Ghostbaiting: A Confusing Experience of Rejection
Making sense of others' behavior helps reduce suffering.
Posted Oct 30, 2020
What do you get when you combine “bait-and-switch,” the questionable sales tactic of offering one thing and then substituting another of lower quality, and ghosting, when someone you started a seemingly meaningful relationship with mysteriously vanishes? I call it "ghostbaiting."1 It happens on a faster time-frame than ghosting, a quick turnaround from pleasure to distress.
Why would someone act friendly and interested, only to withdraw? It may be the norm on many dating apps where attachments are fleeting and other people seem unreal, but we don't expect it in ordinary social interactions. Yet it is becoming more and more common.
Here are a few examples:
A professional colleague you always worked well with but haven't spoken to in a while reaches out, enthusiastically inviting you to discuss an opportunity. You respond, and then… silence.
Another parent texts you to set up a playdate. You get back with dates and times, so excited because your kid has been asking for a playdate for a while. You never hear anything back, but find out later on that she set up a bunch of activities with mutual friends and never told you. Was it an oversight, or on purpose?
Your romantic partner, during a heated discussion, asks you a question about something important. You start to speak, finally having a chance to share your point of view—only to get interrupted, shut-down, and attacked for what you said. Technically, they're there—but really, they're not there for you.
For anyone prone to anxiety about relationships, ghostbaiting is a double-whammy. First, it makes one feel wanted, that glow of being desired, valued. Then comes the injury of perceived rejection. Top it off with a dollop of uncertainty about what happened, a dash of moral bruising, and it's just awful. Even if you “don’t care what other people think,” ghostbaiting is typically frustrating and annoying, especially if something cool was dangled.
More to the point, for those tending toward insecurity and anxiety, the uncertainty triggered by another’s approach and abandonment demands an answer. Two big factors come into play when we try to make sense of social interactions (though of course there are many other important considerations).
One factor is the “fundamental attribution error,” or FAE. Coined by social psychologist Lee David Ross, the FAE (aka “correspondence bias”) is the tendency we have, making sense of others' behavior, to downplay external or situational factors while putting too much weight on psychological factors or personality.
When someone doesn’t show up on time, we may think “What a jerk!” or “She’s so inconsiderate!” rather than wondering if the train was delayed. This bias serves a purpose, enabling us to make predictions about intentional behavior, but can also lead us astray.
The second factor is the tendency for people to assume everything must be their fault. This is more common for those who are insecure, socially anxious, depressed, or affected by adverse childhood experiences of maltreatment or neglect. In cognitive therapy, this unhelpful thinking style is called “personalization.” It is a distortion of reality, but serves to provide an explanation, and therefore closure, on troubling interpersonal interactions.
The blame game
The tendency to use blame to understand and navigate life is often picked up during development, for example in families where conflict was simplistically addressed with fault-finding and finger-pointing, rather than mutual accountability and dialogue. Personally, taking the blame may have roots in self-protective behavior, as in an abusive power dynamic where the safest move is to agree with the aggressor’s false accusations.
This can even come across later in life as excessive self-involvement (“Why do you think everything is about you?!”). Experienced as misrecognition, it becomes another potential source of empathic let-down.
The need to be liked can be overwhelmingly powerful, rooted in and maintaining serious distortions in one’s sense of self, as well as in how we perceive others and social relationships. The need to be liked can easily overshadow other important needs, including those core to self-esteem and self-respect.
While most of the time, the mixed signals in ghostbaiting aren’t a reflection of how the other person actually feels about one, even if they are it’s important to recognize the potential for a runaway negative spiral, and move past or through these reactions to a better place. This takes practice.
Keeping an even keel
In most cases, though, it has nothing to do with you or how the other person feels about you. It may have to do with their style of dealing with others, and in that case it isn’t an error to understand the impact of personality and social style. They may have a more breezy attitude toward commitment with anybody. This is more likely the case if there is a consistent pattern of behavior over time. Maybe that’s not a good fit for someone who wants or needs more conscientious and responsive partners. Someone who is a planner, very detailed-oriented, is not going to click with someone who likes to play-it-by-ear.
Most of the time, it’s just circumstances. There is so much noise and stress in the average person’s day-to-day life, it’s become increasingly challenging to stay on top of every text, email, voicemail, and commitment to family, friends, and work.
If it’s possible, a compassionate, easygoing attitude makes for a smoother ride. It's easy to get over-committed, dropping a follow-up even with good intentions.
Letting go of the reflexive tendency to focus on the injury and injustice may be hard—and even suggesting moving one can feel empathetic, leading to further injury and anger—but it makes it easier to get some emotional distance in order to avoid unnecessary suffering and also make better decisions about how to handle the situation. Straightforward, useful approaches to dealing with emotional triggers are good to have on hand, such as Ford's TARGET (Trauma Affect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy) model.
Whether that means having a more casual relationship, reaching out to talk through what happened and express clear needs, or simply finding others who are a better fit, it’s better than getting tied up in knots. It's also important to recognize cultural factors. If you live in a complex urban environment where people are loosely attached, ghostbaiting behavior is much less likely to be about you or the relationship than if you live in a place where close-knit community is standard.
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1. The term has been used previously, but the meaning here is significantly different.