The opposite of love isn’t hate; it is indifference. Ghosting, for those of you who haven’t yet experienced it, is having someone that you believe cares about you, whether it be a friend or someone you are dating, disappear from contact without any explanation at all. No phone call or email, not even a text. Ghosting isn’t new—people have long done disappearing acts—but years ago this kind of behavior was considered limited to a certain type of scoundrel. In today’s dating culture being ghosted is a phenomenon that approximately 50 percent of men and women have experienced—and an almost equal number have done the ghosting.1 Despite ghosting's commonality, the emotional effects can be devastating, and particularly damaging to those who already have fragile self-esteem.
Why do people ghost?
People who ghost are primarily focused on avoiding their own emotional discomfort and they aren’t thinking about how it makes the other person feel. The lack of social connections to people who are met online also means there are less social consequences to dropping out of someone’s life. The more it happens, either to themselves or their friends, the more people become desensitized to it and the more likely they are to do it to someone else.
“I didn't understand exactly how I actually felt at the time, so instead of trying to talk it out, I ghosted.” 2
“I used to disappear when it was all I thought it was [a fling], or I got scared of finding what I wanted…Or some kind of fear factor from a past relationship kicks in.” 2
“Looking through the lens of a coward, passive withdrawal from dating seems like the easiest and nicest route…until it’s done to you.” 3
“I kind of think that it's part of what makes the online dating scene so appealing. Since you don't have friends in common or weren't introduced through some other channel, it's not the end of the world if you just drop off the face of the earth.” 4
“I, for one, consider myself to be an honest and straightforward person. And yet I’ve ghosted...And I’ve told myself, time and time again, that it’s all the fault of the toxic dating culture we’ve created. And at the end of the day, I think that’s what we’re all telling ourselves.” 5
How does it feel to be ghosted?
For many people ghosting can result in feelings of being disrespected, used and disposable. If you have known the person beyond more than a few dates then it can be even more traumatic. When someone we love and trust disengages from us it feels like a very deep betrayal.
“I felt like an idiot. Like I had been played a fool. And more so I felt disrespected. Take the romantics away, to have a great connection with a new friend and then all of a sudden never hear from them again? That’s painful and really disappointing. No one deserves to be blown off.” 6
“It still felt a bit like someone had punched me in the gut when it happened. The disregard is insulting. The lack of closure is maddening. You move on, but not before your self-esteem takes a hit. The only thing worse than being broken up with is realizing that someone didn’t even consider you worth breaking up with.” 7
“Going from texting every day and seeing each other a couple times a week to nothing without the slightest hint of why was a kick in the gut.” 8
“Ghosting is one of the cruelest forms of torture dating can serve up.” 9
Why does it feel so bad?
Social rejection activates the same pain pathways in the brain as physical pain.10 In fact, you can reduce the emotional pain of rejection with a pain medication like Tylenol.11 But in addition to this biological link between rejection and pain, there are some specific factors about ghosting that contribute to the psychological distress.
Ghosting gives you no cue for how to react. It creates the ultimate scenario of ambiguity. Should you be worried? What if they are hurt and lying in a hospital bed somewhere? Should you be upset? Maybe they are just a little busy and will be calling you at any moment. You don’t know how to react because you don’t really know what has happened. Staying connected to others is so important to our survival that our brain has evolved to have a social monitoring system (SMS) that monitors the environment for cues so that we know how to respond in social situations.12 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.
One of the most insidious aspects of ghosting is that it doesn’t just cause you to question the validity of the relationship you had, it causes you to question yourself. Why didn’t I see this coming? How could I have been such a poor judge of character? What did I do to cause this? How do I protect myself from this ever happening again? This self-questioning is the result of basic psychological systems that are in place to monitor one’s social standing and relay that information back to the person via feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. When a rejection occurs your self-esteem can drop which social psychologists propose is meant to be a signal that your social belonging is low.13 If you have been through multiple ghostings or if your self-esteem is already low you are likely to experience the rejection as even more painful, and it may take you longer to get over it as people with lower-self-esteem have less natural opioid (pain-killer) released into the brain after a rejection when compared to those whose self-esteem is higher.14
Ghosting is the ultimate use of the silent treatment, a tactic that has often been viewed by mental health professionals as a form of emotional cruelty.15 It essentially renders you powerless and leaves you with no opportunity to ask questions or be provided with information that would help you emotionally process the experience. It silences you and prevents you from expressing your emotions and being heard, which is important for maintaining your self-esteem.
Regardless of the ghoster’s intent, ghosting is a passive-aggressive interpersonal tactic that can leave psychological bruises and scars.
How do you move forward?
The important thing to remember is that when someone ghosts you, it says nothing about you or your worthiness for love and everything about the person doing the ghosting. It shows he/she doesn’t have the courage to deal with the discomfort of their emotions or yours, and they either don't understand the impact of their behavior or worse don’t care. In any case they have sent you an extremely loud message that says: I don’t have what it takes to have a mature healthy relationship with you. Be the better person, retain your dignity, and let him/her go peacefully.
Don’t allow someone else’s bad behavior to rob you of a better future by losing your vulnerability and shutting yourself off from another relationship. Keep your energy focused on doing what makes you happy. Know that if you are someone who treats people with respect and integrity then the ghoster simply wasn’t on your wavelength and someone better is coming your way, as long as you keep your heart open and your focus forward.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.