- Ghosting is a common feature of relationships, and it is known to cause emotional damage to all involved.
- New research discovers that ghosting may not be exactly what you think it is and can even be mutual.
- By recognizing the 5 signs of not being ghosted, you can avoid unnecessary frustration and disappointment.
Almost everyone who's had a relationship end recently can attest to the fact that ghosting is often a part of the disengagement process between members of a couple. However, there are other forms of ghosting, too. You may be trying to contact a person you've worked with or to ask for some advice. However, the emails and texts you send remain unanswered. After a couple of months, you give up, in sad resignation, to the fact that things have come to an end.
Ghosting can also occur in person rather than virtually. You see an acquaintance walking toward you on the sidewalk and start to give a wave of recognition. Inexplicably, the person goes right by you without even as much as a side glance.
Why Ghosting Is Bad for Your Mental Health
As established in previous research, being the target of ghosting can bring about a range of negative emotions, including anger, shame, and loneliness. It's the "not knowing" that could be the most damaging feature of all, as you're not even getting the clarity of an actual rejection. At least if the rejection is clearly stated, you can figure out the next steps as you move on with your life.
Instead, your imagination goes to all the possible ways you could have contributed to this negative outcome. Part of you might also worry about whether the other person is OK or not. Perhaps something bad happened to them, and there's no way for you even to reach out a helping hand.
This last possibility raises the next logical question about whether what you think is ghosting perhaps isn't ghosting at all. Maybe the deafening silence you're getting is the result of factors that have nothing to do with you or your relationship with this person.
What the Data Say About Ghosting
To help inform your thoughts on this whole mess, in a new questionnaire study of 260 undergraduates, Winthrop University's Tara Collins and colleagues (2023) note that, given its recent introduction into popular parlance, "scholars have only begun to form an understanding of this breakup strategy." Defined in the literature as a unilateral way to end a relationship, Collins and colleagues questioned whether or not this fits with the facts.
The Winthrop U. researchers also wondered whether, as earlier researchers suggested, ghosting in real life fits this definition. How people ghost and whether they use technology to aid them as they pull away from a partner was another focus of the study.
As an investigation on college-age individuals, whose relationships are likely to be less stable than would be true for people in long-established partnerships, the study had some limitations. On the other hand, in this age population, breakups occur frequently. Therefore, the data are useful for understanding the many complexities involved in this type of untying of the many types of knots that bind people together.
The basic study methodology involved asking the participants, first of all, whether they'd heard the term "ghosting," and essentially, almost all of them had (86-90 percent). About half reported they had ghosted someone (the "disengager"), and two-thirds said that they were ghosted by someone else (the "recipient") and of those students reporting a breakup, almost half (47 percent) said that the relationship did not end through ghosting. The rest were the disengager, the recipient, or both (called bilateral ghosting).
The most common form of ghosting is consistent with its definition in that it involves unilateral avoidance or withdrawal. Deescalation, or gradually becoming more distant, was the next most common strategy. Another category emerging from the results involved what's known as "orbiting," which does not involve social media unfollowing. Still, most of the disengagers actually did use social media unfollowing as part of the breakup process.
These findings may seem to fit with your own ideas about what ghosting is and is not and also how it occurs. However, a surprising result to show up in the findings was that ghosting often did occur bilaterally, meaning that both partners initiated the process of extricating themselves at the same time. This does not fit the previous view of ghosting as the actions of only one person in the relationship.
The idea that not all ghosting qualifies as ghosting also emerged from the findings. The authors observed that some relationships may lack enough clarity to "qualify" their ending as a breakup. A short-term, shallow relationship that ends may simply fade out into thin air because it wasn't there in the first place as a serious entity. Perhaps you've had relationships like these whose endings you couldn't detect because there was no "there, there."
Another reason that ghosting isn't ghosting could be that the disengager is unaware that they're even engaging in the ghosting behavior to begin with. Or if they are, they may think that their failure to respond is a sufficient way to communicate that the relationship is over. This is even more likely to happen if the disengagers just aren't that good at intimacy or have a dismissive or avoidant attachment style. The recipient may be better off without this person in their lives, but while going through the pain of the relationship's ending, do not feel particularly overjoyed about this person's exit from their life.
5 Reasons You're Actually Not Being Ghosted
Having produced data on the frequency and nature of ghosting, the Winthrop U. researchers conclude that their work "may help individuals better identify when they are the recipient of ghosting." This also means, by extension, that people can also become better able to understand when they are not being ghosted. The study's identification of the many murky areas in ghosting provides the basis for these 5 reasons to question your automatic conclusion that lack of contact from another person constitutes a deliberate attempt to end things:
- The ghosting is actually bilateral. Perhaps without realizing it, you've also signaled to the other person that you're ready to have the relationship come to a close. That one-fifth of the sample reported bilateral ghosting suggests that people give off cues that each mutually interprets as a sign that things should come to a close.
- Something went wrong. Ghosting was common in this undergraduate sample, whose relationships were examined in the context of dating. What about other non-romantic relationships? Could that person you've asked a favor from be overwhelmed with other issues? Could an aggressive spam blocker mean your email or text didn't reach that person? Maybe, just maybe, you typed in the wrong address. It is also possible that the person not responding to you has become ill or someone in their family is taking up all of their time and attention.
- You've changed some important characteristics of yourself. That person you saw on the street fails to acknowledge your presence. But have you changed your hair color? Are you now wearing glasses when you didn't before? Are you covering up your appearance with sunglasses, a scarf, or even a facemask? Was the sun in the other person's eyes? Don't take non-acknowledgment of your presence as a definite sign of rejection.
- You're trying too hard. As someone who thinks you're being ghosted, it's easy to give into the frustration that earlier research has identified as part of the ghosting outcome. Take a breather from your pursuit of this other person. If you're able to wait it out, the other person may reach out to you on their own. As shown in the Collins et al. study, they may be ambivalent about the relationship and just need time to get a clearer view of where they want things to go.
- The person is feeling so guilty that they avoid you entirely. Although not dealt with in this study, earlier research on the emotional aspects of ghosting suggests that guilt is a major part of the process. If this is what's happening with this person now, see if you can reach out through mutual friends to communicate that you don't have any hard feelings. Easing their guilt can ease their path back to you.
To sum up, ghosting is one of those features of relationships that can cause anger, guilt, sadness, and frustration. By knowing how to read the signals correctly, you can both avoid those negative emotions and restore the lines of communication that can help you feel better about yourself and your relationships.
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Collins, T. J., Thomas, A., & Harris, E. (2023). Unwanted and unfollowed: Defining ghosting and the role of social media unfollowing. Personal Relationships, 30(3), 939–959. doi: 10.1111/pere.12492