Disappearing without a trace isn’t new, but it seems like we have managed to take ghosting to the next level. We talk a lot these days about how we are both more connected and more lonely. The less we feel knit in and belonging to a community, the easier it is to feel like we can just sort of float away. We feel less responsible to the collective and to the individuals within it. People sometimes justify ghosting as a reaction to how they were treated or, more often, by saying that they don’t “owe” anything to that person.
With the advent of smartphones, we rely heavily on asynchronous communication. Conversations take place turn by turn: You text. I read your text. I craft my response. I send my response. I wait for your response. This may make it feel more anxiety-provoking and tiring to “do” a conversation in real-time. There’s far more spontaneity in a face to face conversation, and much more “data” to process (body posture, facial expression, tone of voice). Our social muscles might start to atrophy (or fail to develop in the first place) without ample practice doing real-life conversations together.
This is why I have a rather out-of-the-box assignment in the undergraduate course I teach at Northwestern University, "Building Loving and Lasting Relationships: Marriage 101." Each of my students needs to ask someone out on a date. I have a list of rules they need to follow. One is that they need to call the person to ask them out, or ask them out face to face. And they need to put their phones away for the duration of the date, which must last at least 60 minutes.
Because we have come to rely so heavily on text for communication, and because our devices contain the transcripts of our relationships—including open loops and fragmented conversations—we are hyper-aware when we’ve been ghosted.
In today’s world, it can be easy to feel as if the space we occupy in each other’s lives is replaceable. We aren’t just making this up: Toxic capitalism is an ever-ravenous machine that needs bodies to produce and consume. Also, there’s less formality in communication, which makes each email, text, and DM feel less important than, say, a calligraphed letter, which feels more personal and serious. The bottom line is that we experience a more fleeting connection, and we have more connections that are fleeting.
Why do we ghost?
Although this is far from a young person’s problem, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with my graduate and undergraduate students about it. They cite a desire to avoid situations that are “awkward.” Awkward is a catchall phrase that is about confrontation, vulnerability, disappointment, exposure, or embarrassment. In the age of technology, we engage in so much asynchronous contact that we can get lulled into the sense that we can tightly manage all communication and live without awkwardness. I think potentially all of us are becoming more uncomfortable with being uncomfortable.
The appeal of ghosting, in addition to avoidance of awkwardness, is that it can also be a way to protect yourself against flaming (angry or insulting interactions), as electronic communication is disinhibiting. Between lower accountability connections and the allure of online anonymity, people can feel empowered to express hostility when disappointed.
Why is being ghosted so upsetting?
When we are ghosted, our rational minds can say, “Clearly this is their problem, not mine.” But logic is rarely a match for the power of emotion. We can look to the Zeigarnik effect to help us understand why being ghosted is so unsettling. The Zeigarnik effect is the term used to explain the psychological phenomenon of our tendency to remember tasks and events that have been interrupted or left incomplete versus tasks and events that have been completed.
The Zeigarnik effect was first noticed in the early 1900s and has been reproduced in a number of studies. When someone leaves us hanging, it’s as if there is an open tab inside of our brain, occupying mental and emotional bandwidth. It’s an itch that begs to be scratched, beckoning our attention. Open tasks or communication loops act like a pebble in our shoe. They are distracting and upsetting. We like closure.
Further, all of us have core wounds or tender spots, and being ghosted can trigger them. Our core wound is the emotional knot that gets activated when something frustrating or upsetting happens in our lives. Our core wounds sound like a fear: I don’t matter; I am invisible; I am abandoned; I am weird or broken or damaged. It’s not hard to draw a line from being ghosted to any one of these core wounds.
What can you do if you’ve been ghosted?
The first thing is to remember that the responsibility for ghosting lies squarely with the ghoster, not the ghostee. It should be noted that while this is true, you may also want to do a gut check. Are you difficult to approach because you tend to rage or beg when you are told things that are difficult to hear? If this is the case, you might be inadvertently reinforcing an inclination for the people in your life to behave in passive ways with you. You can explore the roots of this pattern, possibly in therapy, and learn skills to develop interpersonal effectiveness.
If you’ve been ghosted, consider asking for closure. One of my grad students was ghosted by someone she was dating, and she asked him for “an exit interview.” He responded by owning his ghosting. He said it was a pattern he wasn’t proud of and wanted to change. His willingness to hold himself responsible helped her let go and move forward.
Let me be clear, however, that you are not dependent on someone else for closure. In my book, Loving Bravely , I write about a process we can use to break out of an unhealthy pattern: Name-Connect-Choose . Name is about telling your story, identifying and declaring something as your truth or your experience. The power in naming comes from bringing what was buried (or out of your awareness) into the light for examination. Connect is about attuning to yourself, turning your attention within and experiencing the emotions that are attached to the particular story you are telling. Connecting emotionally to your deep truth breathes life into your unearthed story. Choose is about taking responsibility for what’s next. Rather than being stuck in the loop that is inevitably created by a lack of awareness, the practice of conscious awareness facilitates choice. When you know more, you can make decisions from a place of eyes-open empowerment.
Here’s how you can use this process in the wake of being ghosted:
NAME: I thought I was building a connection with this person. I enjoyed our time together and it seemed like they were enjoying time with me. Then they stopped responding to my messages.
CONNECT: I feel embarrassed because I told my friends I thought this was someone special. I feel angry that they did something that feels so disrespectful. I feel sad that we won’t build what I imagined we might build. I feel the sting of shame, like maybe their choice reflects my lack of worthiness.
CHOOSE: When the experience of being ghosted creeps back up on me, I will choose to redirect my attention to the here and now, focusing on what I have to offer rather than on those who aren’t available for connection.
See if the Name-Connect-Choose process can help you shed the sting of being ghosted and claim a sense of empowerment.
What can you do instead of ghosting?
Ghosting gives us the immediate “pro” of awkwardness avoidance along with the long-term “con” of missing out on the opportunity of experiencing ourselves as brave, kind, and assertive. Instead of ghosting, speak your truth… easier said than done, I know! Practice relational self-awareness. Take some time to reflect on what constrains your truth. What is getting in the way? Perhaps you were raised to be a people-pleaser, and you’re accustomed to silencing yourself. If this is the case, remember that less is more. You don’t need to explain and justify it. “No” is a complete sentence. Separate speaking your truth from the other person’s reaction. Be kind and firm. As therapists like to say, “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it in a mean way.”
Being direct fosters a sense of accomplishment. You get to witness yourself standing in integrity, and you gift yourself the pride that accompanies knowing that you did a hard thing well.