Jacqueline* felt like she was in a staring contest with her phone. And losing. She was waiting for someone she’d met on Hinge to text her back. They’d been on two in-person dates, but they’d been “talking” for longer (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and it felt like they'd known each other for a while. But now it had been four days since their last date — a park picnic with sweet tea and charcuterie — and she hadn’t heard from him.
“I felt totally bummed and was pretty sure I was being ghosted,” the 26-year-old recalls. “And it was COVID, so I thought, What else could you be doing right now? I know you’re at home. Plus, he was still posting on Instagram.”
Jacqueline’s story may sound familiar. About 80% of people said they’d been ghosted more amid the pandemic than pre-COVID, a Cosmopolitan poll found. What's worse, getting ghosted might feel especially brutal this year, says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, MA, LMFT, co-owner of BFF Therapy and an anti-racism consultant. In COVID times, 61% of young people reported high levels of loneliness, according to a Harvard survey conducted in October 2020. “The loneliness is impacting mental health, and prompting more negative self-talk,” DeGeare says. So whereas in February 2020 you might have been able to brush off a blow off from a new flame, now you may be more likely to take it to heart and ruminate on what you did wrong.
The same loneliness that makes being ghosted cut deeper may make people more likely to ghost, DeGeare notes. “If you’re feeling lonely and in a depressed place, you’re less likely to want to deal with confrontation head on,” she explains. In general, our tolerance for tough social interaction has dramatically decreased over the past year of isolation. “To be blunt, people are just more socially awkward right now,” DeGeare says. We’re also all burnt out on communicating virtually. “Online dating a year ago, in March and April, it felt fun and fresh and you could get creative with it,” DeGeare says. “Now it’s just very overdone. People are over it.” Thus, instead of taking the time to send a simple this-isn’t-a-good-fit-but-good-luck text, people are opting out.
Psychologically, ghosting is often rooted in a fear of confrontation, DeGeare says. “Most of the time one person is trying to avoid a difficult conversation or encounter,” she says. Many relationships — even short-term ones — involve a “pursuer” and a “withdrawer,” she adds. “The pursuer is someone who’s always reaching out asking questions, and who’s more curious,” DeGeare says. “The withdrawer is more closed off, not processing out loud. They’re doing this internal work, and connecting in softer ways when it feels safe.” The withdrawers are often the ones who are more likely to ghost, because they have a harder time facing their emotions.
Still, “ghosting isn’t a great thing to do — unless someone is an asshole to you, in which case, I wouldn’t call that ghosting,” she says. In those cases, the term “boundary setting” is more appropriate (or my preference: “cutting off an emotionally abusive biotch who doesn’t deserve you”). But for the most part, instead of leaving someone on read, the kindest thing to do is to tell them that you don’t see this going anywhere, and to wish them the best in their future dating endeavors. That’s especially true now, DeGeare says. Things have been so difficult for so many of us in the last year, and there’s no need to cause someone additional pain.
If you know you’re someone who tends towards dropping out of a conversation, consider drafting up a cooker-cutter response you can send to people who you’ve decided you’re not interested in and stashing it in your Notes app. It should be short and kind, while ultimately getting a clear message across. As a recovering ghoster with a natural inclination towards withdrawing, I have just such a note in my phone. My friend, former coworker, and relationship expert Erika W. Smith, helped me come up with the message: “Hey, so sorry it took me so long to reply, busy workday! To be honest, it was great to meet you earlier this week, but I didn’t feel like we had a spark. Best of luck to you!” Of course, if the other person demands an explanation, doesn’t take no for an answer, or otherwise responds in a way that feels toxic, feel free to ignore or even block them.
And if you get ghosted in this pandemic, don’t take it too personally. Self-examination is a good thing, and it’s fair to ask, “Did I bring my best self on our date?” But don’t beat yourself up, and know that the reason this person ghosted is likely not about you, but on them.
As more and more people get vaccinated and we adjust to a new normal-ish, some of the reasons we ghost may start to go away — the loneliness, the Zoom fatigue — but ghosting will likely always exist. As such, it’s best to be prepared, know your worth, and stay kind.
As for Jacqueline, she decided after four days to text her Hinge date again, even though he’d left her hanging. He responded that he’d been busy with work, and he was sorry he’d forgotten to text.
She wasn’t satisfied with the response. She decided to ghost him.
*Jacqueline's last name has been omitted for privacy reasons.