The Anatomy of Ghosting
A new study helps explain the whys and hows of ghosting
Posted March 11, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Ghosting refers to the practice of ending a relationship by suddenly ceasing all communication, without providing an explanation. Unfortunately, it’s become an increasingly common method by which to break off a relationship.
While ghosting has been discussed amply in the popular press, it has received less attention within academia. Now, a new study led by Leah LeFebvre of the University of Alabama sought to shed scientific light on this phenomenon, to help demystify why and how ghosters choose to end a relationship in this manner, and how ghostees experience this method of relationship dissolution. To that end, here’s what the investigators did. They began by recruiting participants who were “familiar” with ghosting. In the final tally, the sample was largely white, straight, college-educated, and between the ages of 18 and 30. The researchers then had participants complete questionnaires about their experiences with ghosting, as both initiators and non-initiators.
The researchers also interviewed participants in person and via face-to-face media (e.g., Skype). They probed participants’ experiences with ghosting from the perspective of both the ghoster and the ghostee. Participants were asked questions that explored the decision to ghost, such as, “Why did you choose to ghost rather than directly indicate your intentions?” And “When did you decide (or at what point) to ghost?” Other questions pointed to the experience of being ghosted, like: “In what specific conditions (time of day, location) or mediums (text, Facebook, FtF) did the ghosting occur?” The final question posed to the participants: “After completing the survey, is there anything we should consider about the ghosting experience that we have not asked you?” This gave participants the opportunity to clarify their answers if they wished.
What did the researchers find? Five themes emerged as to why people ghost:
1. Convenience — Participants stated a preference for the practicality of ghosting over other methods of disengagement. As a 22-year-old male explained, “Ghosting was easier to do rather than setting up a time to end the relationship or deal with the emotions of either myself or the current partner.” From this perspective, ghosting offers convenience by comparison to other break-up strategies.
2. Attraction — This theme refers to the mate selection process, which revolves around physical, emotional, and/or intellectual appeal. Online dating and mobile apps provide more opportunities for dating and mating beyond one’s immediate geographical area. They also provide upfront information about potential partners — which can delay actually meeting in person and getting to know them. Having this information about a potential partner serves as a “gate feature,” which helps users decide whether to pursue or steer clear of a potential mate. As a 21-year-old male put it, “I chose to ghost because I was no longer interested, and the relationship wasn’t serious enough to warrant a more personal medium.” In other words, when interest wanes, people can use the easy out of avoidance through technology.
3. Negative interactions — This theme refers to the ghoster’s disinterest in the ghostee as a result of the latter’s antagonistic behavior. Ghosters described negative interactions with ghostees that caused anger, frustration, and toxicity; this subsequently led the ghoster to disengage and end communication with the ghostee. As a 22-year-old male participant expressed, “A change in someone’s feelings towards the other person, maybe an embarrassment or a sudden distaste for another person that they’d rather not actually, like, discuss or confront.” This sort of logic provided a rationale for ghosting, and a method to bypass awkward or negative interactions.
4. Relationship state — This theme captures the type of relationship between the parties, including romantic, friendship, or acquaintanceship, as well as the length of the relationship (the amount of time the relationship has lasted). Ghosting was not limited to romantic relationships — it occurred across relationship types. When ghosters decided to drop out of a relationship, they factored in the time investment and engagement in the relationship when deciding how to proceed. Consider the explanation given by a 27-year-old female: “I chose to do it, because I had only been on one date and did not wish to continue to lead him on but felt awkward having that conversation, so I instead just stopped talking to him.”
5. Safety — This theme concerned issues around security, dangerous situations, self-protection, or personal well-being. In this instance, ghosting permits a method that is at once easy and practical to keep oneself safe. As a 21-year-old said, “fear of the person going crazy” justified ghosting. This was especially true “if somebody’s being like inappropriate, creepy, or weird,” opined an 18-year-old woman. Moreover, ending all technological means of communication gave participants a sense of safety that they couldn’t derive from face-to-face interactions.
The investigators also found three themes which revealed the inner churnings of the ghosting decision-making process:
1. Selecting a medium — When it comes to ghosting, people showed differences in their preferred medium. The choice of medium was intentional. For example, a 22-year-old female stated that “. . . ghosting has occurred entirely on Facebook, which incidentally is where we met.” Another participant expressed, “I was just talking to her on Tinder and stopped talking to her.” The authors note that feeling a lack of obligation to keep up contact may explain why people see ghosting via technology an easier means to end things rather than face-to-face interaction.
