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Breaking up the Easy Way: Who Ghosts and Who Gets Ghosted?

Some traits make people more likely to be victims or perpetrators of "ghosting."

Key points

  • Three studies examined characteristics associated with "ghosting" or being ghosted by a romantic partner.
  • Results showed that people higher in attachment-related abandonment anxiety were more likely to be ghosted.
  • People high in attachment avoidance were more likely to have ghosted an ex-partner.
  • Those with fatalistic beliefs that relationships are either "meant to be" or not were also more likely to have ghosted an ex.
Erin Minuskin on Unsplash
Source: Erin Minuskin on Unsplash

There are many ways to end a romantic relationship, but one method that has become common in the era of technology-enabled constant connection is to abruptly cut off that connection. This is known as ghosting. Ghosting refers to suddenly stopping contact with a partner and ignoring their calls, texts, and social media messages. In one study, about 25% of people said they had been ghosted by someone they were dating. Not surprisingly, most people felt it was not an appropriate way to end a relationship, and the more serious the relationship, the more inappropriate people felt it was. But are certain people more likely to ghost? And are certain people more likely to be ghosted? New research by Darcey Powell and colleagues examines how two characteristics relate to ghosting: Attachment style and destiny beliefs about relationships.

Attachment Style

One major determinant of how people behave in their romantic relationships is their romantic attachment style. Attachment involves both people's comfort with intimacy and their level of security that they are loved and wanted in their relationships. Some people are quite comfortable getting close to others, depending on other people, and allowing other people to depend on them. However, other people are high in what researchers term attachment avoidance, meaning that they are uncomfortable with that sort of emotional intimacy and prefer to keep their distance from others, even those with whom they have close relationships, such as family members and romantic partners. The second aspect of attachment is how worried people are about being abandoned by their relationship partners. Those high in attachment anxiety worry their partners don't really love them or might leave the relationship. This makes them prone to focus on perceived slights or small problems and see them as signs that their partners aren't devoted. Their desire to be needed and fear that they aren't can make them clingy and jealous, which can drive partners away.

Attachment anxiety and ghosting

In three survey studies (one using undergraduate students, and two using broader samples of adults), Powell and colleagues found that those higher in attachment anxiety were more likely to be ghosted. That is, those who were most worried about being abandoned by their partners were the ones most likely to be abandoned without warning and be ignored in their attempts to reach out to partners who had ghosted them.

Why were people high in attachment anxiety more likely to be ghosted? One possibility is that they were clingy and that they emotionally drained their ex-partners, making those partners more likely to take the easy way out and avoid the drama of a straightforward breakup. Other research has found that people with greater attachment anxiety are more likely to be broken up with via technology, suggesting their exes were hoping to avoid some of the drama of a face-to-face breakup. Ironically then, those who most feared being abandoned ended up experiencing sudden abandonment that they could do nothing about. Another possibility is that experiences of being ghosted can actually contribute to greater attachment anxiety. That is, having been ghosted in the past may set people up to expect things to suddenly take a turn for the worse, creating fears of abandonment. Because the researchers collected their data all at once, it's impossible to know if attachment anxiety made people more likely to get ghosted, or if being ghosted increased people's attachment anxiety. It is likely that both of these possibilities are at play.

Attachment avoidance and ghosting

The association between attachment avoidance and ghosting was less clear. In two of the three studies, the researchers found that those higher in avoidance were more likely to have ghosted their exes. This makes sense, given that ghosting is an easy exit strategy that allows the ghoster to avoid dealing with the emotional discomfort of having an actual conversation about relationship problems and dealing with the potential hurt their ex might experience. However, in one of the studies using an adult sample, attachment avoidance was not related to ghosting. Perhaps the circumstances surrounding adult relationship breakup are more complex, and intimacy avoidance does not play the same role that it does in the breakups of college student relationships.

Destiny Beliefs

Those with destiny beliefs believe that relationships are either "meant to be" or not. They think that if a relationship is destined to work out, it will, and people shouldn't have to work that hard to keep their relationships going. That means that if there are problems in the relationship, it's just a sign that the relationship is not meant to be, and there is no point in trying to make things better.

People with destiny beliefs tend to be decisive about their relationships. If they think there is a problem, they are quick to break it off. They're more likely to break things off if their partners are less than ideal and they take their partners' behavior as a sign of how strong the relationship is. So if things aren't going as well as they'd like, they will break it off without looking back.

Both past research, and the three new studies by Powell and colleagues found that people with destiny beliefs were more likely to have ghosted their ex-partners. Because they believe the demise of the relationship is inevitable (clearly it isn't "meant to be"), they may not see much reason to belabor the breakup process. So, ghosting is an easy way to end a relationship that was already a lost cause in their minds.

Both a tendency to be fatalistic about relationships and a tendency to be uncomfortable with intimacy make people more likely to ghost their partners when they want out of a relationship. But some people are more likely to be ghosted than others. In an unfortunate irony, those who most fear being abandoned are the most likely to be on the receiving end of ghosting. What other personal qualities might be related to the tendency to ghost or be ghosted?

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