Now You See Me, Now You Don’t: Ghosting in Romantic Relationships

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t: Ghosting in Romantic Relationships

Not only has the advent of smartphones and social media substantially changed the dating landscape, this technology has also made it much easier to get in and out of relationships. Certain features in smartphones and social media (Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) allow an individual to disengage, ignore, and even block communication from someone else. Since less effort is required to communicate, some people also seem to use this to their advantage to end a relationship. Instead of being direct with an individual that you no longer wish to pursue romantically, ghosting can allow a person to avoid awkward and difficult conversations if they are no longer interested in the relationship. Not only do some emerging adults fear rejection, many also seem to want to avoid rejecting others in a direct way. Ghosting is essentially the idea of disappearing (discontinuing communication) in a romantic relationship without any reason or warning. A more nuanced way to think about ghosting is the top definition on Urban Dictionary:

“The act of suddenly ceasing all communication with someone the subject is dating, but no longer wishes to date. This is done in hopes that the ghostee will just ‘get the hint’ and leave the subject alone, as opposed to the subject simply telling them he/she is no longer interested. Ghosting is not specific to a certain gender and is closely related to the subject’s maturity and communication skills. Many attempt to justify ghosting as a way to cease dating the ghostee without hurting their feelings, but it in fact proves the subject is thinking more of themselves, as ghosting often creates more confusion for the ghostee than if the subject kindly stated how he/she feels.”

If you have been ghosted before, you probably understand the frustration and confusion this can create in a persons life. One potential assumption by the ghoster is that they will avoid emotionally hurting the non-initiator. This is of course not always true, and rejection can be emotionally distressing. For example an individual may believe that their recent date went great, they had a wonderful time, and are ready to see where the relationship might go. Unfortunately when ghosting takes place, it goes nowhere. This can leave the non-initiator in a state of confusion as to why this person is not responding or communicating with them anymore. Some questions might arise for the ghostee such as: Is this person busy, hurt, or did they misplace their phone? What did I do wrong? Is there something wrong with me? Did I misinterpret how that date went? Sadly, many questions are left unanswered when ghosting has taken place. Ghosting in romantic relationships doesn’t just happen after a first date that’s gone bad. This phenomenon can happen in many stages of relationships, which is rather scary right?

Research On Ghosting In Romantic Relationships

Research is very limited on ghosting in romantic relationships. However, University of Alabama communication professor Leah LeFebrvre addresses ghosting in her excellent book chapter entitled “Phantom Lovers: Ghosting as a Relationship Dissolution Strategy in the Technological Age.” As stated in LeFebvre (2017): “The absence of interaction, irregularity in communication, and sometimes abruptly ending communication causes non-intatiators to then realize their partner are no longer in the relationship. Poof! Into thin air, the partner disappears, as does the relationship” (p. 220). According to LeFebvre (2017) texting seems to be the most frequent technology medium to be ghosted through. Interestingly, the ghoster is not likely to remove themselves from the non-initiators (ghostee’s) social platform, meaning the non-initiators can still see everything that the ghosters are posting, while they continue to wait for a reply.

There is a method to this madness. LeFebvre (2017) identified six features in the dissolution process in which ghosting may take place:

  1. Gradual or Sudden Onset of Relationship Problems
  2. Unilateral or Bilateral Desire to Exit the Relationship
  3. Use of Direct or Indirect Actions to Accomplish the Dissolution
  4. Rapid or Protracted Nature of Disengagement Negotiation
  5. Presence or Absence of Relationship Repair Attempts
  6. Final Outcome of Relationship Termination or Continuation

These features explain why ghosting may take place, and how alternatives to ghosting are much more positive for the non-initiators. One reason why someone may choose to ghost someone else is if they have been feeling like the relationship has been having issues. For instance, a ghoster may be feeling like their other partner is not investing as much time to the relationship as they desire, which could be thought of as gradual relationship problems. In other words, this has been something that the initiator has been feeling for some period of time. In contrast, another reason someone may initiate ghosting may be due to an episode of cheating or lying, this would be referred to as sudden onset of relationship problems.

If both partners decide to terminate the relationship together, or bilaterally, there are less feelings of regret and more positive feelings of the relationship ending (LeFebvre, 2017). In contrast to bilateral action to dissolve the relationship, unilateral action is the second way of dissolving the relationship. This is when one partner wants to end the relationship, whilst the other one does not. This is the perfect storm for ghosting to take place. Again, ghosting eliminates the opportunity for closure for the non-initiator in regards to why the relationship has ended. The initiator will bluntly stop communication, therefore the non-initiator will soon come to the realization that, that relationship has been terminated due to the apparent halt in communication.

In this third feature, the initiator has the option to be direct or indirect. If the initiator of the dissolution of the relationship decides to be direct with the termination or feelings about ending the relationship, ghosting would not take place. Therefore, ghosting is a way to indirectly dissolve a relationship. If an initiator decides to be direct with the dissolution of the relationship, it would be clear to the non-initiator that the relationship is ending and why it is ending. One of the beautiful things about dating is that it is direct and intentions are more clear, opposed to the slow and often confusing process of just talking. With indirect dissolution, this leaves the non-initiator feeling confused about why the relationship is ending.

One additional point of discussion of why people may ghost someone else, lets discuss the term “saving face.” Saving face can be described as avoiding humiliation or not losing any respect in regards to their own personal status. Initiators may choose to ghost someone to save face, and believe that ghosting a non-initiator will spare their feelings, but as indicated before, that is far from the case.

To Ghost Or Not To Ghost That Is The Question

From a commitment perspective ghosting can be thought of as a partner who is a weak link in the relationship. As we have previously discussed on this blog, an asymmetrically committed relationship occurs when one partner in a relationship is less committed and invested in the relationship compared to their partner. Asymmetrical commitment causes a power imbalance in the relationship, and the person who is the weak link (ghoster) in the relationship has the power. It is important to understand that asymmetrical commitment stems from the idea of not wanting to fully commit to a partner. Perhaps some asymmetry in relationships develops due to prior relationship experiences, fear of rejection, or even a loss of confidence in the idea of commitment and long term relationships (Stanley et al. 2016).

If you are tempted to ghost a potential romantic partner, we would encourage you to have the courtesy and courage to avoid this behavior. Be thoughtful and intentional in your relationships, and be willing to tell a romantic partner earlier if you do not see a future in the relationship. There is something to be said for a person who is willing to be transparent, genuine, and direct with others about their feelings. In other words, decide don’t slide even when it comes to ending relationships. We believe as a research team it is less painful in the long-term for all parties involved, than to be kept in the dark about the status or interest in a relationship. If you are wondering if your partner is really into you, learn to recognize signs and signals of commitment.

Ghosting is relevant to our research, and we believe that ghosting may be a very common occurrence in just talking relationships. Just talking relationships are generally facilitated by technology and the use of social media platforms such as texting, Snapchat, Facebook, Tinder, etc. Ghosting is also facilitated through these same social media platforms, which has risen some questions. How often are those who are in just talking relationships being ghosted, or being a ghoster? As a research team we would guess this happens A LOT. Due to the lack of commitment in just talking relationships, ghosting someone may be seen as an easier, less bothersome alternative than explaining why they don’t want to continue a relationship. If there is no commitment, there is no obligation to give an explanation, right? But what are the consequences of that? If just talking wasn’t ambiguous enough, throwing ghosting in the mix can be a recipe for confusion and self-doubt for the non-initiator.


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