Why Do People Ghost? Relationship Experts Weigh In

Possible reasons your date went radio silent

  • Ghosting can happen in any type of relationship.
  • People abruptly cut off contact for many reasons, including to avoid conflict, protect feelings, and put their own emotional needs first.
  • Ghosting can negatively impact both people in the relationship, and it’s important for both people to take ownership of their own behavior.

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 person whom my friend initially really liked, stopped responding to texts. Emails went unanswered, social media fell silent, and phone calls dropped into the black hole of voicemail.

My friend was concerned—had something happened to the date? Was that person in trouble? Then the date popped up on Instagram, posting a photo from a dinner party, and all became clear—my friend had been ghosted.

What Is Ghosting?

You know ghosting: It's that modern-day disappearing act where someone simply vanishes into thin air like a Vegas magician who left their cell phone behind. 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 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," Kelifern Pomeranz, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert, explained.

How Common Is It?

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, from The University of Western Ontario, revealed even higher rates: 65% of participants had disappeared on a partner, while 72% reported that their partner had ghosted them.

Non-Romantic Ghosting

Ghosting isn't limited to romantic relationships, either. It happens with family members. Remember those apocryphal stories about the dad who went out for a pack of cigarettes and never returned? That was ghosting. The family member who won't respond to text or emails, or answer the phone when you call is ghosting you.

It can happen with jobs, where employees never show up to work and never respond to the reason why they left. It happens with friends too.

That same 2018 journal study mentioned above found that ghosting in friendships is pretty common with 31.7% of survey respondents having ghosted a friend. Also, 38.6% had themselves been ghosted by a friend.

While it might ease the sting a bit knowing you aren't alone, statistics are not helpful to think about while waiting to see if a friend will return a text message.

Emotional Aftermath of Being Tossed Aside

Whoever is pulling the vanishing act, being abandoned is hard. "Ghosting makes the person left behind feel dismissed," Karen Ruskin, PsyD, a relationship and human behavior expert in Arizona, said. "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. Worse yet, they 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," Pomeranz said. "It can also lead to increased feelings of mistrust in future relationships, including concerns about the possibility of abandonment."

Being ghosted is painful and may have a 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," Vinita Mehta, PhD, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert based in Washington, D.C., explained. Mehta cited a 2019 study in Imagination, Cognition and Personality in which researchers found five main reasons why people ghost:

  1. Convenience
  2. Having had a negative interaction with a dating partner
  3. Loss of interest
  4. Change in the relationship state (like a change in how close you are with the person)
  5. Personal or emotional 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," Ruskin said. 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.

Feeling Better About 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," Ruskin said. "Ghosting allows for an avoidance of conflicts, an avoidance of explanation and self-introspection." The ghoster avoids having to be kind and compassionate to the other person's feelings.

As Ruskin pointed out, healthy relationships require healthy communication skills. Having experienced 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," Ruskin said.

Sometimes It's About Protecting Feelings—Theirs and Yours

Citing patients from her practice, Ruskin explained 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," Ruskin said.

Pomeranz believed 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," Pomeranz explained.

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," Mehta said.

"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," Mehta said.

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," Ruskin explained. "It absolutely could lead down a path of you not getting to have that future because you haven't developed this skill."

Ruskin said some patients who have ghosted people in the past 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," Ruskin added.

It's Not You—It's Them

To heal from being ghosted, Ruskin suggested 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 recommended 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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