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Walking With a Ghost

How ‘ghosting’ has become a dating norm and why it needs to stop

I was 19 when I was in the worst accident of my life: left knee dislocated, ligaments destroyed, right wrist broken, upper jawbone cracked, and three teeth gone for good. That all hurt, a lot, but being ghosted by the guy I’d been dating at the time—the same one who was with me during the accident, stayed at my side in the ER, and washed, fed, and clothed me when I was released from the hospital—that hurt more.

The term “ghosting” is not in the dictionary (yet), it’s a pop culture term for when someone drops out of another person’s life without explanation. Whether gradually or abruptly, it’s often marked by a deafening silence when texting, calling or communicating through social media.

Ghosting has become a shamefully integral part of dating culture for people in their teens to mid-30s, especially with the normalization of online chatting and text messaging. And it has got to stop.

“Ghosting is more prevalent with online dating, which didn’t used to be that way—you dated people because you had some sort of connection. Now people are dating outside their social circles,” says local marriage and family therapist Tracy Wikander. “That creates a feeling of being anonymous, which lends itself more to the process of ghosting. There’s less accountability.”

There are a number of things we might want to disappear from: work, school, doctor’s appointments, etc. And fading out of someone’s life instead of explaining the emotion behind our resignation sounds way simpler, right?  

“We have this concept that it’s easier, but emotionally, actually it isn’t,” says Wikander, explaining that the clients she’s had who’ve done the ghosting often remember the guilt of it longer than they remember flat-out rejecting someone. “That’s almost a sign of something being entrenched in the dating culture, of something really unhealthy, disrespectful and, frankly, emotionally immature.”

In her practice, Wikander says most people ghosting are 30 or under—“when a lot of people aren’t yet in their personal power,” she says. What’s really messed up, says Wikander, is that she sees people who’ve been ghosted turn around and ghost the next person.

While I’ve bonded in shame with many others on this point, I admit, I pretty much ghosted the rest of my way through college because I kind of thought that’s how it was done. I was also terrified of getting close to another person, and emotionless trysts lent themselves nicely to ghosting patterns. And it was very often mutual because, hey, college.

That’s pretty common, says Wikander, because being denied closure in a way that is now normalized can lead to severe trust issues in future relationships.

Elle writer Nora Crotty crafted her own survey about ghosting among 185 young people, 120 women and 65 men. Since the term is still relatively new, there is little statistical data on a wider scale, so Crotty recruited respondents through social media. From her small sample, 33 percent of men had been ghosted and had ghosted others while 26 percent of women fell in the same category.

It’s a reality of dating nowadays; “deal with it,” some say. And most of us have ghosted—even Charlize Theron broke up with Sean Penn by way of ghosting (celebrities, they’re just like us!).

“We each sit alone, staring at this black screen with a whole range of emotions,” writes comedian Aziz Ansari in his book Modern Romance. “But in a strange way, we are all doing it together, and we should take solace in the fact that no one has a clue what’s going on.”

Ansari has been a major catalyst for the recent broader conversation around dating culture. His book, stand-up comedy show and Netflix show Master of None all take on the romantic cowardice that technology has enabled.

“I think we hide behind texting,” says Wikander. Online dating and technology is great, she says, but it also gives us many more opportunities to swipe away a person’s “humanness.”

“People can be very conflict- or confrontation-avoidant. It’s a learned behavior that can absolutely change,” says Wikander. “A lot of times it’s around fear, insecurity within themselves—they’re so afraid of expressing themselves because they don’t want to hurt the other person.”

HOW TO NOT BE A JERK

Traci, 29, moved to Santa Cruz from Oakland a few months ago and she says that although dating is hard everywhere, one thing stood out.

“Santa Cruz is so small. It surprised me that people think they can still do that here. It’s not that possible to disappear,” says Traci, who wishes to keep her last name anonymous. “The likelihood that you will run into people should keep you honest.”

Traci says that when she’s only gone on a couple of dates with someone, she likes to wait for them to get in touch instead of obliterating their Monday with a surprise “Hey you’re great, but I’m not interested in you as a person. K thanks, have a good life” kind of text message.

Traci has ghosted and been ghosted, and she says that ultimately, both just feel gross. If you’re not feeling a connection with the person, it’s OK, she says: it doesn’t make you a bad person.  

“It’s never good to drop off when someone is reaching out to you,” she adds. Unless, of course, your physical safety is in jeopardy. Then, ghost fast and ghost hard and get the heck out of there. A quick and dirty guide to letting someone down easy? Don’t be a jerk.

One bizarre reality that Ansari writes about in Modern Romance and talks about in his stand-up show is that, oddly, we sometimes prefer being lied to. We’d rather hear something about the person just being too busy because it takes us out of the equation.

The problem with that, though, is that you can’t really be busy forever. In the long run, it’s simpler to let someone down easy with a message that keeps you “on your side of the street,” as Wikander says. And please, don’t use a fake death as an excuse.

