The Ghosting Problem We Don't Talk About

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
I’ve been ghosted before ghosting was even a thing. My girlfriends and I first referred to Disappearing Dudes, an umbrella term for men who would be all up in your phone, schedule, lady parts one day and the next, completely shut down all communication. In 2009, as early adopters (and possible part-progenitors) of the term, we began referring to the phenomenon as ghosting. In the seven years since, the practice has been labeled, analyzed, and of course, widely condemned. It’s even a dictionary.com entry now.

Though we can agree that ghosting sucks, we can’t stop doing it. As Aziz Ansari, our generation’s dating czar, put it in his 2015 Netflix standup special: "Let's say you don't like someone, but they like you. How many of you pretend to be busy, that's your move?" The audience responded with raucous applause. Then, he turned the tables: "Let's say the situation is reversed, clap if you'd prefer they'd just be honest with you." When the applause had died down, he cracked: "I think our findings are very clear. We're all shitty people!"

I do try to take the un-shitty approach much sooner into relationships: If, after two or three dates, it’s obvious to me this isn’t my person, I’ll send a text: something along the lines of, “I’m not feeling romantic vibes, but take care and thanks so much for the fun nights.”

I have plenty of straight girlfriends who’ve done the same, using variations on the theme to try and let the guy off easily: Julie, 30, goes with, “Hey, I am not sure I felt a connection, but I appreciated getting to know you!" Lyz, 30, says, “I had fun hanging out with you, but I'm not feeling long-term compatibility.”

We feel good about ourselves. We pat ourselves on the back for doing the kind, mature thing. Until the responses come. Sometimes, they’re gracious, but there’s also been the curt “K,” the insults (“You aren’t that hot, anyway.”), and worse. “When I've been honest, I most often get an aggressively angry response and/or the guy won't let it go and/or I get called names,” like the C-word, says Lauren, 29.

In fact, I’ve had male friends tell me I’m not doing a dude any favors by directly turning him down. “Sometimes, it’s easier and less painful for everyone if you drop clear hints,” rather than putting it bluntly, says Paul, 28 (who’s gay, but also my trusted guru on how men think). Those hints might take the form of, say, “I’m super-busy, but it was great meeting you,” or, "I’m not in a good place to be dating." They shut things down without a less-personal blow.

Sometimes, you need to be upfront with people if it goes on and on and they don't get the hint, but I think a lot of guys — myself included — would prefer something less direct than, ‘I'm not feeling this,’" he adds. To be clear, he’s not advocating ghosting, but rather, some pointed white lies that leave a bro’s ego intact.

Of course, talking about gender-based preferences in grand, sweeping terms ignores the bazillions of exceptions. (Exhibit A: When I asked for opinions on Facebook, virtually every respondent — male, female, cis, straight, or LGBTQ — advocated for honesty, ripping off the bandage as soon as you know you’re done dating. Their instincts match those of Aziz’s audience: in abstract terms, we want a more upfront attitude.) But I got to wondering if we’ve got a Gift of the Magi issue going on, in the straight world, anyway: Women crave direct terminology (perhaps because we analyze things and need them to be put to bed), while men prefer the unbruised ego and we’re all running around treating one another the way we’d like to be treated — and pissing each other off in the process. (Ugh.)

Though we can agree that ghosting sucks, we also can’t stop doing it.

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“I don’t think there’s any data on exactly this issue, but on average, men tend to externalize and women tend to internalize,” says Joanne Davila, PhD, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University and the author of The Thinking Girl's Guide to the Right Guy: How Knowing Yourself Can Help You Navigate Dating, Hookups, and Love. “So, guys might be more likely to get angry and lash out in response to direct rejection, whereas women might take that in and feel bad about themselves.” Witness Bye Felipe, an Instagram account documenting straight dudes responding (poorly) to female rejection.

Then, there’s our socialization: Again, #generalizations, but women are typically taught to be nice, while men are taught to be masculine. It’s not just a stereotype. It’s how we’re raised. “There’s some evidence that women are more emotionally skilled than men,” says Erica Slotter, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at Villanova University who researches relationships and self-concept. “I hate to use the term ‘skilled,’ but there’s evidence that women have a broader emotional vocabulary, so they can talk about emotions using a greater variety of words.”

This starts early: One study, published in The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, suggested that conversations moms have with their daughters contain more emotional words and content than the conversations they’re having with their sons, which leads to girls growing up more tuned into feelings than boys. Again, plenty of men (like my dear candor-seeking FB friends) are in touch with their emotions, too, but big picture, men just aren’t as equipped as women to send and receive messages centering around hurt, rejection, and shame.

Davila pointed out another factor at play: Maybe the divide is less men vs. women and more people looking to get laid — or just date casually — vs. people with their relationship light on. Think about it: “If guys in the dating scene aren’t looking for something serious, it might be easier or preferable to just have women come and go, like, ‘Okay, she didn’t call me back, moving on,’” Davila says. “Whereas someone in relationship mode might be thinking, I gotta be clear that this is not going to happen, because that’s what I’d want. That could drive how they’d prefer to be broken up with.” And it could explain the heartwarming responses my male friends, gay and straight, provided on Facebook: They are, for the most part, sweet, emotionally intelligent dudes who are in or seeking relationships.

Closure isn’t something you get, it’s something you do.

Or maybe, we should just acknowledge that no one I know is going to wave his (or her) hand and say, “I deal with rejection horribly, in fact, so please end things in a way that makes it clear you’re not going out with me again, but leaves my fragile dignity intact.”

Right? I get it: Rejection hurts in all its forms, whether it’s an implied blow-off or a long, meandering email explaining, “I’m very tempted to kiss you, but for whatever reason, I haven’t been up to it in the moment, so we should probably put any romantic prospects on pause.” (That was an actual email in my inbox.)

“Rejection straight-up sucks,” says Chris, 30, who splits his time between New York City and Europe. He notes that dating patterns are pretty much the same in the Western world. “Yes, we'll get over it, it's fine, but being told flat-out, ‘I'm not into you,’ hurts.”
The person instigating the breakup can’t totally mitigate that. “We can do the best we can to be clear and kind, but then it’s on the receiver to deal with it,” Davila says. “You’re never going to like the way it was done to you, but we need to remember this is part of dating, and we can’t take it personally.”

If someone doesn’t want to be with you, by definition, he or she’s not the right person for you, she adds. And if that person broke things off in a way that was mean or dismissive — or reacted to your breakup in a rude or hostile way — well, that’s on them, and it reinforces that this not your future life partner.

In the immortal words of Dan Savage, "Closure isn’t something you get, it’s something you do." If that potential mate you just ended things with needs to convince him- or herself (and, in fact, alert you) that you’re crazy, fine. If someone ends things in a way that pisses you off, it’s on you to mentally flip him or her off and get on with your day.

My friend Juan may have put it best: “Say what you feel; don't feed anyone a line. They may like it, they may freak out, but you can't keep them from feeling pain. Rejection is the price of doing business.” And it’s part of that kissing-frogs period that will, eventually, get you to whatever you want. Brave face at the ready.
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