2. Choosing the interval to implement — Participants reported that ghosting happens along a continuum, from gradual to sudden. Sudden ghosting was described as halting or stopping, whereas gradual ghosting was characterized by a fading out or a slower approach. Consider sudden ghosting, as described by a 20-year-old female: “. . . you are going to ghost, don’t text the person. I would not text the person back, I would drop them completely.” Another female participant also noted the factor of time when ghosting, remarking, “I think you could slowly drift apart and stop talking, but I don’t know if that’s really ghosting. So maybe it’s more out of the blue and sudden.” By contrast to sudden ghosting, gradual ghosting involved a waning of communication over time. The emotional fallout of this approach is that it protracts the feeling of uncertainty during the break-up process for the ghostee.
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3. Implementing break-up permanency — The permanency of ghosting fell along a continuum, from short-term to long-term. Short-term ghosting hinged on situational factors (vacations) or benign factors (distraction). One 29-year-old male reflected, “If I ghost them, yeah, it’s like a temporary shutdown just for the time being.” Long-term ghosting, by contrast, was more permanent. As a 24-year-old put it, “I would consider ghosting is going like cold turkey and quit talking to a girl completely, just shut her out of your life.”
Permanently breaking off from a relationship meant stamping out any hope that the relationship could be somehow resurrected. Moreover, ghostees usually didn’t see any signs that they were about to be ghosted, precluding the opportunity to make sense of the uncertainty that suddenly befell them. In other words, it was the ghoster who held the power to determine whether the break was temporary or permanent, as well as the frequency of communication with the ghostee.
On the flip side of the ghosting coin, the investigators found that ghostees experiences revolved around three themes:
1. Modified communication — The ghostee observed modified communication patterns through three sources:
- Absenteeism in communication, which usually involved the ghoster ending communication across all technological platforms. The factor of time, however, ranged greatly, from hours to days to months.
- Inadequate reciprocity, in which the ghoster’s responsiveness diminished. Communication patterns also shifted from normal to irregular. A 22-year-old female recalled, “They would not make an effort to start a conversation and would give me one-word responses. They would also only sometimes respond to me or text me.”
- Epiphanic communication, which refers to a revelation the ghostee had in retrospect as a result of the modified communication on the part of the ghoster. More specifically, the ghosted person came to understand that unanswered or ignored communications were in and of itself a demonstration of the ghoster’s intentions. A 25-year-old female recalled, “I knew from the moment that I received his text and then I never heard anything from him again. I never got a reason for why he wanted to end things....”
Taken together, modified communication patterns often induced feelings of uncertainty in the ghosted, making it difficult to navigate the situation.
2. Lessening interest — Ghostees often reported that they sensed decreasing interest on the part of the ghoster. A 25-year-old woman relayed, “I had to buy my own drinks after dinner.” Ghosting in this instance wasn’t just through technological media, but also included face-to-face forms of withdrawal by the ghoster. But without the benefit of an explicit discussion, ghostees often didn’t have a chance to brace themselves for the ghosters' disappearance but were aware of the diminishing intimacy, connectedness, and/or attentiveness. That said, there were instances in which ghosters just disappeared from the lives of the ghostees, both on- and off-line, leaving the ghosted to figure out the situation on their own.
3. Change in relationship status — The ghosted in this study also discovered that their ghosters had dropped them when they discovered a change in their relationship status via social media, shifting from “single” to “in a relationship.” In the case of a 22-year-old woman, she realized she had been ghosted only “…when they got into a relationship with someone else.” In this scenario, the authors write, ghosting was carried out by way of non-communication.
LeFebvre and her team note important limitations of this study, including that the sample was comprised exclusively of emerging adults. They suggest that future investigations into ghosting look at the generational differences in relationship-dissolution strategies between current emerging adults and older individuals who didn’t grow up online.
They also recommend that future research on ghosting explore how ghostees handle the uncertainty the experience raises. Those on the receiving end of ghosting typically don’t have closure or an understanding into what went wrong. So, often, the people who are left behind are haunted by the experience and are left to make sense of it without the benefit of answers or explanations. Instead, they are left hanging — and trying to close the circle on their own.
Ghosting in Emerging Adults' Romantic Relationships: The Digital Dissolution Disappearance Strategy. Leah E. LeFebvre, Mike Allen, Ryan D. Rasner , Shelby Garstad, Aleksander Wilms, and Callie Parrish.Imagination, Cognition and Personality: Consciousness in Theory, Research, and Clinical Practice 0(0) 1–26. 2019.