“It’s really about being respectful to yourself in creating communication with another human being in a kind and appropriate way,” says Wikander. “When it’s important, pick up the phone.”

If the idea of speaking actual words to this person over the phone incurs instant nausea, a sensitively worded text message is better than nothing at all, says Wikander.

THE RABBIT HOLE

Last August, recent UCSC graduate Danny Williams had made plans to pick his boyfriend up from John Wayne Airport in Orange County. He had been in Spain for two months, and although Williams lived three hours away from Orange County, they’d agreed he’d pick him up and they’d drive to Arizona for a Sam Smith concert that Williams had purchased tickets for.

“We see his flight get there and I watched every single person get off and I’m looking and looking: and he just didn’t get off,” says Williams. “This was a week before our one-year [anniversary] and I still haven’t heard from him.”

Williams waited three hours in the airport, unable to get any information from the airline, rationalizing that maybe he had missed his flight—maybe his already-broken phone had finally given out.

What happens when someone stops responding is that our brains immediately go to the darkest possible place: “Oh my god, they’re dead.”

That’s because in the olden days, the only reason that someone didn’t text back or show up to a date was that they really were dead! At least, that’s what Ansari says. Today, people are flakier than ever before, so there’s also a million more reasons why they might not be responding and a million different hypotheticals for us to freak out about.

That “hamster wheel,” as Wikander calls it, is completely normal.

“It’s the nature of being ghosted that makes you overthink everything. It starts to get to a place of self focus and wreaking havoc on your self esteem,” she says. “At some point you’ve got to pull away from that and realize this behavior is not yours, it’s the other person’s, and you are worthy of closure. As hard as it sounds, you have to kind of not take it personally.”

To cope with the hurt, first allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling and don’t worry about why, Wikander says, but try your best to avoid the quicksand of self loathing and punishment.

“We can choose what we think about and how we think—it feels like we can’t but we actually can. I tell my clients ‘Imagine that you’re at a fork in the road: one path has got trees and meadows and the other road is filled with torture implements,” she says. “If you want to go down the torture road you are choosing pain, when you keep cycling in the hamster wheel you’re choosing your own personal torture. At some point you have to choose the path of peace.”

EN GUARD

Seven, maybe eight surgeries after my accident and many years later, I realize that there were more red flags in the relationship I had with my ghost than I can count on two hands.

That’s an unfortunate byproduct of all that brain chemistry stuff that’s happening when you’re liking on somebody, but if you know what to look for it’s possible to avoid similar situations, says Wikander.

“It truly may be really out of the blue, but I think anytime you’ve been ghosted it’s important to look, especially if it happens more than once,” says Wikander. “The red flags could be possibly someone who doesn’t consistently respond, if you’re always the one to initiate texts and phone calls. If you’re asking about relationship history and the person won’t tell you—that is a red flag, it’s probably something they’re hiding.”

Finding out how past relationships ended is also crucial, says Wikander, and checking in to see “What might I have been making OK because I just wanted a relationship so bad or really liked the person so much—what am I just denying?”

It’s always acceptable to ask what’s up, says Wikander. Testing the waters with someone can be terrifying and women in particular are often afraid of coming off as “nagging” or “pushy” when they ask about their partners’ feelings. (Ahem, women are allowed to ask about feelings just as men are allowed to share them—now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?)  

“You can be kind and appropriate and still take care of your needs,” says Wikander.

And for goodness’ sake, don’t do it over text!

“I think it’s better to get out of texting at this point so they can hear the intonation of your voice,” says Wikander. “I might say ‘Hey, I just wanted to let you know my experience is that I texted you two days in a row and I haven’t heard back and I want you to know I’m feeling confused, I don’t know what’s going on for you and would really appreciate it if you can let me know.’”

The bottom line, says Wikander, is that if someone ghosts, they’re not worth keeping around anyway.

We want to hate the ghoster, we wonder how they can be so cruel and insensitive, we methodically stab needles into their voodoo effigy while watching romcoms. But the ghoster is us and we are them—we make mistakes and we end up hurting people, often by accident.

Being young often goes hand-in-hand with doing stupid things: barfing in someone’s kitchen sink on New Year’s, shoplifting eyedrops from a CVS, or ghosting someone you’re just not that into. It’s chuckled at in the “ah, youth” kind of way. But as grown-ass people, there is simply no excuse.

And hey, Blane, if you’re reading this, just call me back already.

Contributor at |

Anne-Marie was 9 when she decided she would be a journalist. Many years, countless all-nighters, two majors and one degree later, she started as GT’s Features Editor a day after graduating UCSC.
In her writing she seeks to share local LGBTQ/Queer stories and unpack Santa Cruz’s unique relationship with gender, race, the arts, and armpit hair.
A dedicated pursuant of wokeness and turtleneck evangelist, she finds joy in wall calendars and that fold of skin above the knee.

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