“I don’t understand,” I wailed to no one in particular. “I don’t understand!”
I’d been holed up in my apartment for nearly five days in December, battling the flu with chicken soup and romantic comedies. By this point, I was feeling well enough physically to return to work the next day. But emotionally, I was a mess.
I knew ghosting was common. It had happened to me after a second or third date, which stung. But never like this: For three days, I hadn’t heard from the guy I’d been seeing for over a month, who was fighting the same bug. The mental guessing game was nearly as debilitating as the sickness I’d just weathered: Had his illness worsened, landing him in the hospital? Had some other terrible thing happened? Or was he sending me the message, silently and ever so slowly, that we were through? If that was the case, why was I worrying about him?
That night I was crying so hard my neighbors could probably hear. I wasn’t just upset that a promising relationship might be ending. I was distraught for all of us who are dating, that breaking up via silence is somehow acceptable. It might be excusable after a date or two, perhaps a smart move if your safety is at risk. But disappearing when all you’re fearing is a difficult conversation? That’s normal now.
It’s easy to see how we got here: Our culture of busyness and flakiness, created and enabled by technology, allows us to avoid tough situations every day, and not just in our love lives. Email and texts fall through the cracks, sometimes accidentally, sometimes because we don’t know what to say or are afraid to tell the truth. Once it became easy to cancel plans, or push them back 10 minutes with a quick message, it became just as easy to vanish from someone’s life. What are we really so afraid of?
My ghost and I didn’t start as strangers on the Internet. We were seated next to each other at a Shabbat dinner for Washingtonians in their 30s, and we quickly bonded over having grown up in California. We met for drinks the next week. On our second date, after dinner, he dropped me off in a Lyft, and gave a hug. Later, we were texting, and I told him that next time he could even kiss me good night. He ended up coming back to my place that night, and we had our first kiss. I told him it was one of the most romantic things anyone had done for me in a long time.
“I don’t always do the right thing,” he said, “but I usually try to fix it.”
“That’s all that matters,” I told him.
I’ve been dating — and writing about dating — for nearly two decades. In that time, looking for a partner online has gone from weird to a bit embarrassing to totally normal. In fact, more couples now meet through the Internet than through friends or family. It’s a lot easier to find a first date.
With all these options, we’re putting less care into how we deal with individual people. Back in 2011, I wrote about how romantic it might be if we actually called each other to schedule a first date. (So retro!) In 2012, I was disturbed by how ordinary it had become to break up by text or email that I wrote a guide to the art of digital rejection.
Now, we’re so bad at breaking up that many of us aren’t doing it at all. Though people have been disappearing for ages, and while Merriam-Webster found traces of the current definition of “ghosting” starting in 2006, it’s only been common over the last few years. A 2019 YouGov survey of U.S. adults found that 30 percent of them had ghosted a romantic partner or friend. Yes, friends ghost one another. Relatives do, too. Workers ghost their employers. Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has even offered advice to a ghosted Elle magazine reader: “If he wants to go silent, let him go. He is not the one for you."
“Most people have a sense that it’s kind of wrong to do it for any kind of relationship that was more than just a date,” says Andrea Bonior, a clinical psychologist in Washington. Still, “the more it happens, the more people justify doing it. … It’s established a sense of normalcy around it that wasn’t there 10 years ago.”
Rosie Walsh came up with the idea for her novel “Ghosted” after a 40-something friend’s love interest went poof. The book has sold over 1 million copies, which Walsh credits in part to ghosting’s ubiquity.
Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles and author of “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone,” says ghosts typically aren’t proud of their behavior — they just don’t know how to have a hard conversation. “They’re like virgins to this,” Gottlieb says. When she’s encouraged a patient to have a breakup talk by phone, they often report back it was “amazing,” Gottlieb adds. “It’s awkward and not fun, but people really appreciate the gesture of: You took the time and you cared.”
On MTV’s “Ghosted,” Travis Mills and Rachel Lindsay hunt down disappeared best friends, cousins and exes with the determination of homicide detectives trying to crack a cold case. Lindsay calls ghosting an “epidemic” and sees her show as an attempt to reveal that it’s not okay. The now-married “Bachelorette” star said that one of her own ghosts held her back for years. “I dated, but I kept wondering: Why me?” she says in a phone interview. “A lot of times in these ghosting stories, we find that the one who was ghosted blames themselves, and that was me.”
