I will always remember the first time I was ghosted. I was 22 years old, newly single, and had been on three dates with a nice man who worked in some vague segment of the advertising industry. He was taller and older than me, and he’d chosen a contemporary art museum for one of our dates (which seemed really sophisticated at the time), so I was pretty psyched about our potential relationship. One day, after a text I sent to him had gone unanswered for three days, I finally confided to a friend that I was concerned.
“Yep,” she said knowingly, “You’ve been ghosted.”
In case you’ve been lucky enough to never encounter it, ghosting is the practice of ending a relationship by simply disappearing and becoming unresponsive. In the last few years, ghosting has been
investigated and editorialized to the point that it has become an established part of the cultural zeitgeist — which is comforting for me, at least. ( Look! It happens to other people, too! I’m not an unlovable, pajama-wearing, apartment-bound loser!) Almost everyone has a ghosting story.
But, if we’re all talking about ghosting now, and we all (for the most part) know how horrible it feels to be ghosted, why do people still do it? And are there certain situations in which ghosting is simply unacceptable? How do you know?
Knowing that I was guilty of this myself, I reached out to a nice guy I had dated for a few months via Hinge (Jacob), and then unceremoniously stopped responding to. I asked him if I could interview him about what had happened. Even though I’d since apologized for my past behavior, Jacob was not into the idea. “I don’t think my answers would be interesting,” he said. “In our case, we weren't boyfriend/girlfriend, so I just had to take it in stride when the relationship became something that you clearly weren’t interested in pursuing. If you really want to talk about ghosting, you should be willing to make yourself feel uncomfortable, too.”
He was right: If I was going to learn anything new, I had to be willing to talk to the people who had ghosted
me. After promising to buy drinks, I found four men who’d ghosted me who agreed to talk about why they decided to do it (including that aforementioned guy who worked in advertising). Yep, it was just as scary as it sounds. Oh, and pretty much everyone I spoke to asked for anonymity. Go figure.
*Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Age: 27 Relationship length: 1 month How would you describe the course of our relationship? “We knew each other for a while through mutual friends. After it became clear that there was a mutual attraction, we started hooking up for a while and hanging out more consistently.” What happened after you and I got involved? “After about a month, I was still not totally sure what I wanted, so I tried to phase — if that word even makes sense — I tried to phase us back into being just friends again.” So you just… weren’t that into it? “I guess, yes. I didn’t want to continue to pursue something romantic or physical if I wasn’t more committed.” Do you consider what you did ghosting? “I wouldn’t consider what happened total ghosting — I knew I no longer wanted to pursue something, and I thought that the least confrontational way to do so was to refrain from putting myself in positions where things would naturally become romantic.” See, to me, the way you went about it sort of felt like you were ghosting me. You didn’t totally disappear, but you’d ignore most of my messages. “I do know that was not the most upfront or straightforward [thing to do]. But my attempted ‘phasing’ tactic led to you sparking a conversation that ultimately cleared things up on both our sides.” I forced the issue a bit. After two weeks, I was like, “Yo, what’s up? You’re being weird.” [laughs] “That is what you did.” What was upsetting to me was not that you were “phasing” me back into friendship — because I also wasn’t invested in our romantic relationship — but it was that you didn’t directly tell me that you weren’t feeling it. I always considered us to be friends, so I remember feeling like, “Come on, you could have been open with me, and you know I would have been chill.” “I think you said something to that effect, and I apologized, because I agree — you would have been chill.” Luckily, I think there’s a happy ending to this story. How would you describe our current relationship? “We are friends! And I’m really glad you forced the issue, because I never intended to hurt you or make our friendship disappear — I just wanted to keep it only as a friendship.” How I felt: Surprisingly, kind of sad. He didn’t really give me any new information, but I can’t lie: Hearing him explicitly say that he just wasn’t that into me did make me question — for the first time — why he felt that way. Even though I’m happy with our friendship, I couldn’t help but feel slighted that he wasn’t into something about me. I also found myself wishing he had delved further into his impulse to avoid confrontation and where that came from.
