Why You Were Ghosted
A romantic partner suddenly disappears, and you're left wondering what you did wrong. Chances are it has little to do with you. Blame it on "relationshopping."
By Robert P. Burriss Ph.D. published September 4, 2018 - last reviewed on February 26, 2019
Breaking up (in person) is hard to do. While most people hope—and expect—that partners will grant them the courtesy of a face-to-face explanation of why they're moving on, reality can be much messier. Instead, you may find your texts ignored, your calls unanswered, and your notifications tab empty. You've not only been dumped—you've been ghosted.
To "ghost" is to cut a romantic partner out of one's life, ignoring all attempts at contact, and leaving the ghosted to figure out they've been kicked to the curb. Breakups are rarely easy, but ghosting—which denies the opportunity for discussion and closure—can be a confusing as well as a painful blow. Ghosting is far from new, but as dating grows faster, more convenient, and less personal, it's on the rise: Around 20 percent of adults under 30 admit to having ghosted someone, while another 20 percent say they have been ghosted—although some surveys have found that for younger daters, that number runs as high as 80 percent.
The impulse to simply disappear from an unsatisfying relationship has likely existed since the first Cro-Magnon couple shared a cave. But recent shifts in technology provide daters with the means to act on their desires with little social cost. By its very nature, ghosting leaves more questions than answers—providing fertile ground for psychologists to explore the ghoulish phenomenon. It turns out that not everyone is at equal risk of ghosting—or of being ghosted.
Shopping for a Date
If you're single, you're probably swiping. Apps like Tinder, Bumble, and Grindr are each less than a decade old, but their swipe-based interfaces are steadily transforming the way we date. By 2016, at least 15 percent of American adults had used a dating app; for daters between the ages of 18 and 24 that number jumps to 27 percent, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
Most of these apps are free to use, but the companies behind them still haul in millions of dollars each year—through advertising, data collection, or premium, pay-only features. Users become both consumer and product. Unfortunately, the resulting commodification of our love lives shifts the way we view (and treat) potential partners, making us more willing to quietly cast them off when our expectations aren't met.
A team of behavioral scientists at Georgetown University interviewed online daters and found that over half of them spontaneously used the metaphor of a "marketplace" to characterize their experience in the virtual dating world. They frequently compared profiles to resumes and described fellow users as "purveyors of snake-oil," prone to lie about their height, weight, or bank balance. The ability to filter out people based on specific qualities produces a "shopping cart mentality," daters said; possible partners are left on the shelf (or abandoned) if they don't meet every item on a list of "must-haves."
"Relationshopping," as some researchers call it, may encourage "the belief that a great relationship could be had just by discovering the right profile, rather than cultivated through hard work and effort," the Georgetown team observes in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Viewing potential dates as products to be sifted through and sampled may promote discarding them at the first pangs of buyer's remorse, the researchers say. A nearly endless supply of profiles—Tinder counted more than 50 million users in 2014—tempts swipers to use a hassle-free way to cut their losses and keep ahead of the market.
The Ghosts Among Us
Ghosted? Maybe it was destiny.
All of us hold certain theories of relationships. Some people believe in destiny—that we each have a soul mate waiting to sweep us off our feet. Others are less sure that "the one" exists; less romantic, they may be more willing to work at relationships.
When a team at Dartmouth asked volunteers, average age 33, about their theories of relationships and their views on ghosting, they found that those who believed in destiny were 63 percent more likely than disbelievers to deem ghosting an acceptable way to end a relationship—even a long-term one. These volunteers were also 24 percent less likely to think poorly of a ghoster and 43 percent more likely to ghost someone themselves.
If you believe your one and only is out there somewhere—and decide your current partner isn't it—ghosting may seem like a viable option with minimal social cost. Destiny daters may also have little concern about harming or confusing an ex they likely won't see again: A 1998 study from the University of Houston found that believers in destiny are unlikely to stay in touch after a breakup.
Indirect breakup methods—like dumping someone through email or text message—minimize confrontation and lessen the emotional difficulty for the person initiating the split. Ghosting is a more extreme type of indirect breakup, involving no confrontation at all. Research suggests that such impersonal strategies are favored by those who fear commitment and shun intimacy.
An indirect breakup strategy may look good to people who have a so-called avoidant attachment style, researchers at the University of Kansas found. Attachment styles vary from person to person and can be categorized as secure, anxious, or avoidant. About 20 percent of adults have an avoidant attachment style, and tend to suppress their feelings or struggle to be vulnerable with a partner. Indirect breakup methods, like ghosting, allow avoiders to "maintain emotional distance from close others, especially when under stress," says the Kansas team.
Another 15 percent of the population have an anxious attachment style and tend to worry about the availability of their partner. They are easily distressed by conflict, making them especially likely candidates for digital dumping, according to a study from California State University. If avoiders are more apt to ghost, it's the high-maintenance, anxious partners who are most at risk of being ghosted.
For most people, the uncertainties of dating—whether in person or via an app—are necessary risks in the quest to find a long-term romantic partner. The possibility that their happily-ever-after might turn into a ghost story is unlikely to scare them away.