I used to be the world’s best replier; I never left an iMessage or a WhatsApp on read. But after 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic, what I am calling 'communication fatigue' has set in and the text messages frequently stack up. My friends mean the world to me and I actually think the pandemic has brought us closer — but keeping all my friendships going via a phone has been hard, to say the least. My phone has become the principal transmitter of my identity, in place of my facial expressions or my body language, and that has taken a toll.
Despite COVID restrictions lifting, I’m finding it harder than ever to reply to messages in good time. I’ll flick WhatsApp after WhatsApp to 'unread' before feeling a rush of guilt and replying to them all at once — prefacing each message with capitalised apologies. And if the simple act of replying to messages is tough, the idea of dating anyone just now feels totally alien. I only came to appreciate this a few weeks ago when I ghosted someone, which is not something I have ever really done.
We met through work in London last year. We started chatting on WhatsApp in November, after I’d moved back home, and met for a Zoom drink in February.
We didn't know each other well but that doesn't matter. Ghosting is ghosting.
But as the year went on, COVID restrictions continued and my communication fatigue increased. I’d see his messages appear on my phone screen and feel a (totally unwarranted) pressure to send back a scintillating reply. I couldn’t bring myself to try to be funny, witty or flirty over WhatsApp — I’d never felt less funny or flirty in my life. I just felt exhausted, by both my phone and the mundanity of life under lockdown.
He suggested another Zoom drink but in the absence of socialising, I’d thrown myself headfirst into work. After so many hours spent staring at my laptop, my eyes felt wracked by blue light: a bit like an empty peanut butter jar that’s been scraped out repeatedly with a teaspoon in order to scoop up every last remnant. I told him I often have to work late, which was true. I didn’t tell him that I couldn’t bear the thought of staring at my laptop for any longer than was strictly necessary, which was also true.
My mental and emotional capacity for dating — even for replying to messages — was shrinking and I knew I should tell him this. But I squirmed at the thought, because we’d never defined our interactions as ‘dating’. Perhaps if we’d been meeting in person, it would have been clearer; physical proximity has a dating parlance all of its own. Maybe one of us would have felt a thrill of electricity when a foot accidentally nudged the other’s leg under the table. We could have walked along the South Bank; I would have held my bag over the shoulder furthest from him if I’d wanted him to hold my hand, and on the shoulder closest to him if I didn’t. Each other’s physical presence would have made every interaction easier to read.
As it was, our connection felt both vaguely romantic and wholly platonic. I struggled to find the words to end it when I didn’t really know what I was ending. I shrank from the idea of receiving a perplexed reply to my imaginary closure message, saying that he thought I was overthinking things or, worse, that he didn’t think we were dating, anyway.
The gaps between our WhatsApps grew longer and at one point, I realised I hadn’t replied to his latest message. Rather than start it all back up again when I knew my heart wasn’t in either the possibility of dating or the simple act of replying to messages, I decided to leave it there.
Six weeks later, he got in touch to suggest we meet up in person as he was in my area but my mum was very ill at the time, so I said I couldn’t. He then sent a message prefaced with a wish that he was saying it all face to face, as he’d planned. He said he really liked me and that he wanted to keep seeing me romantically but that he didn’t know what was going on, or what I wanted. His message was confused and hesitant and brimming with vulnerability.
As I drafted the message, I felt a sense of guilty irony that I was — like many people I've previously dated — delivering too little, too late.
I realised I'd become the person I’d always railed against with my friends. I’d become a ghoster: I’d put avoidance of potential embarrassment over someone else’s feelings.
Sarah Calvert is a psychotherapist and a psychosexual and relationship therapist. "Ghosting is when a personal relationship is ended by one party abruptly, without explanation, stopping all further contact," she explains. "It is literally like the person has disappeared."
"People often behave differently online," Calvert continues. "Technology allows us to hide away behind the screen. When we conduct relationships online, it’s sometimes easy to forget that we’re dealing with another human being with feelings."
I apologised for my poor communication and explained that I’m just not in a position to date anyone right now. As I drafted the message in my iPhone Notes app, I felt a sense of guilty irony that I was — like many people I’ve previously dated — delivering too little, too late.
Calvert points out that "those who are ghosted are left with unanswered questions and without closure". The man I’d ghosted had sought closure, for which I have huge respect — I’ve never been able to do that when I’ve been ghosted — and I felt horrible that he’d had to drag it out of me when I should have offered it, unprompted.
We didn’t know each other well but that doesn’t matter. Ghosting is ghosting. "Endings are important, even in brief relationships," Calvert emphasises. "It allows us to reflect on the relationship and our part in it, and to move on."
Realising I’d ghosted someone was a wake-up call I desperately needed to pull me out of the mire of communication fatigue. I still feel it; I’m still struggling to reply to messages in general, and that’s okay. We’re all dealing with the fallout of the pandemic in our own ways. But I don’t ever want my communication fatigue to morph into ghosting again. Calvert describes ghosting as "a way of being in control" but if it’s a choice between giving up control and ghosting someone, I’ll take a loss of control every time.