Ghosting Needs to Die

“ … if he was Anita Baker’s man
He’d take her for her masters, hit it once an’ shake her hand 

On some ol’ thank ya ma’am an’ ghost her”

—from “Figaro” by Madvillain



I have been puzzling, from the safety of a marriage, over the phenomenon of ghosting and what prompts it. The rap lyrics above, from an album released in 2004, may be the first to use the verb as a relationship-ender. A decade later, “ghosting” had spread like chickenpox, at least through online dating culture. Social media was blamed; so was the general loss of empathy and civility we like to bemoan. Now the field of contagion has widened: Friends ghost, employers ghost, family members ghost. And the more we all ghost, the easier it gets.

I find this chilling. Even the usage strikes me as odd; ghosting someone sounds more like haunting them, stalking them perhaps, or lingering mistily on the edge of their life. The harsher reality is that you are creating the ghost: You have killed your unwitting victim, turned them into the faintest after-image.

(Credit: John Feinstein, Creative Commons)

Why? Because it is easier to zap someone off your phone and out of your life (the two so often seem synonymous) than it is to explain why you no longer want to be in touch.

I have secretly felt terrible for decades, decades, because I stopped answering the phone—a graceless teenage attempt to break up with the first guy who had ever asked me out. Is this different?

Yes and no.

All I had was a phone. Tethered to a long, curly cord. In today’s world, there are multiple, invisible channels of communication, so ghosting is at once more stealthy and more thorough. Remember the guy in the zombie movie who padlocks the front door then runs to each window, sealing out any possible contact? To ghost, we push buttons: Turn someone’s messages into spam, block their calls, unlink from them, unfriend them, unlike their sites. We do all this without warning or explanation. (If we had the guts to warn them, we would have the guts to tell their face goodbye.)

Ghosting, then, is a handy, tech-enabled form of dehumanization. The other person is dead to us. Canceled. In The Atlantic, Alexander Abad-Santos defended the practice, saying it was “as clear as any other form of rejection. The reason we complain about it is because we wanted a different outcome.”

Oh, balderdash.

There is a coldness to ghosting, a refusal to acknowledge the other person’s need to understand. Any sudden and mysterious death—whether of a person or a relationship—begs for closure. Instead, our technology allows us to hide, to refuse connection, to render a shared past irrelevant and cancel future hopes without explanation. Even the flattest, breeziest sort of “I’m just not that into you” rejection can, if left unsaid, leave open all sorts of imaginary possibilities that will niggle at whoever is ghosted for years to come.

Presuming they have retained enough humanity, after all the swiping and ghosting, to care at all.

I may be wrong in my grumbling about the inhumanity, though. According to two studies summed up in the Journal of Social & Personal Relationships last March, what drives us to ghost—or keeps us from ghosting—is not callousness or cowardice after all. It is anchored, say the authors, in an underlying belief about relationships.

Those who believe in destiny are searching for a preordained soulmate, waiting for the telltale fireworks, hoping for the day that the stars align instead of crossing. They are far more likely to ghost a romantic prospect whom they have decided is not said soulmate. (In the study, they were 63.4 percent more likely to find ghosting an acceptable way to end a long-term relationship.)

Those who believe people and relationships can grow and change seem to feel less helpless in the hands of fate, more able to communicate even negative feelings. As a result, they are less likely to ghost, more likely to find ghosting unacceptable.

The math is also revealing: Asked about ghosting in romantic relationships, almost 20 percent of the study participants found it an acceptable way to end a short-term relationship. Yet more than 69 percent said “I would think poorly of a ghoster.”

There is neither reciprocity nor symmetry in this practice.

Ghosting is still too new to be much studied, but its kin, ostracism, “has been associated with a host of negative consequences,” note the authors. “People react extremely negatively to being ignored and excluded. It is detected as pain.” It also increases sadness—or anger. Analyze mass shootings, and you realize that “the majority of shooters experienced rejection or ostracism prior to their violence.”

Ghosting is not identical to ostracism; ghosting ends the relationship, while ostracism can occur in the bleak middle. But both practices hinge on a refusal to communicate. And human beings are communicative to the core; we survive by connecting with each other.

“Love me or hate me,” my bright, talkative Irish grandmother used to say, “but don’t be indifferent to me.” She was aiming those words at my grandfather, who was cowed by her energy and spent evenings sitting silent in his pink Naugahyde chair, not even protesting the color, just drinking cheap beer and listening to the baseball game to avoid the conversation she craved.

What my grandparents exchanged were daily woundings; ghosting is a kill. And now, with increasing frequency, adult children are ghosting their parents. Dr. Joshua Coleman, author of When Parents Hurt, calls it “a silent epidemic.” Sixty percent of parents surveyed on the Estranged Stories site said their children had never “concretely shared” their reason for severing contact. In “Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood,” researchers at the University of Cambridge reported that more than 70 percent of adult children held out no hope for a relationship in the future. They also noted that the adult children were ten times more likely than their parents to initiate the break.

I watched a friend go through this. She was so desperately hurt and bewildered that she went to a therapist to figure out what she had done wrong. Had she been unwittingly cruel? Had someone abused her daughter without her knowledge and, consequently, her protection? Why the complete cutoff with no explanation, no chance to make amends?

The therapist told my friend that this seemed to be happening more and more often, and parents were blindsided by it. In some cases, they should have known why; in other cases, life’s hurts or sorrows had gotten tangled up with that original relationship, or a therapist had urged the course of action for unfathomable reasons, or tiny slights had been magnified over the years, or the parents were simply a convenient locus of blame.

One bright spot? “Caspering.” Named after a friendly ghost, the method summons the old-fashioned courtesy of easing away with an honest but kind explanation. This apparently felt so new that we had to invent a name for it—a name derived from the more common and far less friendly version.

Years of rhetoric about interpersonal communication, and we still prefer to hide or flee.