Sex & Relationships

How Tech-Enabled Ghosting Can Turn a Painful Breakup into an Unbearable Experience

Has digital dating and swiping desensitized us to the point that this is acceptable behavior?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

I ain’t afraid of no ghost. Well, that isn’t entirely true, I have been hurt by a few and misled by many. But I am here to tell you that ghosts are most definitely real. And I’m not talking about the ghosts that haunt the corridors of rickety old houses, I’m talking about ghosts that haunt my love life.

Almost everyone who has actively dated will eventually be ghosted. Ghosting is when the person you are seeing, whether for a few dates or a few years, suddenly decides to end the relationship by inexplicably ceasing all communication. He (or she) becomes a phantom and you are left completely in the dark, secretly hoping that said ghost has died and that is the reason he isn't returning your calls.

“I’m sure ghosting has been happening since ancient times," says therapist Allison Lefkowitz. "This disappearing act in dating has always occurred, society has just found a name for it.”

Though ghosting, which is also known as avoidance, has existed for centuries, it has become more prevalent in the smartphone swipe dating culture. “There is something overstimulating and desensitizing about some of these swiping dating apps. I see it as a sort of a love/sex buffet… If you are overwhelmed and overstimulated with choices, then it may lower the stakes in a way to be communicative and respectful for when we’ve lost interest in someone,” Lefkowitz explains.

I was recently ghosted by a man (let’s call him Mike) I met on Tinder a couple of months ago. We went on a couple of dates and we seemed to be getting on pretty well. I traveled home to be with my family for the holidays and we kept up daily communication. It wasn’t just a “hey, how’s your vacation going,” it was much more significant.

“It’s also really cool that you come from such an amazing loving family. No doubt that’s why you turned out so sweet and passionate. You’re such a catch … I’ve got two tickets to cuddle city, population: you and me … I miss my little kitten … I’m love sick for you … get here already, I want your face on my face,” were just some of the text messages he sent me in the couple of weeks we were apart.

The second I drove back to NYC, I jumped in the shower and headed over to his apartment for what I was promised would be an amazing night full of lovemaking and good conversation. In the end, we only had sex once and then we went out for dinner where the in-person conversation was slightly lacking. Back at his house I tried to seduce him again and he barked at me that he was still digesting his cheeseburger. The next afternoon I left and gave him a couple of days before I texted him again. That’s when the excuses started. He was sick. He was slammed with work. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Then a week passed and nothing.

One evening I texted him when I was out with a friend close to his loft. I asked him to come join us and he responded that he was busy. Waking up in the morning I felt slightly disheartened and foolish. I texted him, “That was a whole lot of talk for a whole lot of nothing. I feel like you’re ghosting me.” And that was the end of Mike. I never heard from him again.

Mike was fairly easy to get over. We had gone out only a few times and most of our correspondence was based on the building up of a fantasy that proved to be much better than the reality. However, I have also been ghosted by someone I was crazy in love with, and it still stings today.

According to a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, Collins and Gillath identified seven of the worst breakup strategies people employ to dump a partner. Across the board, the participants in the study found that avoidance, or ghosting, was the least ideal method of ending a relationship. Direct and open confrontation was the most preferred method.

Ghosting can lead to a sense of insecurity and anxiety, says Lefkowitz. “Also, grief, depression, and as dramatic as this may sound, some, as I call it to some of my clients, relationship PTSD. Most people when they experience loss, small or great, usually try to reconcile and make sense of their hurt by looking back at what happened, and maybe there was something they could have done to change the outcome. If a piece of that experience, i.e., the ghoster is gone, the other person is left with unanswered questions and unresolved feelings. Because the other person has disappeared, the other person can only speculate and worry about what actually happened. Many people tend to blame themselves, thinking if they were prettier, richer, nicer, better, etc. then maybe something might have saved the relationship,” she says.

Ghosting is a cheap and easy copout to ending a relationship, only made easier by our society’s current dating habits. Despite some rare success stories, it is unlikely you will find the love of your life on an app like Tinder. Apps like this lead to an air of depersonalization to the thousands of faces you swipe through. The conversations begin as benign faceless banter, and when you want it to come to an end it is easy to forgo the difficult conversation and end the relationship in a faceless manner.

“Tinder or other swipe apps cannot replace or duplicate our deeper, human instincts, or the truest nature of why we really want to be with that person. It creates an impersonal layer that can dull our senses,” says Lefkowitz.

Why people ghost can also be a reflection of their own fear of rejection. As Lefkowitz points out, there has been an increase in a “rejection of vulnerability.” The fear of intimacy and its potential to become something complex is just too much for some people to handle. “Catching the feels” is a terrifying prospect for some. They want that companionship, but none of the responsibility that comes with it.

“We are also a culture that loves a bandage for a quick fix. Need someone to love and to love you? Swipe fast until you find someone. Done with that person? Just ghost them....It’s a form of intimate avoidance,” Lefkowitz explains.

I can’t pretend to be completely innocent of the ghosting phenomenon. There have been times I’ve failed to text back after a first date because I wanted to avoid telling the person, “It just wasn’t working for me.” However, I have never ghosted someone after I made the choice to become intimate. I tend to say what I mean and not dish out empty promises. This is something that seems to be more common for women than it is for men.

In a survey conducted by Elle, women seemed to be the victims of ghosting more than men:

  • 26.67% of women admitted to being ghosted as opposed to only 13.64% of men.
  • 23.33% of women said that they never experienced ghosting in any capacity compared to 36.36% of men.
  • 25.83% of women revealed that they have both ghosted and ghosted others, compared to 33.33% of men.
  • Only 16.67% of men admitted they ghosted women compared to 24.17% of women.

So one cannot simply say that all ghosts are cruel and cowardly individuals who blatantly disregard how their actions affect others, because all of us have the capacity to ghost. 

Ghosting not only affects the person being avoided but the person doing the avoiding. By ghosting we deny ourselves the possibility of feeling a real connection even as we are breaking it off. We fear the unknown and we think it is better to do away with the relationship altogether than let it potentially hurt us or reveal something about ourselves we'd rather not know.

In terms of coping in the aftermath of ghosting, Lefkowitz recommends looking back on the relationship to really examine if it is worth demanding answers. “If you are dating someone you feel you know very intimately for several years and they suddenly vanish, then yes, confrontation might feel necessary for healing. But if the relationship was not as meaningful, or had other colors of disrespect, abuse or neglect, then perhaps it may be better to let the ghost vanish,” she says.

However, if you finally do manage to conjure up the ghost through your smartphone Ouija board don’t be surprised if you don’t get the response you were looking for.

If you’ve been ghosted before and it left you emotionally wounded, think before doing the same to someone else. Or maybe just don't do it in the first place. Lefkowitz believes in the old adage of “treat others the way you like to be treated.” It may be an uncomfortable conversation but it will prove that if you are responsible enough to begin a relationship you are responsible enough to end it...responsibly. Ghosting can be an easy solution, but it is a representative of a much scarier truth: that we no longer see people as emotional individuals but as meaningless faces on a screen. And those are the ghosts we should all be afraid of. 

Katia Kleyman is an NYC-based journalist. She writes about sex, culture (of the pop and non-pop variety), history, and movies. Follow her on Twitter @kleyman_katia and visit her website