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When Is It OK to Ghost Someone?

Learn when disappearing from a relationship might be in your best interest.

Bigstock with Permission
Source: Bigstock with Permission

In 2015, I wrote an article on "Why Ghosting Hurts So Much," hoping to encourage people to be a little kinder and more respectful of one another. Since then, I have received a large number of comments and emails from both those who have ghosted and those who have been ghosted, all wanting to share their stories. What is clear: This is a confusing and very emotionally charged topic on both sides, and indeed there are times when ghosting is an appropriate response to a situation.

Ghosting is defined as cutting off all communication and dropping out of someone’s life without an explanation of any kind. There are many situations when cutting off communication with someone is acceptable, necessary, and the healthiest thing to do. Ending a relationship with someone is almost always painful in some respects—one person will likely experience rejection, and the rejecter may feel guilty—but in my prior article, I explain the psychological reasons why it is the lack of explanation unique to ghosting that creates so much emotional distress. It is specifically the lack of clarity about the situation that can escalate someone’s emotional response from the disappointment that a relationship did not work out to distress over not having any information to understand what happened.

Most relationships in our lives will have a beginning and an end. People evolve, circumstances change, friends come and go from our lives. It's all part of the human experience. It isn’t necessary or even expected much of the time that we provide an explanation for the natural drift that occurs in many relationships.

It is in the established relationships, where there is an expectation and desire to continue the relationship by one of the parties, that it becomes exceedingly painful and distressful when someone disappears without explanation. What establishes a relationship where there is an obligation to communicate an ending? In a culture where hook-ups have become the norm, this is an area of debate and a lot of subjective opinion. Perceived obligation varies greatly depending on the extent and nature of the relationship.

In the world of dating, where ghosting is most prevalent, most relationships are not considered established in the early stages. Nevertheless, if you’ve decided not to continue the relationship, the kindest and most respectful thing to do is to offer a few simple words about your decision, so that the other person has clarity about the situation. If you’ve had less than three dates, a simple text or email with words along the lines of, “It was nice to meet you, but I didn’t feel the connection,” should generally suffice.

If two people have been on more than five dates and have been physically intimate, they are likely to have begun to develop some level of emotional attachment. At this point, cutting off contact without any explanation has the potential to cause distress, and the longer the relationship has existed, the more likely breaking up will be painful to the other person. While no one is ever responsible for someone else’s emotions, again, the kindest thing to do is to offer some clarity so that the other person has the appropriate cues to know how to respond.

When is it OK to ghost someone? Below are some specific situations where disappearing from a relationship is likely to be the best thing for your well-being.

1. Abuse: If someone makes you feel unsafe, or there has been any type of abuse, then disappearing without any explanation may be in your best interest. Just after you leave an abusive relationship, there can be a high danger period when the abuser may become enraged. It is often best to be out of contact and in a safe place where the abuser doesn’t know your location.

2. Violating Boundaries: If someone engages in a clear boundary violation, such as showing up unexpectedly at your workplace, contacting your ex, stealing from you, or acting in any way that is clearly out of line, it can feel very threatening. When someone causes you to feel unsafe, they are showing a lack of concern for your feelings. Your priority is to regain your sense of safety, which may involve cutting off contact. In situations where you’ve told someone repeatedly that you want to end the relationship, but they continue to contact you or won’t take no for an answer, then it isn’t ghosting if you cut off communication.

3. Lying or Manipulation: If you catch someone in a lie that is intended to manipulate you in some way—say you find out the person you are dating is married—then that person has shown a direct disregard for your emotional well-being, and you don’t owe him or her an explanation for ending the relationship.

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