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Relationships

Ghosting and Relationships: How We Can Do Better

Avoidance of anxiety and discomfort is often an underlying culprit.

Key points

  • Most people who have been ghosted have also engaged in ghosting someone else.
  • People who ghost often want to avoid conflict or avoid hurting someone else's feelings.
  • Ghosting has negative effects on both the person being ghosted and the person doing the ghosting.
  • Resisting the urge to ghost can help your future relationships, as it will bolster your communication skills and reduce conflict avoidance.
New Africa/Adobe Stock
Source: New Africa/Adobe Stock

Maybe this has happened to you: you had a great date with an attractive person you met on a dating app. You were thrilled that at the end of the date they told you that they wanted to see you again. You enthusiastically texted them the next day, and…radio silence! You have no idea what went wrong, what they are thinking, what they think is wrong with you, and it feels pretty devastating.

Or maybe you are on the other side of this equation: you had a pleasant date with someone you met on an app. However, maybe you weren’t that attracted to them, or they reminded you too much of your ex, or perhaps you are too scared of being hurt that you didn’t want to pursue it any further. Rather than risk an awkward end to the date, “Let’s do this again,” slips out of your mouth, the words seemingly having a life of their own. When your date texts the next day, the easiest thing to do is to ignore it.

Ghosting can be defined as one person deciding to cut off all communication, without an explanation. In romantic relationships in can occur in the very early stages of dating, or even in more serious, longer-term relationships. The practice is very common, and one study found that almost 65% of respondents had previously ghosted someone they were dating, and 72% said that they had previously been ghosted by someone else.1 For those who have been ghosted (the “ghostee”), it can be extremely painful and fraught with uncertainty. For those who have done the ghosting (the “ghoster”), it might feel like a relief from dealing with an uncomfortable situation. Interestingly, research on ghosting has found that most people have found themselves on both sides of the ghosting phenomenon, at times being ghostee and other times being ghoster.2,3

Ghosting and anxiety

There are many reasons why people ghost, ranging from being disinterested in the other person, to avoiding conflict, to protecting the ghostee from feeling hurt.2,3 One common underlying factor for many is avoidance of discomfort and anxiety.

For someone who does not want to continue a relationship, they have a choice: 1) tell the person directly, or 2) avoid the situation altogether. In the first situation, the person needs to muster up the courage for a possible confrontation, even if it’s just over text, not knowing how the other person will respond. Also, they might contend with the guilt of hurting the other person’s feelings. The whole situation can be quite anxiety-provoking. However, by ghosting, they can try to avoid all unpleasantries altogether and just disappear.

Avoidance and anxiety/discomfort go hand-in-hand. People who fear heights will avoid tall buildings and glass elevators, those who fear public judgment and scrutiny will avoid giving speeches, a victim of a crime might avoid going out at night, and so on and so forth. Those who want to avoid conflict and/or hurting someone else, might, well, ghost them.

Negative effects of ghosting

When someone has been ghosted, there is often a tendency to engage in self-blame and self-criticism. They might question their self-worth and feel hopeless about future relationships. The lack of closure and the accompanying uncertainty can be very painful.

Ghosting also negatively affects the ghoster. It deprives them of the ability to “practice” being in an uncomfortable situation; this avoidance sets them up for future avoidance. This conflict-avoidant style might be detrimental to their future relationships. Research on relationships has found that healthier relationships are comprised of direct communication, whereas more troubled ones are characterized by more of an avoidant style of communication.4

If you have the urge to ghost…

…think through your decision more carefully. Resisting the urge to ghost could be an opportunity for growth by practicing direct communication. Think of it as also an investment in your future relationships. So, just like riding in glass elevators will help someone get over their fear of heights, practicing confronting discomfort associated with ending the relationship more directly (even if it’s just after a first date) can help lead to healthier relationships.

There might be some instances where it might make sense to ghost, such as being fearful for your personal safety, or if the relationship is particularly toxic. In those cases, your first priority is to protect yourself, and ghosting might be your best bet in those circumstances.

Strategies for the ghostee

Validate yourself that it can be very painful not having any explanation or closure. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that whatever the reason, it often says much more about the ghoster’s inability to tolerate discomfort and anxiety than it does about you. If you have the urge to ghost someone else in the future, you can reflect on how you felt about being the ghostee and perhaps make a different choice.

Final Thoughts

If you ever have the urge to ghost someone, it might be helpful to do some soul searching and see if avoidance of anxiety is the culprit. If it is, the best thing you can do for yourself is to confront the situation head-on and kindly tell the person you are no longer interested. It might be temporarily uncomfortable, but you are giving yourself the gift of building resiliency and giving the other person the gift of closure.

References

1. Koessler, R. B., Kohut, T., & Campbell, L. (2019). When your boo becomes a ghost: The association between breakup strategy and breakup role in experiences of relationship dissolution. Collabra Psychology, 5(1).

2. Thomas, J. O., & Dubar, R. T. (2021). Disappearing in the age of hypervisibility: Definition, context, and perceived psychological consequences of social media ghosting. Psychology of Popular Media.

3. LeFebvre, L. E., Allen, M., Rasner, R. D., Garstad, S., Wilms, A., & Parrish, C. (2019). Ghosting in emerging adults’ romantic relationships: The digital dissolution disappearance strategy. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 39(2), 125–150

4. Domingue, R., & Mollen, D. (2009). Attachment and conflict communication in adult romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 26(5), 678–696.

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