Despite becoming a term only in the early 2000s, ghosting has always been a frequent occurrence in the dating world. The term has gained popularity over time with the increasing presence of online dating and dating apps. According to Merriam-Webster, ghosting is "the act or practice of abruptly cutting off all contact with someone (such as a former romantic partner) by no longer accepting or responding to phone calls, instant messages, etc."
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Since ghosting doesn't come with an explanation, it's easy to feel insecure and isolated when on the receiving end. However, being ghosted is an incredibly common side effect of dating. A 2016 survey from PlentyOfFish reveals that almost 80% of single millennials between the ages of 18 and 33 have been ghosted while dating. The abruptness of ghosting can give the false impression that it's a clean break, but it's actually a pretty messy one that tends to leave singles confused and wary of putting themselves out there again. Although ghosting is never the right way to go about breaking up with someone, the reasons for doing it can be complicated:
They're just not that into you.
People make time for the things they care about—even if that means making time to break up with someone. According to a 2019 BuzzFeed survey, 81% of participants said they ghosted someone because they weren't into them, 64% said the other person did something they disliked, and 26% said they were angry with them.
If someone's not interested in you or feels like they haven't invested that much time in the relationship, then they may feel they "don't owe you anything or owe you that ending conversation," explains counselor Shae Ivie-Williams, LPC, BC-TMH, CCTP. It's also hard to gauge someone's level of interest in or expectations for a relationship without having upfront conversations. Getting ghosted becomes less shocking when you've already set expectations and have a clear understanding of what page the other person is on.
They got too busy, and dating stopped being a priority.
While it's true that people make time for the things that are important to them, it's also true that life sometimes gets in the way. A tough time at work or family issues can easily distract you from a still-early courtship with a person you haven't met more than once.
With all the apps and different mediums to connect with people today, dating can also feel extremely overwhelming in general at times. A natural reaction to that is to remove yourself from certain spaces, and for some, that space may be dating. Ending communication altogether isn't the most effective way to go about things, but in the moment it can seem like the least complicated. Sometimes taking breaks from dating due to dating burnout is necessary, and unfortunately, people can be collateral damage in the process.
Too much time passed by.
Have you ever stepped away from a conversation for so long that it becomes hard to navigate your way back into it? Well, that's a common occurrence when dating and can be brought on by many things: basic forgetfulness, a busy schedule, juggling too many potential partners. In the beginning stages of dating, a text or call can easily slip through the cracks—especially when conversations are facilitated through dating apps. Once a decent amount of time has passed, it may just seem easier to let that relationship go and not address the silence.
They couldn't see it working out.
Surprisingly, believing in the idea of fate may play a large role in whether people ghost or not. In 2018, psychologist Gili Freedman, Ph.D., conducted a study analyzing people's belief in destiny and how that correlates with attitudes toward ghosting. According to her findings, people with stronger destiny beliefs were 60% more likely to see ghosting as an acceptable way to end a relationship. Those who believe in "soul mates" and "the one" are more willing to abruptly end a budding relationship if they think it's just not in the cards for this particular relationship. In this case, it's no one's fault. It just wasn't meant to be.
The impersonal landscape of dating makes it easy.
Dating has become almost synonymous with online dating, and with online dating, in-person interactions can become replaced by more impersonal modes of communication. "Text messaging and dating apps can make it impersonal. And therefore, ghosting has become a lot easier," explains Ivie-Williams. The role technology plays in dating can also make people feel more detached from the process and those they are dating, so there may be fewer feelings of investment. When that happens, disappearing on someone can involve little to no guilt.
It's baked into their attachment style.
Attachment theory was originally developed by British psychoanalyst John Bowlby while examining the intense distress infants experience when separated from their parents. There are four attachment styles in adults, but when discussing the act of ghosting, Ivie-Williams focuses on two: anxious attachment and avoidant attachment. Those who are anxious tend to crave intimacy and feel insecure about their relationships, while those who are avoidant are uncomfortable with closeness and value independence most.
People who have either of these attachment styles "may not want to have those hard conversations because maybe their family didn't have hard conversations when they were young," says Ivie-Williams. "And so having those types of conversations involves vulnerability or being truthful with how you feel about that person."
It has to do with timing.
Some people may feel they don't owe the other person anything, including a conversation explaining why the relationship is ending, because of the amount of time they were seeing each other. If they feel they haven't invested a lot of time or emotion in the relationship, then there's no need for an explanation.
They may have experienced a trigger.
Certain people can bring up different emotions in others and act as triggers based on some personality traits they present. Ivie-Williams uses the example of a potential or current partner coming off as threatening because they remind someone of something from their past. "It's a trigger, where a stress response or a trauma response was elicited in them," explains Ivie-Williams. "And so maybe they felt like if they continued to talk to this person, or if they were honest with this person, it wouldn't be safe for them."
These trigger responses have a lot to do with anxiety. And while anxiety can be helpful because it acts as a threat detector and pushes people to seek out safety, "some people may have so much anxiety that is overriding other parts of their system that they perceive threats where there are none," says Ivie-Williams.
How to move on from getting ghosted.
Some people handle rejection and feelings of abandonment better than others, but that doesn't mean they aren't hard pills to swallow. When ghosted, a lot of people tend to feel insecure and question themselves rather than the person who did the ghosting. Licensed psychologist Laura Louis, Ph.D., tells mbg that it can lead to extreme sadness and bring about depressive symptoms such as interrupted sleeping patterns, changes in eating patterns, and overall difficulty in functioning.
Ghosting can create unease and leave situations with loose ends, and those looking for feedback may have appreciated a conversation. But Ivie-Williams also points out that "it takes a level of emotional intelligence and maturity to be ready for those types of conversation, because you have to be ready to potentially hear something about yourself that you didn't know or wasn't something you wanted to hear." So, do a mental check-in with yourself and ask, if the person who ghosted you came back to give you an explanation, would you be ready to hear it?
If you're planning to respond to someone ghosting you, Louis suggests practicing deep breathing techniques and rehearsing what you want to say to in your mind so that you're able to have a clear understanding of "what you want to communicate to the other person."
The bottom line.
No matter how you slice it, ghosting should never be the answer to ending a relationship. It signals that you have little respect for the other person and their time. When breaking up with someone, most people deserve the courtesy of having the talk—no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
That said, it's important to remember that while you're at the center of your dating life, you're not responsible for every little thing that goes on within it and you can't take responsibility for everybody's actions toward you. "It may be the time to get more introspection into what's going on in your life and make sure that you have a healthy attachment with yourself and others," suggests Ivie-Williams.
The conclusion of any relationship can come with a grieving period. Everyone holds onto and moves on from rejection differently, but it's important to treat yourself with grace and give yourself time to feel better about the situation.
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Amari D. Pollard is a writer and audience development strategist. She is currently a Roy H. Park Fellow at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and previously worked as the Head of Audience Development at The Week. Her writing focuses on politics, culture, relationships, and health, and she has been published at Bustle, PopSugar, Reader's Digest, and more. She has a degree in communications and creative writing from Le Moyne College.