What Does It Mean to Be "Zombied" in Relationships?
"Zombied," "breadcrumbed," and "haunted" capture age-old relationship behaviors.
Posted Jan 08, 2020
Our phones and online dating apps have changed the way people meet, flirt, and fall in love. They have also changed the English language, giving us some new trendy vocabulary (see Rebel Wilson's new ad for Match.com). Ever been haunted? How about zombied?
These new terms are interesting from a relationship science standpoint because, as novel as they seem, they're actually referring to age-old dating behaviors. People have always ghosted, breadcrumbed, and zombied — just never so easily as they can online. This ease, and the prevalent role of texting and online dating in people's relationships, is perhaps why it is now important for concise terms to capture these behaviors.
You might recall the emergence of the term "ghosting," a phenomenon in which someone you're interested in seemingly disappears. In the virtual environment, this means no texts, no instant messages, no emails — your attempts to communicate are met with nothing. While recent evidence suggests that most people think it's an inappropriate way to dissolve a relationship (LeFebvre et al., 2019), virtual ghosting is nonetheless quite common. LeFebvre found that over 40 percent of a sample of emerging adults had both initiated ghosting and been the victim of ghosting.
The act of ghosting isn't new; people have always disappeared from others' lives with no explanation. But leaving town, refusing phone calls, not opening your door, or in other ways avoiding all possible face-to-face interactions is logistically harder than suddenly stopping all virtual communication.
You think you've been ghosted, but then your ghoster is back, texting and messaging like they never went away in the first place. Or maybe this person is not communicating directly with you, but is lingering in the background, liking your posts or in other ways indirectly connecting with you. Then they disappear again. Then they come back. This cyclic "haunting" behavior is reminiscent of on-again/off-again relationships, which tend to be toxic to both the relationship and personal well-being (Dailey et al., 2009; LeFebvre et al., 2019).
If the person who ghosted you comes back in a more consistent way from the virtual dead, you've been zombied. Zombie-ing refers to an ex reappearing and resurrecting a relationship. This is different from haunting in that zombie-ing needn't be cyclical or half-hearted: It could be a full "on-again" experience. While most people who initiate ghosting do so as a permanent, if indirect, relationship disengagement strategy, others use ghosting just to temporarily disappear and perhaps return later (LeFebvre et al., 2019).
Neither haunting nor zombie-ing are new to the dating world. People have disappeared on each other, returned, left, and stayed for generations; but today people can do so more easily given our reliance on technology for communication.
Anyone nostalgic for fairy tales might appreciate this reference to Hansel and Gretel. A behavior we used to call "leading on," breadcrumbing refers to periodic flirtatious online communications that seem to be going somewhere — they are sprinkled, if you will, like breadcrumbs — but in reality, nothing amounts from them. They are utterly noncommittal.
Breadcrumbing is reminiscent of ludos, a game-playing love style (Lee, 1974). This love style captures a distaste for partner dependence and a liking for deception. Evidence suggests a link between narcissism and ludos: Individuals higher in narcissism tend to take a more game-playing, less genuine, approach to their romantic relationships (Campbell, Foster, & Finkel 2002).
People have played with others' emotions and led others on for years, well before the advent of text messaging. But this kind of skillful, noncommittal flirtation is harder in person, which means that more people may be victims of breadcrumbing today than in years past.
In sum, it's helpful to have new terms to communicate patterns of behaviors that people recognize. Shared terms allow for easier communication. The troubling aspect might be why these terms are emerging now; have these "bad" behaviors increased in frequency or are they simply more salient in a virtual world? If these terms reflect higher frequencies of these behaviors, it could mean more uncertainty, confusion, and indirect rejection on the pathway toward a life partner (if that's your goal) than years past.
Sharabi, L. L., & Dykstra-DeVette, T. A. (2019). From first email to first date: Strategies for initiating relationships in online dating. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Advanced online publication.
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, Advanced online publication.
Dailey, R. M., Pfiester, A., Jin, B., Beck, G., & Clark, G. (2009). On‐again/off‐again dating relationships: How are they different from other dating relationships?. Personal Relationships, 16, 23-47.
Campbell, W. K., Foster, C. A., & Finkel, E. J. (2002). Does self-love lead to love for others? A story of narcissistic game playing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 340-354.