Why Some Exes Never Fully Go Away

Ghosting's opposite is orbiting, and new research shows why it's so distressing.

Posted Dec 11, 2018

DimaBerlin/Shutterstock
Source: DimaBerlin/Shutterstock

You and your partner had what you believed to be an excellent relationship. It seemed like nothing would get in the way of continuing to deepen the bonds that had started to form and, indeed, solidified over the course of time. In fact, you felt so confident about the relationship’s potential to become permanent that you didn’t see anything wrong with sending out as many texts as you wanted to your partner, even if, at times, this meant sending three or four in a row. Therefore, when you went for several days without getting any response, you figured that perhaps you overestimated the quality of your connection. Were you too intrusive? Did you seem too needy? Was your tendency to initiate contact not actually reciprocated? In retrospect, did you not give your partner enough space? On the other hand, it’s pretty horrible that your partner resorted to the rudeness of “ghosting” or ignoring your repeated attempts at connection.

Even as you become infuriated at your now ex’s uncivil breaking of ties with you, it begins to strike you as perhaps having been a predictable outcome. Your last relationships similarly came to a screeching halt, prefaced by your taking for granted the fact that your partner wanted closeness as much as you did. In fact, as you reflect on the ending of your most recent relationships, you realize that you’re not all that good at setting, and maintaining, boundaries.

After having moved on and, you hope, having overcome your bitterness at being the victim of ghosting, you notice some strange activity in your social media accounts. Among the “likes” of some of your postings are little thumbs-up’s from your ex. Although at first you think this might have been an accident, the signals that your former partner is reading your posts become unmistakable. This behavior, according to a recent New York Times article by Rainesford Stauffer, is typical of “orbiting,” in which “distant methods of digital observation — likes, views, etc. — are what binds the orbiter and the orbited.” The likes provided by the orbiter don’t produce that “endorphin rush, the feeling of being circled by someone you want to get closer to.” Instead, you feel a combination of frustration, disappointment, and confusion about what it all means. There’s also “acceptance of the hard truth of all digital romance: Eventually, the relationship must be taken offline or brought to an end. It’s as though the specter of a Relationship That Could Have Been is peeping over your shoulder, keeping tabs without having to commit to any real-world interactions.”

Because orbiting seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon (or one that only recently received a name), there is no research on the topic in the psychological literature. However, University of Utah’s Samantha Joel and colleagues (2018), in their continuation of research on the stay/leave decision in romantic relationships, provide some insight into the factors that may predispose a person to engage in orbiting. Their work involves studying the endings of relationships while they are occurring, rather than relying on reports after the fact, which can be tainted by guilt, denial, shame, and a host of other emotions. Just as importantly, when partners decide not to leave each other, the study of the process while it is occurring can help identify the contributors to the “stay” side of the stay/leave equation.

What’s relevant to the process of orbiting about this research is the idea that when people contemplate the ending of what seemed like a committed relationship, they feel ambivalent. The orbiter, we can assume, is expressing this ambivalence. Initially, your ex may be glad to have gotten away from you, and to do so, took the path of least resistance (i.e., ghosting). However, if you were really that close to each other, there’s a good chance that relief is being replaced by regret. The unreliability of memory, in which the bad tends to fade away over time, can lead people to start to miss the person they once were so close to. Tracking you, and responding with the occasional like, can reflect both consciously and unconsciously on the attachment your ex still feels toward you.

The researchers relied on the judgment and decision-making (JDM) field to gain insight into stay/leave processes. People have, they note, ambivalent feelings about making unpleasant decisions, such as the ending of a close relationship. Ambivalence, in turn, “is a deeply unpleasant experience with negative consequences for health and well-being” (p. 631). To understand the process in real time (rather than after the fact), Joel and her fellow researchers recruited individuals who were actively engaged in deciding whether to stay or leave their partner. What tips the scales toward leaving when people are considering whether staying would be worth the investment?

Strong feelings of unhappiness around the ending of the relationships should, the authors further propose, reflect the anxious attachment style, in which people worry constantly about the availability of those on whom they depend. People high in the anxious attachment style would hate to end a relationship, but on the other hand, if they feel they’re going to be left by their partner, they will take the initiative to bring things to a close before they can get hurt.

In the first of two studies, Joel and her colleagues identified the reasons for staying and leaving among samples of both undergraduates and online adults. They used a descriptive approach method that included, first, having participants provide a list of reasons, and then second, having participants endorse their agreement with items based on those reasons. In the second study, participants included dating partners considering breakups and married individuals considering separation and divorce. The reasons for staying included such items as a partner’s personality, the degree of intimacy, habituation, emotional security, concern for partner, optimism, and general satisfaction. Reasons for leaving included emotional distance, partner’s personality, incompatibility, conflict, breach of trust, lack of enjoyment, and loss of attraction. Scores on both sets of reasons were then correlated with questions tapping areas such as attachment anxiety, attachment avoidance, satisfaction, investment, and quality of alternatives.

The complex set of findings led the authors to the conclusion that, as you might expect, “people weigh out . . . competing relationship factors to arrive at an overall assessment of the relationship” (p. 641). Attachment avoidance played a role in the decision-making process, particularly in areas such as wanting to maintain companionship, being dependent on the partner, and feeling that the partner had become withholding or breached the trust of the relationship. However, apart from attachment style, it was clear that ambivalence permeated the stay/leave decision. Almost half of the participants (49 percent) reported that motivation to both stay and leave was higher than the midpoint. In other words, people received higher than expected scores on both sets of stay and leave factors.

We can return, then, to the question of orbiting and what the existence of this phenomenon reflects about the process of relationship-ending in general. People become involved with each other for a reason, and so when their involvement ceases, those reasons continue. You almost certainly have felt at one time or another that you miss being with the person to whom you were so close. You wonder what he or she is doing, and perhaps even think wistfully about the people in your partner’s family and circle of close friends. You’re curious to know whether he or she is doing well at work or at school. After the bitterness of the relationship’s ending subsides, you’re left with a residue of the factors that drew you to this person in the first place.

To sum up, you may be angry at the person who leaves you, and even angrier when you become orbited. However, knowing that relationship endings are fraught with ambivalence, on all sides, may help you understand and grow from this experience into more fulfilling relationships to come.

References

Joel, S., MacDonald, G., & Page-Gould, E. (2018). Wanting to stay and wanting to go: Unpacking the content and structure of relationship stay/leave decision processes. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9(6), 631–644. doi 10.1177/1948550617722834