Ghosting can be painful, confusing and even traumatic. Here are some reasons why it happens, plus tips for how to manage your wellbeing after the experience...
The silent treatment. Dismissal of someone’s feelings. Acting as if they are invisible. Most of us would agree that these behaviours are disrespectful and cruel. In fact, few of us would want to act this way towards someone face to face — and certainly not for a prolonged period of time.
And yet despite this, ‘ghosting’ — the act of ending all communication with a person abruptly and without explanation — is becoming almost an epidemic in our society. In part this is because ghosting often takes place via phones, apps and social media, making the ‘ghoster’ view their own behaviour at a distance, as somehow less serious or significant, perhaps even less real (what’s more, as it’s less likely that they will run into the person in real life they may be less worried about future awkward encounters). However, the actual effects on the ghosted person’s wellbeing can be very real indeed, potentially damaging their self-esteem, impacting on their future relationships and even triggering mental health issues.
In other words, ghosting is no small thing, yet there’s still an ongoing stereotype that it only happens on dating apps between two people with a loose connection. But the truth is that can happen in all kinds of relationships, with some people describing even long term partners suddenly ‘vanishing’, no longer responding to their messages or blocking them on social media. Also, ghosting doesn’t have to be between romantic partners — people can also find themselves being permanently blanked by friends or acquaintances too.
If you have been ghosted then you are not alone, as this experience is surprisingly common. Yet sadly, ghosting is often minimised or even treated like a wry joke in our culture — a side effect of contemporary relationships, something you just have to ‘get over’, common and perhaps even ‘normal’. But this doesn’t change the fact it can be disorientating, devaluing and even devastating, for a whole host of reasons.
Also, these feelings can come up whether your ‘ghoster’ was a long-term partner or someone you were more casually dating. The point is that ghosting by its very nature denies you closure and renders you invisible. Furthermore it often happens suddenly, without warning, abruptly pulling the rug out from under you. Because of this, it is completely natural to feel shaken by the experience — it’s not an overstatement to say that for some people it can even be traumatic.
But why does ghosting happen in the first place? What kind of mental and emotional effects can it have on us? And most importantly, what can we do when it happens to us?
The truth is that ghosting can take place for all sorts of reasons — there is no simple one size fits all explanation. But here are a few key causes:
In our ‘swipe right’ society, we are often encouraged to see other people as disposable, treating dating like a trip to the mall where we shop for the best ‘product’ or something we use to entertain ourselves or avoid feelings of boredom and/or loneliness. For this reason, many of us just haven’t learned the social skills needed to end a relationship or flirtation considerately, or haven’t been exposed to the damage we do when we don’t and haven’t had to be accountable.
That is why some people can find it easier for them to simply disappear, abruptly cutting all contact. They may tell themselves that they just can’t handle another person’s emotions, that this was the best way to avoid drama, or even that it was ‘kinder’ on the other party to ghost them. However, the sad fact is that for the person being ghosted, the experience rarely ever feels kind. For this reason, ghosting is an emotionally immature and damaging decision. Yet when it is taking place between two sets of screens, the ghoster might feel that their behaviour is somehow justified.
But what’s important to remember is that the ghosting is really about the ghoster — about their lack of social skills and maturity, their conflict avoidance and their attempts to manage a difficult situation in a way that feels easiest to them. It’s also worth bearing in mind that people who have robust self-worth tend not to do things that disrespect and hurt others.
Relationship attachment theory can also play a big part in understanding ghosting. For instance, when two people who are in what’s known as an ‘anxious-avoidant’ dynamic (where one person craves more closeness and the other person craves more distance), then ghosting can sometimes show up. In this case the ghoster is more likely to be the avoidant person, who might feel suffocated or overwhelmed by the relationship while also struggling to communicate this honestly.
Avoidant people often dread confrontation and can also go into a state of panic or shutdown at the idea of being ‘flooded’ by emotions from another person (or from themselves). For this reason, ghosting can sometimes feel like a simple way of escape conflict in the short term and intimacy in the long term. According to psychiatrist Dr. Amir Levine, author of Attached: Are you Anxious, Avoidant or Secure?, ‘Avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimise closeness.’ To someone with this attachment style it might sometimes feel like the only solution, yet for the anxious person the impact can be catastrophic, reinforcing their own deep-seated fears of abandonment and rejection.
