What Do We Know About Ghosting?

New research examines the norms of ghosting behavior.

Posted Mar 08, 2018

FGC/Shutterstock
Source: FGC/Shutterstock

As long as people have been involved in romantic relationships, they have found ways to end them. But with new technology, like texting and social media, playing a larger role in modern relationships, simply cutting off contact with partners has become an easy way to signal the end of a relationship.1 The term "ghosting" has been used to describe the act of simply disappearing from a romantic partner's life by ignoring their calls, texts, and social media messages.

But how common is ghosting, how do people feel about it, and who is more likely to do it? New research by Gili Freedman and colleagues, recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, explores these questions. The team conducted two large-scale online surveys of American adults. The first included 554 participants, and the second 747.2

How common is ghosting?

In both studies, about 25 percent of participants claimed that they had been ghosted by a previous partner, and about 20 percent indicated that they had ghosted someone else. The second study also examined ghosting in friendships and found that it was somewhat more common — 31.7 percent had ghosted a friend, and 38.6 percent had been ghosted by a friend.

How do people feel about ghosting?

Not surprisingly, most people found ghosting to be an unacceptable way to end a relationship. However, how acceptable people found it to be depended on the type of relationship. In the first study, 28 percent of respondents felt it was acceptable to ghost after just one date, whereas only 4.7 percent felt that it was an acceptable way to end a long-term romantic relationship. When it came to short-term relationships, 19.5 percent felt that ghosting was acceptable. In addition, the majority of participants (69.1 percent) said that knowing someone had ghosted a romantic partner would make them think more negatively of that person. Respondents also generally felt that ghosting friends was not that acceptable, but they typically believed it was more acceptable to ghost friends than romantic partners. This is consistent with other research in which participants were asked how they felt about being on the receiving end of various break-up methods — in that study, cutting off contact was considered one of the least desirable ways to end a relationship.3

Who is more likely to ghost?

There are probably many factors that influence ghosting, but the recent research by Freedman and colleagues focused on just one: People's general beliefs about relationships. Specifically, they focused on the extent to which people espouse destiny beliefs or growth beliefs. People high in destiny beliefs think that relationships are either "meant to be" or not. They feel that if a relationship is destined to work out, it will, and if it's not, it will fail. This is in contrast to people with growth beliefs, who think that good relationships take work, and that whether a relationship succeeds depends on how hard both partners work to maintain it.4

The research showed that those higher in destiny beliefs were more likely to think that ghosting was acceptable and were less likely to think poorly of the ghoster. They were also more likely to report that they would consider ghosting as a viable option for breaking up with a partner and to say that they had ghosted someone in the past. Interestingly, the extent to which participants endorsed growth beliefs was, for the most part, not related to their ghosting behavior or attitudes.

It is likely that there are many other characteristics that predict ghosting, such as attachment style. Past research has shown that those who are insecure in their relationships tend to feel stronger negative emotions during conflict and experience more stress after a conflict.5,6,7 So those who are insecurely attached may be more likely to ghost as a way to avoid the upsetting experience and aftermath of conflict. It is also likely that those high in narcissism would be more prone to ghosting, as they tend to lack empathy for partners and see them as a means to an end.8

What do we know about the frequency of ghosting?

This new research gives us some insight into how common the behavior is. However, we don't really know how representative these two samples are. It is also possible that respondents did not accurately recall past incidents of ghosting, especially if they happened many years ago.

This research also does not answer the question of whether ghosting has become more common in the modern age of texting and social media. It is reasonable to assume it has, given the large role that electronic communication plays in relationships. A partner's ghosting may be the first sign that something is wrong, and once you've been ghosted, you may be unlikely to seek an in-person confrontation.

Ghosting may also be easier to get away with in certain modern relationship contexts. For example, online dating has become increasingly common, with about 25 percent of young adults having tried it. Without a mutual social network tying you to a partner, it may be a lot easier to just disappear and not be held accountable.

People's perceptions of ghosting are, not surprisingly, rather negative. But it also appears that ghosting is not that common, with only about 20 percent of respondents saying they had ever done it in a past relationship. If you're considering taking the easy way out of a relationship, realize that ghosting will not only hurt your partner, but is likely to hurt your reputation.

References

1. LeFebvre, L. (2017). Ghosting as a relationship dissolution strategy in the technological age. In N. M. Punyanunt-Carter & J. S. Wrench (Eds.), The impact of social media in modern romantic relationships (pp. 219–235). New York, NY: Lexington Books

2. Freedman, G., Powell, D. N., Le, B., & Williams, K. D. (2018). Ghosting and destiny: Implicit theories of relationships predict beliefs about ghosting. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 0265407517748791.

3. Collins, T. J., & Gillath, O. (2012). Attachment, breakup strategies, and associated outcomes: The effects of security enhancement on the selection of breakup strategies. Journal of Research in Personality, 46, 210-222.

4. Knee, C. R. & Petty, K. N. (2013). Implicit theories of relationships: Destiny and growth beliefs. In J. A. Simpson & L. Campbell (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of close relationships (pp. 183-198). New York: Oxford University Press.

5. Kim, Y. (2006). Gender, attachment, and relationship duration on cardiovascular reactivity to stress in a laboratory study of dating couples. Personal Relationships, 9, 369-393.

6. Overall, N. C., Simpson, J. A., & Struthers, H. (2013). Buffering attachment-related avoidance: Softening emotional and behavioral defenses during conflict discussions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104, 854-871.

7. Powers, S. I., Pietromonaco, P. R., Gunlicks, M., & Sayer, A. (2006). Dating couples' attachment styles and patterns of cortisol reactivity and recovery in response to a relationship conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 613-628.

8. Sedikides, C., Campbell, W. K., Reeder, G. D., Elliot, A. J., & Gregg, A. P. (2002). Do others bring out the worst in narcissists? The "Others Exist for Me" illusion. In, Y. Kashima, M. Foddy, M. Platow (Eds.), Self and identity: Personal, social, and symbolic (pp. 103-123). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

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