“One day we were fine, texting about the next movie we wanted to watch together, the next day I never heard from him again,” says Lyla Pratt, 24, of Minneapolis. “Not only did he stop texting, but he blocked me on social media too.”
The “he” she is talking about was her boyfriend of six months.
The couple had met through a dating app and hit it off immediately, quickly becoming exclusive. “We talked or hung out nearly every day, even through Covid, so it was a huge shock when he ghosted me in November ,” she says. “He just stopped answering my texts and calls.”
Why would a man that had given her a ring with their initials as a birthday present and with whom she was sleeping with regularly, suddenly cut off all communication? “I have literally not a single clue,” she says, adding that the couple hadn’t fought or even had a disagreement prior to his disappearance. “That’s the worst part, I will never have any closure, I’ll never know why he left me and that really hurts,” she says.
Before understanding why people ghost, and its effects on the ghoster and the person being ghosted, here’s what ghosting is. Plus, you’ll get some expert tips on how to have a healthier breakup.
What is ghosting?
“Ghosting is exactly what it sounds like, it’s quietly disappearing from someone’s life, like a ghost,” says Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, author, and expert in toxic relationships. “And it can be incredibly hurtful,” she says.
It’s a term that has become popular in online and digital dating and describes when you are dating someone or talking to them regularly, and communication abruptly ends, without any explanation, says Claire Postl, licensed professional clinical counselor and certified sex therapist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Ghostling is mainly used to describe a breakup in a romantic relationship but it can also happen in friendships or other types of platonic relationships.
Ghosting is more common than you may think; a 2019 survey from YouGov, an international online market research and data company, found that one-third of U.S. adults confessed to doing it.
Why do people ghost?
Why would someone choose to go incommunicado rather than breaking up? The short answer: It’s easy. Many of us fear confrontation so much that we’ll do anything to avoid it, Postl says.
After all, it’s so much easier to just stop talking than it is to have a real conversation and get into all the messy, complicated feelings that come with relationshipsespecially if you’ve already mentally moved on.
“Many people weren’t taught what healthy adult communication looks like in relationships so they default to the easiest way outghosting,” Durvasula says. “For some people, it becomes a dysfunctional pattern,” she explains. Knowing how to communicate effectively is one of the characteristics of a healthy relationship.
It may also be a side effect of our digital dating culture, Postl says. Hooking up or meeting someone new is as easy as swiping your screen. So, she continues, it makes sense that people would want breaking up to be as simple.
In fact, ghosting after a first or second date or after just chatting or texting online is so common that it’s the expected way to end the interaction now. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s OK, especially when you use ghosting to end longer-term relationships with no explanation, Durvasula says.
Effects of being ghosted
Being ghosted, even by someone you’ve only seen a couple of times, can be hurtful. If you were in a long relationship with them and developed real feelings for them, being ghosted can be intensely painful and leave long-term scars.
Makes you doubt your self-worth
At best, ghosting leaves you feeling confused, self-conscious, and concerned. At worst, it makes you doubt and question your self-worth, leaving you with a lot of unanswered questions that you may then ruminate over, Postl says. (Some people use “breadcrumbing,” where they give you tiny bits of attention, instead of totally ghosting.)
“It can feel like you’re being ‘discarded’ or thrown out and that’s one of the most painful things a person can experience,” Durvasula says.
Triggers negative feelings
In addition, being ghosted triggers a cascade of negative feelings. “We all have doubts and vulnerabilities and being ghosted can bring up all those insecurities,” Postl says.
For example, if someone stops talking to you and you have a fear of not being enough, then you may assume that the person stopped talking to you because you weren’t good enough. Of course, there are lots of other explanations why someone might not want to continue dating. But, when you’re ghosted, you have no way of knowing the truth and so you may blame yourself.
“It’s those unanswered questions that do the damage,” Postl says. “People wonder, ‘What did I do wrong?’ ‘Did something happen to them, are they in trouble?’ ‘Do I need to do something different for someone to like me?’ ‘Are they angry at me?’ which increases self-doubt.”
Gaslighting is another toxic communication pattern that creates self-doubt.
Effects of ghosting someone else
It’s not just the people who are ghosted that are harmed; the one doing the ghosting also experiences negative effects, although they may not be as obvious, Durvasula says.
Feeling emotionally stunted
People who have a habit of ghosting are emotionally stunted and it can keep them stuck in immature relationship patterns, unable to establish lasting connections with others, she says.
Lack of empathy and understanding
Another problem is that when you ghost someone you don’t see the other person’s reactions and feelings. “That may sound like a good thing but it’s not, it’s a lie you are telling yourselfyou are pretending like someone is not hurt when they really are,” Postl says. “Our feelings are what make us human and it is a very powerful thing to sit with someone who is hurting or in emotional pain.”
Relationships are about the good and the bad. If you’ve been with someone long enough to deeply care about them, and they for you, it is part of your responsibility to be present when they’re sad or angry as well as when they’re happy.
“If this is something you don’t feel you can do, then you need to ask yourself, ‘Should I be in a relationship right now?’” Durvasula says, adding that she suggests therapy as a way to learn healthier relationship patterns.
What to do instead of ghosting someone
For healthy relationships, ending them via ghosting is hurtful to everyone involved. “Breaking up using direct communication is difficult, but necessary,” Postl says, adding that this is true whether it’s been one date or 100.
“Even when casually dating online, letting someone know that you are no longer interested or that you have met someone else will provide the person with a sense of close or finality,” she says.
Easier said than done? Here’s an expert primer on how to break up without ghosting:
Do it in person
Having a two-way conversation is important, so both people feel heard, Durvasula says. The best way to do this is in person but if you can’t physically get together, a phone call is the next best thing. Texting isn’t a great way to break up but it’s still better than ghosting.
Do it at an appropriate, respectful time
The decision to break up may happen at 2 a.m. but that doesn’t mean that’s when you have to do it. Choose a time to meet that is respectful of the other person and how this news will impact them, Durvasula says. For instance, don’t dump them right before they have to go to work.
Practice ahead of time
Knowing what you want to communicate and having it come out of your mouth that way can be hard, especially if your emotions are running high. One way to combat that is to practice breaking up with a friend, Durvasula says. Another way to keep your thoughts clear is to write it down and read it to them, she adds.
Use “I” statements
Frame your thoughts in a way that makes them about you rather than the other person, Durvasula says. So instead of saying “You’re stressing me out and moving too fast so we need to break up,” try saying, “I feel stressed out and worried this is moving too fast for me, so after a lot of thought, I need to end our relationship,” Durvasula suggests.
Offer direct but kind feedback
Giving the other person feedback during a breakup isn’t necessary but it can provide a sense of closure. If you decide to answer the person’s questions about what went wrong, provide the feedback in a tactful and kind way designed to help them in future relationships. Do not make them feel bad about this one, Postl says.
Accept that it will hurtand that’s OK
“Breaking up is, by nature, painful, and it’s best to acknowledge that and prepare for it,” Durvasula says. Ghosting happens when people want to avoid these painful feelings. But a breakup hurts either way and doing it in a direct but kind way actually minimizes the hurt overall. “Know that the other person will feel hurt but it’s not your responsibility to fix that,” she says.
Block out some time to care for yourself afterward as well. Even if you are the one who initiated the breakup, it can still be really painful, she adds.
The one time you should ghost someone
There is one specific time when you should absolutely ghost someone and that’s if you are ending a relationship where you are worried that your partner will react in a violent or abusive way, Durvasula says. Put your safety first and in the case of abuse, ghosting is often the best and safest option.
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