as old as human interactions have existed. The term originated in the context of dating, but ghosting also occurs in friendships and is even becoming a noticeable trend in professional relationships: A number of employers “said that they had been ghosted, a situation in which a worker stops coming to work without notice and then is impossible to contact,” the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago noted in December’s Beige Book, a report tracking employment trends. Ghosting is a strange behaviour — why would anyone treat someone so heartlessly that they so recently liked, or leave work without so much as an “I quit” scribbled on a sticky note?
What drives this behaviour? Are some people more likely than others to choose ghosting over other strategies to end a relationship? And what’s the impact of ghosting on the haunted?
Psychologists have only recently started to look into these questions. “There are not many actual published papers on ghosting,” said Tara Collins, an associate professor of psychology at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. But as research on ghosting begins to emerge, psychologists can also draw on what they know about the psychology of relationships to offer some clues, Collins said.
Is ghosting a new phenomenon?
Ghosting is common and can happen to anyone. A study of 1,300 people, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in 2018, found that about a quarter of the participants had been ghosted by a partner, while one-fifth reported that they had ghosted someone themselves. Ghosting in friendships may be even more common; more than a third of study participants reported that they had ghosted a friend or had been ghosted by one. These figures may be even higher, as another 2018 survey found that 65 percent of participants reported previously ghosting a partner, and 72 percent reported that their partner had ghosted them.
Ending relationships is nothing new, and there are several different strategies people can choose. Perhaps we have just started to notice that ghosting is a common strategy, largely because technology has changed the way we interact with one another. “I’m guessing that people ignored each other for a long time. It’s just a lot more obvious now because of social media and technology,” Collins told Live Science. “When it’s so easy to contact each other, it becomes very clear somebody is ignoring you intentionally.”
Ghosting as a strategy may have also gained popularity via new technology, as texting, online dating and social media have changed the way people connect, as well as how romantic partners find each other. Today, people can go on dates with someone they would have never met otherwise, rather than meeting them at a corner store or at their friends’ gatherings. Without a mutual social network tying two strangers together, it’s easier to just drop everything and vanish without any consequences, Collins said.
How do people break up?
In a 2012 paper published in the Journal of Research in Personality, Collins and her colleague analyzed breakup tactics and identified a handful of common ones. One of the most common strategies is “open confrontation,” in which partners directly discuss ending the relationship. Another is the “avoidance” strategy, in which one partner decreases contact with the other person, avoids future meetings or discloses very little about their personal life. Yet another popular strategy is “self-blame,” which basically translates to “it’s not you, it’s me.”
People may also break up using the “cost escalation” strategy. “That would be like essentially making the relationship so terrible that your partner decides to get out,” Collins said.
Others may use “mediated communication” strategy to break up, which means talking to somebody else about your desire to end the relationship with the hope that the third-party person would communicate that to your partner. That third party could also be a breakup email or the Dear John letters of the pre-technology era.
Ghosting seems most related to a combination of avoidance technique and the mediated communication strategy, Collins said. You avoid seeing and talking to the person and your social media is the third party informing the ghostee that you have moved on.
Who’s more likely to become a ghost?
When being ghosted, people often take it to reflect on themselves — their own wrong behaviour, imperfections and flaws. But ghosting actually reveals more about the personality of the ghoster than the ghostee.
Ghosting is most similar to the avoidance and the mediated communication strategies. These types of strategies are associated with having an avoidant attachment style, which is a tendency to avoid emotional closeness in relationships. “The people who do not like to have emotional closeness, they’re probably more likely to ghost,” Collins said.
But there are many other factors and personality traits involved in leading people to ghost. In a 2018 study, researchers divided people into: those who have a fixed mindset about the future, believe in destiny and think that a relationship is either meant to be or not; and those who have a growth mindset and believe relationships take work to grow. People with stronger destiny beliefs were 60 percent more likely than the other group to see ghosting as an acceptable way to end a relationship and were more likely to do it. Those with stronger growth beliefs were 40 percent less likely than the destiny group to say that ghosting was acceptable, according to the study, which was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Psychological toll of being haunted
Although there’s not much research on the impact of being ghosted, psychologists have long examined a similar issue, ostracism or social rejection through silent treatment. Ostracism has negative consequences for the rejected person, and research suggests the rejection triggers the same pathways in the brain as actual physical pain. This is perhaps why, as studies have found, people report ghosting as the most hurtful way to end a relationship and prefer to be dumped by direct confrontation.
Lack of communication leaves people in a mind-boggling limbo where they don’t know how to act and respond. “Staying connected to others is so important to our survival that our brain has evolved to have a social monitoring system that monitors the environment for cues, so that we know how to respond in social situations,” Jennice Vilhauer, psychologist at Emory University, wrote in Psychology Today. “Social cues allow us to regulate our own behavior accordingly, but ghosting deprives you of these usual cues and can create a sense of emotional dysregulation where you feel out of control.”
All of this can be particularly difficult for people who are sensitive to feelings of uncertainty and ambiguity. These people not only have to manage the pain of rejection but also face the stress generated by the mountain of unresolved questions — Was it something they did that ended the relationship? Did they offend their friend? Did their partner leave them for someone else? [How Likely Is Your Partner to Cheat?]
Relationship experts generally advise to let go of a ghost. If you are tempted to get in touch with your ghost, first think hard about what outcome you are really looking for. Someone who has ghosted you has already shown an inability to handle conflict in a healthy way. Ask yourself if you actually want to get back in a relationship with them.
Resist the temptation to stalk them online. If you can’t let go, you may get some closure by confronting your ghost to let them know their behavior is unacceptable, immature and not compassionate. Then, move on.
And to avoid becoming a ghost yourself, practice direct and compassionate communication. Open confrontation can be painful for the person being dumped, but remember that people still rank it as their most preferred breakup strategy over all others.