Last month, someone close to me shared how a budding romantic relationship had ended. Her last partner passed away a few years ago and she recently decided to dip her toes into online dating. Right away, she met a guy who she really liked and who told her that he liked her back. They ate food together and laughed a lot. She felt chemistry - it was really exciting!
Then, after more dates than you can count on one hand and a few weeks of texting multiple times a day, he just never responded to her last text. When she inquired if he was ok, he never wrote back to that.
Of course, he could have been in a horrible accident-induced coma. However, most likely, my dear loved one got ghosted.
When she told me, I got so angry. I was angry for her and for the times I had been ghosted. I remembered a similar experience when I was fresh out of the Peace Corps. I had been dating a guy for over a month and thought it was going well. My impression was that he felt the same way, too. He let me borrow a sweatshirt and convinced me to take his lucky Gumby doll home. It smelled a bit like a relationship.
Then after I went out of town for a weekend, he stopped calling me. Because I am proud, I waited two weeks before getting in touch. When I asked him what happened, he sheepishly apologized about the pause and admitted that he didn’t think we were compatible.
Despite my anger, I knew that I wasn’t innocent. From early on in my romantic relationships, I have ghosted people, too. It wasn’t that I wanted to leave them hanging. Rather, I just didn’t know how to express that I didn’t see our dates turning into a relationship, or really didn’t want to hang out anymore.
Mostly, I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. So I avoided responding to a message for a few hours, which turned into a few days, which eventually turned into never. It wasn’t my intention to disappear, but my nonaction turned into exactly that.
The root cause of why we ghost probably comes from a fear of disappointing people. It’s painful to be broken up with or told we are no longer desirable. However, from experience, we know how much more being ghosted hurts than the pain of someone being direct with us.
Direct rejection may sting in the moment, but at least we are able to heal from it. With ghosting, we may forever wonder what happened and keep pining for the good moments. It triggers old, often inexplicable wounds of abandonment that can fester for a good long time.
Being ghosted often might give us the message that we aren’t worthy of communication. We wonder if we are tragically flawed. This makes us terrified of opening ourselves up in our next relationship. If we never open up, we never get to experience true intimacy (which is an essential part of having the healthy relationship we are craving).
What’s scary is how much ghosting has become part of our culture. With our swipe-happy fingers, we can easily dehumanize the people who come into our lives. If we don’t like one, we just have to try another and another and another….until we meet the perfect one who satisfies all of our needs. (Hint: Sadly, this person doesn’t exist. Even people we like are deeply imperfect, and staying in a relationship with them can require a lot of work.)
If culturally we think ghosting is a decent way to interact with each other, it might just enforce the message that people are a commodity that exists to serve us. Not only is this a super dangerous justification that has helped people engage in immoral practices such as slavery, it also makes us feel empty on the inside. We wonder why we are still so alone when we have so many options. We withdraw deeper and deeper into ourselves and get lost in a sea of shame.
Yikes, that’s a bleak picture! So what do we do? How can we work with ghosting when it happens to us or we catch ourselves doing it to others?
My idea is to practice very intentional self-care around ghosting, perhaps starting with these internal scripts...
Self-Care Script for the Ghosted:
“Wow, I just got ghosted! How rude! First, even if every part of my brain is telling me differently, I truly know this has nothing to do with me. That person must really be afraid of something to not get back in touch with me. I’m so lucky to have dodged the bullet and didn’t begin a dysfunctional relationship with this person.But ugh, it still really hurts. It’s allowed to hurt. It’s hurtful when I begin to open myself up to someone and then they pull away. This could be triggering abandonment issues from way back when. I’ll dig into that with my therapist when I see her next. But before that, I’m just going to breathe with my hurt for a little while. It’s tender and needs a little TLC. Then I’m going to call my friend who gets me. I’ll ask her to repeat my great qualities and share her own ghosting experiences. This sucks, but I’m going to feel this, take care of myself and emerge stronger, because that is who I am.”
Self-Care Script for Those Who Are Ghosting:
“Hmm...it’s been a few days since I responded to that text. I guess I’m really not that interested. I think I’ve been avoiding writing back because I am afraid to end it. I don’t want to hurt anyone and I’m not sure how to say what I feel. But you know what? It’s probably hurting this person more because I’m ghosting. I don’t want that. Ok, this is hard and I’ll do it imperfectly but I’m going to write back. I’m going to be direct and kind. I’ll say that our relationship is no longer working for me. If I feel safe enough to say why, I will, and if it doesn’t seem like a good idea, I won’t. I’ll end by saying thank you for the time spent together and wish them the very best. If they respond with a mean message, I’ll know there are other issues. Ok, I did it, and I feel strangely sad. Did I do the right thing? Deep breaths. Yeah, it was right. It’s just sad to end things, even if it’s for the best. I’ll just feel sad and take myself out to the movies. Then I’ll call a friend who will help me see that I’ve done a healthy thing. I actually feel pretty good about how I handled that. I’m acting like the person I want to be.”
Of course, edit these scripts so they fit your voice. Repeat them over and over so they drown out the sh*tty voice in your head that wants you to feel like the worst person in the world.
Don’t worry if you wake up the next morning still feeling guilty for having ended it cleanly or bad that someone you liked never called you back. Relationships touch us in such a sensitive spot. There is no “off” switch to make these feelings stop. This may be one of the hardest and most beautiful parts of being human.
Remember that you have the power to care for yourself during these tough spots of transition. Self-care means living with integrity and not taking on other people’s issues as your own. Working consciously through the experience of ghosting will help you in both arenas.
Believing in the inherent worth of yourself and others is not easy work, especially in a culture that wants to convince us otherwise. Everything that has value is usually an uphill climb. Luckily, we have the power to remember this and the energy to keep going.