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The Terms of Noncommitment: Ghosting, Breadcrumbing, More

Disappearing acts and being strung along in careers and relationships.

Key points

  • Ghosting, breadcrumbing, and other noncommittal behaviors are increasingly normalized.
  • Being ghosted is often a reason for initiating an act of ghosting on someone else.
  • Ghosting, breadcrumbing, submarining, and orbiting are new terms in our lexicon of noncommittal behaviors.
Liza Summers/Pexels
Source: Liza Summers/Pexels

Have you been the recipient of one too many disappearing acts, no-shows, or mysteriously broken commitments? Ghosting, defined by Merriam Webster as “to suddenly cut off all contact with someone,” now seems to happen shamelessly in our close relationships as well as careers.

In 2020 and beyond, I was encountering my own share of being ghosted and hearing from fellow “ghostees” who lamented similar disheartening experiences, adding to their long list of pandemic uncertainties.

“They left me high and dry! Not a single word. Not even a simple ‘thank you.’ This crappy treatment seems to be happening everywhere!” “I should stop thinking it’s only happening to me—right?”

Ghosting is truly on the rise with employers as well as job seekers, a two-way street, even during the pandemic. published an alarming report in February 2021 stating that 77% of job seekers have been ghosted by a prospective employer, yet 76% of employers have been ghosted by a candidate or new hire who no-showed.

And, in the world of dating, though there may have been a temporary dip in ghostings during the first months of the pandemic, a recent study indicated that those who have been ghosted are likely to initiate ghosting on someone else. It appears that the normalization of ghosting in one area of life (career/business) affects how we treat our other relationships. (Perhaps what goes around does come around?)

In reading more studies, I’ve learned that the disrespectful act of ghosting has a few close cousins in the new lexicon of noncommittal human behaviors. I’ve discovered three related terms: breadcrumbing, submarining, and orbiting. These names perfectly illustrate the transactional behaviors that seem to be escalating, especially on social media. With one-click solutions, we can rid ourselves of anyone we no longer need or like without any explanation, closure, or accountability. Who needs a conscience with tools like these?

Here are my definitions for three other terms that may be useful for the (expanding) language of noncommitment:

Breadcrumbing: When someone appears to engage with you by leaving a trail of breadcrumbs (little tidbits) but never really commits to anything solid or specific (sharing a decent slice of their loaf). We often call this pattern “stringing someone along” or “keeping options open.”

Submarining: Without notice, someone vanishes into a long period of noncommunication (such as going off the radar or diving deep into the void) and then suddenly resurfaces and reaches out again, as if nothing has happened.

Orbiting: Circling around someone online, following with likes, making your presence known but never really making serious contact. As an orbiter, your intentions may be good as well as not-so-helpful. But certainly, you are never reachable when that person you are orbiting tries to contact you with a phone call or real-life encounter. In short, you are playing “hard to pin down” but easy to be seen everywhere. Indeed, ghosters often end up being orbiters, keeping an eye on you.

Bottom line: These transactional behaviors are fast becoming normalized as ways to treat one another as expendable commodities. Even though we’re supposed to believe that “not taking it personally” is the cure for all manner of disrespectful human deeds, the truth is this: It does hurt on some level because, as humans, we are hardwired for it to hurt. We might rise above it, wear the big pants, dust ourselves off, and move on, but a ghosting by someone who was once close to us can still haunt us at 3 a.m. in a bad dream. Humans are biologically invested in forming relationships and not meant to be cut off suddenly or left hanging in oblivion. Up until smartphones and social media, people didn’t just disappear quite like that, and they were more likely to be shamed if they did run away, pull a no-show, or drop out without a decent explanation.

How ghosting, breadcrumbing, orbiting, and submarining can hurt us

  1. There is real physical pain when we are ghosted, shunned, flat-out rejected, or just left hanging: Physical and emotional pain are quite the same in our brains, according to MRI studies reported by the APA since the early 2000s.
  2. Confusion, lack of closure, or no resolution can trigger self-doubt: Hanging in limbo, we don’t know what to do or how to respond. Left in this murkiness, our inner demons (or inner critics) have the opportunity to run amok in the shadows of our headspace. Given the uncertainty of the pandemic, we may already have felt lost or unsure of ourselves. Those of us who battle PTSD, depression, or social anxiety may be even more haunted by these inner voices piling on after someone has ghosted or breadcrumbed us. In short, without closure and clarity, we might default to finding something to blame in ourselves.
  3. Increase in a sense of loneliness and isolation: A year’s worth of ghostings, breadcrumbings, or submarinings can leave us feeling disconnected, isolated, and discouraged from trying to meet new people. Because these feelings can be difficult to share with others, we might hide our loneliness and put a fence around ourselves. Staying home with Netflix, a cat on our lap, and a bowl of ice cream can be a lot more satisfying than putting yourself “out there.”
  4. We may actually be going through grief. This could be disenfranchised grief, a term coined by grief researcher Kenneth Doka, Ph.D., in his book in 1989, Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. True grief reactions can develop on many levels and it’s not just a matter of “getting over it.” You may be suffering through your own individual stages of grieving with a messy mix of shock, anger, bargaining, sadness, or breakthrough periods of acceptance. No one goes through these stages in any particular order, but you might recognize your feelings as a legitimate grief response to a significant loss.

Here are some losses you might be grieving, in relationships as well as in your career:

  • Loss of trust: You feel betrayed, manipulated, or misled. You are grieving the loss of trustworthiness in that person or group.
  • Loss of hope in the decency of people: You rationalize that you must lower your expectations for future encounters. Or worse, you write off most human beings as selfish, flaky, mean, or some other not-so-kind attributes.
  • Loss of initiative: Alongside a lack of hopefulness, you just don’t want to try so hard anymore to do the right thing. Why bother to reach out to others? Why be so thoughtful and considerate in your correspondence?
  • Loss of a relationship. Whether you have bonded with a dynamic business partner, or treasured a long friendship, or feel jazzed by a new romance, any erratic behavior that forces a loss makes grieving particularly difficult.

What Helps

Acknowledge and name what has happened. First of all, call it out and give it a name: Did you recently get ghosted, breadcrumbed, submarined, or orbited? We can also honestly name our responses (such as grief, bitterness, fear). We can express our raw reactions in a journal or an art form, or share our story with a trusted friend. It can be helpful to ask someone to give you a reality check or to hear their condemnation of the rude behavior you have encountered.

See the bigger picture and learn how to spot these problematic behaviors in your personal and professional circles—because, as you know, it’s not about you. It helps to learn more about these societal habits and unhealthy social media trends, clearly identifying unethical behaviors and examining how to avoid work cultures or dating cultures where these behaviors run rampant.

Aim to uphold your integrity and moral character (even though “everybody’s doing it”). Declare your intentions to continue to be decent, fair, and considerate in your interactions. No need to lower your own standards just because so many others don’t care. You can claim your integrity because you didn’t allow yourself to cave or flake or be a jerk under pressure.

Prioritize your mental health. If this experience continues to haunt you or has triggered too much, an honest talk with someone you trust or psychotherapy can help. Set aside time to discuss ways to prevent further hurt from ghosting and similar behaviors.

In conclusion, Amy Jussel, founder of Shaping Youth, sums it all up with this question: “Do we really want to treat each other like devices to be tossed like a spent burner phone?”

Certainly not. Let’s stand up against the normalization of treating people badly.

Facebook image: Pumidol/Shutterstock

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