Source: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Ghosting occurs when a person abruptly discontinues all contact with someone else without an explanation. Instead, they seem to just disappear—like a ghost. This phenomenon is most often linked to romantic relationships but it can also refer to the sudden and expected dissolution of friendships and workplace relationships.
While ghosting is hardly new, it has become increasingly common and well-known as the result of the intersection of social media, technology, and relationships. Basically, technology has made ghosting an incredibly easy way to remove oneself from relationships. And although it has received considerable attention within popular media, there has been limited empirical research on the subject, the motivations underlying it, and its various potential effects on mental-emotional health and well-being.
A 2021 study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media recruited 76 college students through social media and on-campus fliers to provide responses to questions asking them to reflect on their ghosting experiences. Participants, 70 percent of whom were female, signed up for one of 20 focus groups, ranging in size from 2 to 5 students. Group sessions lasted an average of 48 minutes each.
Some students admitted they ghosted another person because they lacked the necessary communication skills to have an open and honest conversation. Others described the absence of confidence to engage in more direct communication or social anxiety nor an impediment. Some participants opted to ghost if they sensed that meeting with the person would stir up emotional and/or sexual feelings they were not ready to pursue. Nearly half of the study participants ghosted due to safety-related concerns—45 percent reported ghosting to remove themselves from a “toxic,” “unpleasant” or “unhealthy” situation.
Related to the significant incidence of ghosting after sex, the “hookup” culture was cited by some participants as antithetical to open and honest communication. Ironically, some reported that they engaged in ghosting as a kinder way to end a relationship compared to a more overt rejection. In this sense, ghosting was viewed (or perhaps rationalized) as a way to avoid hurting the other person; to effectively protect their feelings. However, recent data suggests that in the US adults generally perceive breaking up through email, text, or social media as unacceptable, and prefer that relationships end through in-person contact.
Other research indicates the adverse effects that ghosting can have on mental health and emotional well-being. Short-term consequences included overwhelming rejection and confusion along with being wounded self-esteem. Contributing factors involved the lack of closure and clarity — not knowing why communication abruptly stopped, leaving the person being ghosted trying to make sense of the situation.
Long-term effects for “ghosts” centered around feelings of distrust that developed over time, in some cases spilling over to future relationships. Such experiences often precipitate internalized rejection, self-blame, and feelings of low self-worth.
However, there were also psychological consequences for those perpetrating ghosting. Approximately 50 percent of those who ghosted others experienced feelings of guilty or remorse or guilt. Findings also suggested that as people increasingly utilize ghosting as a way of ending relationships and essentially practice “serial ghosting,” it can become habitual. This has the potential to inhibit personal growth as genuine intimacy becomes more unfamiliar and “ghosters” become more and more comfortable avoiding it.
On a practical level, ghosting is impressively convenient—it’s considerably easier to simply cut off communication than to deal directly with the challenges and the inherent discomfort of taking responsibility and the possibility of confrontation and conflict. That said, the negative effects on mental and emotional well-being, for those on both sides of the relationship, are not to be underestimated.
Copyright 2022 Dan Mager, MSW