Why Do People Ghost? Relationship Experts Weigh In
Here are possible reasons your date went radio silent.
Introducing Health's column, Why Would Someone Do That? Here, psych experts decipher the reasons behind the most puzzling human behavior mysteries.
A friend called me in confusion, verging on alarm. She was in the early stages of a new relationship. They met at a bar; they had gone on a few dates and spent a late night or two texting. Then the woman whom my friend initially really liked stopped responding to texts. Emails went unanswered, social media fell silent, phone calls dropped into the black hole of voicemail. My friend was concerned—had something happened to her? Was she in trouble? Then the woman popped up on Instagram posting a photo from a dinner party, and all became clear—my friend had been ghosted.
You know ghosting: it’s that modern day disappearing act where someone simply vanishes into thin air like a Vegas magician who left his cell phone behind. “Ghosting is cutting off a relationship by abruptly ceasing all contact and communication with a partner without any apparent justification or warning, as well as ignoring the partner's attempts to reach out or communicate,” explains Kelifern Pomeranz, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert. Ghosting involves one person making a quick exit from a relationship, leaving the other person haunted by questions, wondering what went wrong, and trying to pick up the pieces.
Ghosting is quick, ruthless, and, unfortunately, fairly common these days, enabled by our use of technology to communicate with romantic partners. A study of 1,300 people, which was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in 2018, found that around a quarter of the participants had been ghosted by a partner. And, apparently, ghosting can be a two-way street: One-fifth of the participants admitted that they had ghosted someone themselves. (Another survey revealed even higher rates: 65% of participants had disappeared on a partner, while 72% percent reported that their partner had ghosted them.)
Ghosting isn’t limited to romantic relationships, either. It happens with family (remember those apocryphal stories about dads who go out for a pack of cigarettes and never return? Ghosting!), it happens with jobs where employees never show up to work, and with friends. That same 2018 journal study found that ghosting in friendships is pretty common—31.7 percent of survey respondents had ghosted a friend, and 38.6 percent had been ghosted by a friend, statistics that are not helpful to think about while waiting to see if a friend will return a text message.
The emotional aftermath of being tossed aside
Whoever is pulling the vanishing act, being abandoned is hard. “Ghosting makes the person left behind feel dismissed,” says Karen Ruskin, PsyD, a relationship and human behavior expert in Arizona. “It makes them feel like garbage—and when I say garbage, I mean literal garbage like they feel like they've been thrown away. They've been discarded.”
Being abandoned can lead to feelings of low self-worth, anxiety, depression, self-blame, and low self-esteem. When someone walks away with no explanation, the person left behind can’t pore over the remains of the relationship and find out what went wrong and can’t learn from the experience, and that can lead to long-term mental health issues.
“The ghosted partner does not get an opportunity for proper closure and therefore may be left with questions about their overall level of attractiveness and sense of worthiness,” says Pomeranz. “It can also lead to increased feelings of mistrust in future relationships, including concerns about the possibility of abandonment.” Being ghosted is painful and has lasting impact on mental health and self-esteem. So who would do this to someone? Why would someone ghost another person?
What motivates people to ghost?
“Very often people ghost because they want to avoid having a confrontation and hurting the ghostee's feelings,” explains Vinita Mehta, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert based in Washington, D.C. She cited a recent study where researchers found five main reasons why people ghost: convenience; having had a negative interaction with a dating partner; lost interest; relationship state (i.e., how close you are with the person); and safety.
While it makes sense that someone would ghost if they felt their safety was at risk, the other explanations could reasonably be chalked up to lacking empathy or just not caring about the other person in the relationship. However, that may not actually be the case. “While for some people it is a lack of empathy [that causes them to ghost], for other people, they're just putting their own emotional needs first, so you can view it as selfish,” says Ruskin. Your soon-to-be-ghost may like you, even empathize with you, but feel the need to put their own feelings first. That may be cold comfort to someone trying to recover from being ghosted.
One thing that may make someone who is left behind feel better is that ghosting is, in some ways, a sign of emotional immaturity. By walking out, they proved that they can’t do the hard work required to be in a healthy, long-lasting relationship. “They don't want to confront what it is that they're feeling or they're experiencing; it's too hard for them,” says Ruskin. “Ghosting allows for an avoidance of conflicts, an avoidance of explanation and self-introspection,” she says. The ghoster avoids having to be kind and compassionate to the other person's feelings.
As Ruskin points out, healthy relationships require healthy communications skills. Suffering through a ghosting episode now means at least you’ve avoided an extended relationship with someone who doesn’t know how to properly communicate or particularly care about your feelings. “If someone is going to ghost, it’s better that you know now. Better now than two weeks later or a month later or a year later,” says Ruskin.
Sometimes it's about protecting feelings—theirs and yours
Citing patients from her practice, Ruskin believes that some people ghost because they don’t want to be hurt. “Often it's because they were hurt themselves in some kind of relationship. And so in order to protect themselves from being hurt, they just disconnect when they've decided that they're going to end things; in other words, they just ghost,” she says.
Pomeranz believes that some ghosters cut off ties out of a misguided sense of sparing the other person’s feelings, simply disappearing into the ether instead of explicitly calling things off. “Instead, you hope that they will ‘gently’ receive the message that you are no longer interested through your lack of communication,” she explains.
It's only natural to grieve a broken relationship
Of course, ghosting is anything but gentle to the person on the receiving end. “Being ghosted is extremely hurtful, especially when the relationship was close and substantive,” says Mehta. “The end of a relationship is a form of loss, and, depending on the circumstances, a period of grief can follow. However, when a person has been ghosted it is extremely confusing as it often involves a phase in which one isn't sure whether the relationship is ending or not, and without the benefit of knowing what brought that about. This can lead to a spike in anxiety in the face of uncertainty and lack of clarity.”
Sadly, it’s not just the person who is ghosted that needs to recover from the experience. Ghosting can also have long-term negative ramifications for the person who left, particularly if they end up in a pattern where they repeat the behavior over and over. “If you don't learn to confront your own feelings and the other person's feelings, and then dialogue about both, you may never really gain the long-term connection and relationship that you want,” says Ruskin. “It absolutely could lead down a path of you not getting to have that future because you haven't developed this skill.”
Ruskin has also had patients who have ghosted people in the past and are riddled with guilt over it. “They end up reflecting on what they’ve done and feel really bad because they realize how much it hurt the other person and affected the other person.”
It's not you—it's them
To heal from being ghosted, Ruskin suggests that her patients focus on recognizing that it’s not about them, and while you can’t control someone else’s behavior, you can control your reaction to it and take ownership of your own behavior.
She also recommends focusing on the future. That’s what worked for my friend. She moved on to a better relationship with a person willing to do the hard work of staying.
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