I became disturbed and curious when I learned about the ever-increasing phenomenon of ghosting. What does it mean as a symptom in our 21st-century world?
Ghosting occurs when a person abruptly discontinues all contact with someone else without explanation, which can be in a romance, friendship, or business. It can leave a person shocked, confused, and, sometimes, depressed. Thirty-year-old Tom said, “I go on dates, then I get ghosted. I don't know what happened in the other person’s mind, but I assume the worst.” Long-term effects show that the ghosted person will have an increasingly difficult time trusting others and may develop self-blame, insecurities, and low self-worth. Individuals with attachment problems, meaning those who had anxious or insecure early relationships with parent figures, may suffer deeply.
Those who ghost others will often have little faith in themselves as trustworthy, caring people, and may become emotionally hardened. They may become increasingly less able to allow themselves to develop tender and lasting feelings for others. For people with an avoidant attachment style, ghosting may come quickly yet cement a dysfunctional way of relating. The ability to allow oneself to be vulnerable and open-hearted becomes less and less possible.
What does ghosting say as a troubling symptom of our vastly changing society? The term ghosting was first used in the early 2000s, but the prevalence of ghosting has sharply risen in the past decade. Why is that so?
Often ghosting is attributed to the use of social media and dating apps. Even though devices that facilitate easy, virtual connecting make it more convenient to ghost, perhaps the origins of such behavior are deeper. Over the decades, there has been a slow progression to see others as objects, not persons. The philosopher Martin Buber proposed that humans can address our human existence in two ways. We might hold the attitude of an “I” towards an “It” towards an object that is separate in itself. Another preferable attitude is an “I” towards a “Thou,” meaning the relationship of ourselves towards someone we feel interconnected with, someone to be respected and with whom we stand in a relationship.
In the evolution towards more radical materialism, we are often trained to see each other as objects in a disjointed, even hostile world. People are trained to compare themselves with others and to compete mercilessly. Others are often unknowingly used as consumer objects. Such attitudes lead to an inability to be tender, sensitive, and open-hearted. A society that does not model caring but instead discards those who are vulnerable or different sanctifies selfishness and shortsighted gain. Especially in the U.S., the societal fabric has become increasingly fragmented, leading its members to become more mercenary and non-committal.
Ghosting may originate from a sense of alienation and lead to isolation and disconnection. COVID worsened the problem. Many in society are pulled into themselves, not trusting others, living in fearful isolation and high defensiveness. And even after COVID lessened, a great fear of the world has remained for some people. Ghosting is a societal phenomenon, resulting in a disregard for those around us. It becomes more difficult to regard those across the cultural aisle as worthy of our respect and love, and it becomes easy to be numb, insensitive, and even hurtful.
What can we do? Heightened awareness leads to understanding, which then allows for compassion. Understanding the problem is a good start, so we can care again and find ways to improve things. Creative ways must be found to see each other as persons, not objects. Bella, my daughter, who is in her last year of studying towards her Psy.D. degree, had some recommendations. “Let’s buy our soap at a real store instead of Amazon,” she recommended. And “plan an in-person birthday party and invite a few people you don’t know yet very well.”
An exciting study by B. Mount, a palliative care doctor, shows how important “healing connections" are. Suppose individuals experience a sense of friendship with themselves, with a few others they love, with “ultimate reality,” or, through their senses, with the phenomenal world. Those report feeling happy and having a sense of meaning. In contrast, those who did not experience healing connections described themselves as unhappy, lonely, and meaningless.
Returning to the original problem of ghosting, I hypothesize that those who are friends with themselves, and those who love others around them, will not be tempted to ghost. Or, when ghosted, they will have the resilience to bounce back. And if people have a strong relationship with the phenomenal world and love the earth, they will be less likely to ghost or be ghosted. Concerning “ultimate reality,” in whatever form we might experience it: those who feel part of something greater than themselves and find security in the deeper ground will face uncertainty with open-heartedness.
Healing Connections: On Moving from Suffering to a Sense of Wellbeing.
B.Mount, MD, Patricia H. Boston, Ph.D., Robin Cohen, Ph.D., Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 2007.
How "Ghosting" is Linked to Mental Health
Royette T. Dubar, PhD, theconversation.org, 2019