Age: 35 Relationship length: 3 dates How would you describe the course of our relationship? “We met on Happn; in your picture, you were holding a bunch of potted herbs [laughs]. We went on a few dates, but after the last date, I didn’t reach out again.” How do you define ghosting? “It’s when you become unresponsive to a partner as a no-conflict means of ending the relationship.” Why did you ghost me? “Honestly, I don’t really know. It almost wasn’t a conscious thing. I didn’t sit down and think ‘Okay, time to stop talking to this girl now.’ I got busy at work, didn’t respond to your text, and then kind of forgot about it. Our chemistry was good, but it wasn’t… memorable, right?” Were you seeing other people? “Yes, but there wasn’t a specific person who I chose over you.” Do you think ghosting is ever an acceptable way to end a casual relationship? “Well, yes and no. When I did realize that I had ghosted you, I genuinely felt like you probably didn’t care. That made it feel okay.” For the record, I did care, to some extent. “I’m sorry — I sincerely thought you’d just be like, ‘On to the next.’” [laughs] Do you think the fact that things never really got physical between us contributed to your ability to ghost me so easily? “For sure. If we had slept together I think I, A. wouldn’t have gotten distracted from our relationship, and B. would have felt more pressure to talk to you again.” How I felt: Weird, and pretty embarrassed. Because I hadn’t spoken to him since he ghosted me, it felt like a concession of sorts to reach out to him again. It was even more difficult to admit that his ghosting act had bothered me when he claimed he thought I wouldn’t have noticed. Again, as an emotionally sentient human being, despite my best efforts to see his side of the story, I found myself upset that I hadn’t made more of an impact on his life.
Age: 33 Relationship length: Hooked up occasionally for one year How would you describe the course of our relationship? “We met through mutual friends, then we hooked up sporadically over the course of a year.” How do you define ghosting? “Ghosting is a catch-all term nowadays — but I would say it's suddenly cutting off communication with a romantic partner. I didn't ghost you, though.” You don't think you did? “No, when do you think I did? I remember you being upset that one time, and you were saying something like, ‘Why don't you want me to be your girlfriend?’ And after that interaction, I didn’t talk to you for a while. But you also didn't reach out after that — that I can remember.” First of all, I'm cringing hearing you repeat what I said. “Why?” Because I was so young and unaware of NYC dating dynamics; and also because I don’t think I wanted to actually be your girlfriend. “Ouch.” I also think you did ghost me, in that you abruptly ceased contact. I always knew you could never fully disappear, because we had mutual friends, but the drop off in communication hurt. I wasn't confused, given the way our last interaction had ended, but I didn't feel good. “And I am sorry about that, but if you look at my history, when I've been with someone seriously, it always starts as a friendship that steadily becomes closer until we are basically dating. And the relationship [that you and I had] never fell into that model. It was always more sporadic and physical.” Did that inconsistency contribute to why you feel like you couldn’t have ghosted me? “I think so. I pulled away after you were upset about us not being in a relationship, but I never thought a romantic relationship was on the table for us. So I didn’t think I needed to say anything else.” In hindsight, there was also a power differential due to our six-year age difference. I was more upset by you ghosting because I saw you as more mature and more successful. “I can understand that, and I guess it makes sense that the age difference was never something that I really thought about — because it didn’t affect my personal conduct in the relationship.” How I felt: Very embarrassed, but also enlightened. Back when we were dating, I had internalized the idea that if a guy wanted to have sex with me but didn’t want to date me, there was something wrong with me. His explanation for ghosting was illuminating, as it seemed like he didn’t want to recognize that I was affected by his actions, even though we weren’t (by his definition) in a relationship. With all of these guys, I see a common thread of an inability to deal with not only commitment, but another person’s feelings. They either found a breakup-like confrontation too intimidating, or couldn’t recognize that I even had emotions at all.
Age: 30 Relationship length: Hooked up sporadically for five years How would you describe the course of our relationship? “Our relationship was physical from the very start — the first time I met you was at a party in college. Granted, alcohol was involved, and it was several years ago, so some aspects of the memory are a bit fuzzy…but if recollection serves, we were back in your dorm within, like, 90 minutes of us meeting. As college went on, we both faced personal issues and were in relationships — but whenever we were single, we would reconnect. Whatever the strange alchemy behind our relationship was, we went from a one-night stand to two people who — I’ve always thought — became friends.” How would you describe our current relationship? “We text from time to time, and like one another’s posts on Instagram or Twitter. But we shared [some serious things] for a long time, and in a way, that bonded us more than some of my long-term loves. I have only positive feelings towards you.” Aw, thank you. “You're welcome. I realize it might be absurd to say but…I’ve always felt that if things ever got bad, I could reach out to you and that you’d be there. No judgments. With other past relationships, I think a phone call from me out of the blue would probably be unwelcome. With you? I imagine you would take it in stride and do what you could to help.” I absolutely would. “As I would for you.” Have you ever ghosted someone before? After you reached out to me initially, I did a little research on the subject of ghosting, and immediately recognized my own past behavior. There were occasions in the past