What science knows about ghosting: It’s worse than direct rejection

The people who most suffer from the phenomenon are also the ones who do it most frequently to others, according to a study

Millennials accept ghosting more than members of Generation Z, according to a survey.
Millennials accept ghosting more than members of Generation Z, according to a survey.Ilker Metin Kursova (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Karelia Vázquez

It’s the magic of vanishing, leaving a message on read, abruptly disappearing with the help of technology. Ghosting, an unfortunate but convenient practice, has entered our emotional vocabulary. It is now the norm, inevitable in the search for a partner on apps that promote the volume of interactions over a single object of desire. We’re all disposable and replaceable —so say academics who study the phenomenon around the world. If you’re looking for a partner, sooner or later, you’ll find yourself ghosting someone, or you’ll become a victim of someone who disappears abruptly without explanation.

It’s more painful than being openly rejected

Such is the conclusion of a University of Georgia study. “In our study, two of every three participants, all young adults, have ghosted and also had been victims of it on several occasions. Most of them considered it a viable strategy because it was easy, avoided confrontation and seemed more polite than a hard, direct rejection,” says Christina Leckfor, the study’s lead author. However, the study concluded that ghosting’s impact on mental health is worse than open rejection. “Over time, the memory of being ghosted is more painful than a direct breakup. It’s possible that those who opt for that exit aren’t very conscious of the harm they do to the other party,” says Leckfor, who calls the practice a “painful breakup strategy.”

Who is more likely to ghost?

Academics have tried to determine the profile of serial ghosters, while acknowledging that the practice is widespread. In the University of Georgia study, the result was truly surprising: those who suffered the most from ghosting were also those who practiced it most frequently. “They tend to be people with a great need to close doors and turn the page, with little tolerance for uncertainty,” says Leckfor, and adds: “They need firm answers, whether or not they are correct, to avoid uncertain situations. And although ghosting can leave a relationship in ambiguity, whoever does it puts a resounding end to the connection.”

The ghoster vanishes, leaving the other person hanging. When they’re on the receiving end, they suffer much more than those who do not have a need for closure. The phenomenon perplexed the researchers.

In another study, the authors identified that people with strong beliefs in destiny, who trust that their better half is out there waiting for them to complete them, frequently use the strategy once they decide the other isn’t the right one. Many people opt for ghosting when they believe that a relationship is doomed and there’s nothing left to do to save it.

Reasons for ghosting

In the same study, led by Gili Freedman, a researcher at Dartmouth College, and Darsey Powell, from Roanoke College, some participants acknowledged that they lacked “communication skills to have an honest conversation, whether face-to-face, by text, or by email.” An in-person confrontation generated “social anxiety,” they said. Others preferred to disappear because they believed that a physical encounter could take the sexual and emotional relationship “to the next level,” and they were not interested.

Many women cited safety reasons: 45% said that ghosting probably avoided “awkward and toxic situations.” “It’s very easy to chat with complete strangers. Disappearing is a way to protect yourself when a guy asks for weird things, for example, a nude photo,” confessed a 19-year-old girl. Participants also cited the need to “protect the feelings of the other.” It is wrongly assumed that disappearing without warning is more polite than direct rejection.

Ghosting after sex deserved a separate category in this study. In the context of hookup culture, the participants considered it “normal” that if one of the parties was only looking for sex, they would disappear once achieving their goal. “After all, continuing to talk to that person could send the wrong message that more emotional intimacy is sought,” said one participant.

A Bumble dating app survey of Singaporean users revealed that the main reason for ghosting was “lack of connection,” with most women saying they had decided to fizzle out after disagreeable comments on a first date. Other reasons included “being very busy” and “avoiding an unpleasant conversation to end the relationship.”

Millennials ghost more than Generation Z

In the Bumble survey, members of Generation Z showed a strong anti-ghosting stance: 69% said it was “inappropriate.” In contrast, 60% of millennials had no problem unilaterally dissolving a connection without explanation if there was no chemistry on the first meeting, while 38% believed that it was “a normal phenomenon.” Only 20% of millennials thought the same.

Friends also ghost, and it can be worse

Christina Leckfor says that she and her team focused their work on ghosting as a strategy to end romantic connections. But more than half of the people surveyed spontaneously recounted experiences of friendships that ended that way. “To our surprise, in young adults there was no difference. It hurt as much when a partner or a romantic date vanished, closing all avenues of contact, as when a friend did.” Ghosting is also rampant during recruiting and job interviews. After one or two interviews, many recruiters disappear, leaving the candidate in suspense. The Leckfor team intends to study the phenomenon, but says that work-related ghosting is much more harmful than the typical rejection email.

Who has it worse?

The answer may seem obvious, but the researchers wanted to confirm it. In the Bumble study, those who had suffered one or more episodes of ghosting felt discouraged (42%), less confident (38%) and wary (34%) on their next date. Men were particularly emotionally affected. The qualitative study Disappearing in the Age of Hypervisibility: Definition, Context and Perceived Psychological Consequences of Social Media Ghosting also confirms the negative consequences of the strategy.

In the short term, the victims felt a sense of confusion and rejection, mixed with low self-esteem. Part of the problem was “the lack of clarity, not understanding why the relationship had abruptly ended,” say the authors. In the long term, these people, says the study, developed a distrust that followed them through their next relationships.

And what do those who practice ghosting feel? Well, according to the paper, half felt some remorse and guilt. The rest did not report any emotion, a conclusion consistent with other studies that show that the person who initiates a breakup experiences less discomfort than the other party.

Why does it hurt so much when someone disappears on an app?

According to Christina Leckfor, technology amplifies our availability to others, and with it the illusion of having found someone. When the illusion vanishes, its volatility becomes evident. “It’s easy to text or call a friend or a romantic partner, no matter how far away. We are so accessible and so easy to find that when someone decides to disappear, it’s heartbreaking. Most people carry their phone with them all the time. When someone is ghosted, it is very easy for them to imagine how someone on the other side sees their messages and deliberately ignores them.” In the age of hypervisibility, being unseen is a cheap shot.

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