In the show’s Season 1 premiere, Mills and Lindsay track down a woman’s childhood best friend who had ghosted her — she assumes because she missed a party celebrating the anniversary of his coming-out. In a tearful confrontation, he admits that he slept with her ex-boyfriend and felt so ashamed that he cut off all contact. He apologizes and they make up, but they had nearly two decades of friendship to fall back on.
The dating app Hinge has a podcast, “Ghost Stories,” with a similar premise. Co-host Michael Yo says the main problem is that daters rarely ask one another what they’re looking for. So when it becomes clear that one person wants something more serious, the other tends to bounce. One couple on the podcast even lived together for several months and the woman simply moved out one day when the guy wasn’t around.
“You really got to know straight off the bat: What’s your intention of meeting up?” Yo says. “Are you looking to get married? Are you looking for the right one? Or are you looking for a fun time?”
I’d thought my ghost and I had been on the same page about this. Early on, he’d asked if I was looking for a serious relationship, marriage, kids. I was, I told him.
However, there was one red flag I’d overlooked: He would occasionally ask if I wanted to see him again, when I thought I’d already made that clear.
Yo says he’s often found that the ghost has a lower sense of security in the relationship. “They didn’t know how to deal with something good, and they don’t think they’re good enough for it a lot of times.”
After about seven dates, when my ghost and I got sick, we both were texting well-wishes and flurries of kissy-face emoji. In our last exchange, I suggested that we check in the next day. “Will do,” he wrote.
The next day, I asked how he was and confirmed I had the flu. He didn’t reply. I figured he was sleeping it off. The second day I texted again, concerned: How are you doing? This was a man who had been consistently scheduling dates, who freely told me he was “very interested” in me, that he missed me. We’d weathered a mini-fight with maturity and openness. Severe illness made more sense than radical silence.
The hardest part about being ghosted is determining that, yes, that is exactly what’s going on. Especially because there are gray areas. Does dropping off a dating-app conversation count? What if neither person sends a message after a date? Or one says they’ll check in after vacation and never does?
When someone breaks up with you using good old-fashioned words, at least you can call the relationship’s time of death: 9:03 a.m. in our inboxes; 12:32 p.m. via text sent on your lunch break; 7:37 p.m. in the middle of dinner at my favorite restaurant, then 30 minutes of follow-up questions on my couch.
Bonior, the D.C. psychologist, points out that ghosting puts a breakup’s emotional labor on the person being dumped, when it should rest with the person who wants out. When you break up with someone directly, she says, “They can focus on the emotional work of moving on.”
When Bonior’s clients are getting ghosted, she recommends they come up with a plan, such as reaching out once or twice, and sticking to it. One text might be: “Hey, I did think things were going well. I’m a little confused I haven’t heard from you, but I wish you the best.” It conveys that this wasn’t okay, but if you don’t hear back — don’t continue to reach out, she says.
But I did not give up after two unreturned texts. On the fifth day of silence, I called and left a voice mail. On the sixth day, I sent a final text, telling him it was fine if he wanted to stop dating but to please let me know he was alive.
Then I stopped reaching out. (Well, okay — I did call one hospital.) I even pondered calling his parents. (Don’t worry, I didn’t.)
A couple weeks after his last text, I had evidence that he survived the flu: He was watching my Instagram stories.
One of Gottlieb’s patients tried a solution: She told a new person she was dating that she was fresh off a disappearing act. “If for any reason this isn’t working out,” she told her new partner, “I need you to tell me because I don’t want to go through that again.” Turns out he was deeply hurt by his own ghost. Having this conversation upfront “made her feel so much more secure,” Gottlieb says.
Agreeing they wouldn’t ghost each other “set up a framework that it was okay to talk about tough things more generally and not avoid them,” Gottlieb notes. “It made it safe for them to be vulnerable, because even if they did break up, they knew it would be handled with care and respect.”
They’re married now.