where I opted to disappear from someone’s life completely in lieu of having an adult conversation about it. Back then, I justified it as saving them from hurt, which probably betrays my own narcissism in assuming that my rejection would be so damaging that it was better for me to vanish without explanation. [laughs] There was also another time I went on quite possibly the best first date I’ve ever been a part of, [and afterwards] I never heard from her again. It was immensely confusing.” With us, was there any point in our relationship that you would define as a “ghosting” moment? “Yes, there was. Throughout our time knowing one another, we have drifted in and out of contact. When we were away from school, or when one of us was in a serious relationship…so a widening distance between us was not unprecedented. But, the time in particular I believe we are both thinking of was when we were in New York together [about five years ago].” Yep, that is what I’m thinking of, too. “You had just gotten out of a relationship that wasn’t a clean getaway, and I had had my heart broken and was simply in no way, shape, or form going to open myself up again yet. But we were doing the New York thing of getting drinks a couple of times, staying over a couple of times. I think it was one night in the winter, like March, that we met for dinner, and then we went back to your place, and when I woke up, you were laying on my chest, curled up under my arm [and] it felt…nice. I guess I realized I would be happy to wake up like that again. I wanted to spend more nights like that one. So I got out of bed, put on my clothes, and left.” I woke up and you were gone. You were totally unresponsive for almost two months, and then you moved to LA. “I have to admit, I have such a crystal clear memory of being in bed with you and what I felt, but then I couldn’t even really remember the aftermath. I just knew in that moment that I could actually really like you, and that you could actually really like me.... [But I also knew] that neither of us — at that point — would actually know what the fuck to do with that. There was no way either of us were ready for that, and I was hell-bent on protecting my heart.”
So why didn't you just talk to me? “Because even with all the gut insight I had in that moment, I didn’t have any real way of articulating that correctly, even to myself. Instinct and emotion are so clear, but also such nebulous things. We talked maybe…a year ago…about what happened.” When we were both in relationships again and had started communicating again. “Right. Why didn’t we, given our intense chemistry, explore what life would have been like with us being together? And it was actually during that conversation, with the benefit of a few years, that I was able to vocalize that gut reaction I had on your bed that morning.” You realize that what you're saying is probably what many people want to believe is the real reason behind a ghosting, right? “They’re not calling me back because they developed feelings that were too strong?” I’ve wanted to believe that before. It feels like wish fulfillment. “Totally. When I was ghosted, I comforted myself by thinking, ‘What we shared was really intense, and maybe she was scared away.’” In the spirit of honesty, that fact that we talked about what happened previously is the only reason I was able to have this conversation with you now. “Oh, no doubt. If we hadn’t already broached this subject a year ago, I don’t know if I would be comfortable being so honest with you.” Yes. Ultimately, I was hurt when you ghosted. I was content to never revisit the disappearance, because I didn't want your explanation to be that you "just weren't feeling it." That would have made me feel insane, like I was completely misreading how those nights in New York felt. “Well, the good news is, you weren’t misreading anything. The bad news is, I was immature and unable to articulate my own feelings. And that is kind of the point of why ghosting sucks. Not my inability to communicate, but rather that there were emotions involved. If we had just been two people having a one-night stand, then when you woke up alone, you would have probably gone, ‘Glad I have the whole bed to myself now.’ Regardless of who is doing the ghosting…it is only ever really painful when there is a great connection or the potential for one.” After all of your experiences, do you think ghosting is ever an acceptable way to end a relationship? “Now that I am an adult the answer is like 90% no. I think once you become invested with someone, even if it is only a few drinks or a few nights in bed, they are owed some sort of explanation. That being said, people can always see different situations differently. Even though I like to think I have introspective skills and an understanding of social norms and etiquette....sometimes I just completely miss the mark.” Thank you for talking to me. “You were owed the respect of an explanation, and I’m sorry it took a few years for me to voice it. Plus, I know you as a person of sound judgment and good values. I don’t know if someone else reached out and was like, ‘Hey, let’s evaluate your past shitty behavior,’ I’d be real excited to hop on.” How I felt: Surprised, vindicated, and a little bit wistful. For the most part, everyone I interviewed ghosted me out of some type of fear. But, with this guy, instead of the fear of confrontation, emotions, or commitment, it was the fear of heartbreak. I almost didn’t believe his response, and I was sad he didn’t tell me at the time. Our conversation was honest, open, and very enjoyable. It was so lovely, in fact, that after we talked, I found myself wishing, ever-so-slightly, that we had explored the possibility of a real relationship. Overall, my quest to find the “why” behind my ghostings left me feeling more raw than I expected. In some cases, getting clarity allowed me to feel resolved; but in others, additional explanation only left me hurting in a different way. I still believe that ghosting is wrong — you owe anyone that you are involved with some sort of explanation if you decide to disappear — but maybe, sometimes, these things don’t have a satisfactory explanation. And that’s likely the only “closure” I’ll get.