Ghosting can also be used in a cyclical way by toxic or abusive partners. For instance, if a person wants to maintain control in a dynamic — or if their partner behaves in a way that ‘displeases’ them — then they might use intermittent ghosting to stay dominant or to keep their options open. Although this kind of ghosting isn’t usually permanent, it can still create the same feelings of shock, disorientation and desperation for the person who is experiencing it.
In fact, this experience is so devastating for the abused partner that it can trigger a process known as ‘trauma bonding’ (what we used to call ‘Stockholm Syndrome). Put very simply, trauma bonding occurs when the extreme pain of being ghosted (or mistreated in any way) — followed by the huge relief and ‘high’ of the person initiating contact and kindness again — can actually addict you to the relationship, making it really hard to leave. In the words of clinical psychologist Dr. Marney A.White: ‘The trauma of abuse might create powerful feelings you struggle to make sense of, especially when abuse alternates with kindness and intimacy.’
In particular, this type of behaviour might show up in people with traits of narcissistic or antisocial personality traits. It is mainly a way of feeling in control and of maintaining the upper hand in a relationship by appearing to be the more ‘powerful’ one. It is also worth bearing in mind that people with these conditions can permanently ghost partners when they feel that the person is no longer of any use to them. This kind of brutal discard can even happen in long-term relationships and marriages. Whilst this can be devastating at the time, you will most likely see the benefits in the longer term as you will have been freed from a damaging dynamic and free to seek a partner that can better meet your needs.
If you feel that you are being ghosted cyclically by a partner, then it may be a sign that you are in an abusive dynamic and need to seek support or connect with a therapist. You don’t have to deal with this alone.
While some people might react to ghosting with mild annoyance, for others it can cut a whole lot deeper, even impacting them for years. Here are some of the effects that being ghosted can have on you:
Depending on the situation, ghosting can bring up various stages of grief, including shock (‘This can’t be happening’), denial (‘Maybe there’s a logical explanation?’) and anger (‘How could they do this to me?’). In many ways the term ‘ghosting’ is very apt, as the person might disappear so completely that it is almost as if they have died. For this reason, grief is a very normal reaction.
Also, you may find yourself not just mourning the loss of the person and the relationship, but also your idea of who they were — and your belief that you were important to them. Being ghosted can make us question whether we ever really knew a person at all, which brings its own sense of loss.
Ghosting can also trigger your ‘inner critic’, causing you to blame yourself for what happened. For instance, your critical voice may tell you that you were ghosted because you ‘aren’t worthy of love’, or ‘too boring, or ‘not attractive enough’. You may also feel that the ghosting has confirmed some deep fear that you have, such as ‘people will always abandon me’ or ‘I’ll never find true love’.
Yet all that inner voice is doing is replaying negative beliefs that you have about yourself like a stuck record. It isn’t some oracle of the truth, just a piece of old programming — often developed in childhood and often due to family dynamics — that the ghoster has brought to the surface. Yet this also means that the ghosting experience has given you an opportunity to face and deal with that old programming, painful as it is.
Added to this, ghosting can also reactivate old childhood abandonment wounds, whether you are even aware of them or not. For instance if your parents divorced, or were emotionally unavailable, or seemed to give more attention to a sibling than you, then being blanked by someone can trigger all of those old painful feelings again. And these feelings can include deep-seated shame, fear, anger, loss and worthlessness.
Yet you may not even be aware that this is happening and could attribute all your negative feelings to the ‘ghoster’ themselves. In fact, you might feel completely desperate for them to contact you again, just so that the pain, emptiness and loneliness can go away. You might also find yourself thinking about them constantly, obsessing about what went wrong, messaging them to get a response, or trying to find out what happened to them.
But it’s important to remember that the pain you are feeling may have as much to do with the past as the present and could be rooted in very deep wounds. This is why some people find themselves in a repeated cycle of being ghosted, as they have never had a chance to resolve their childhood hurts and keep reliving them unconsciously. But if this is the case with you, therapy can help you break out of these repeating patterns.
At its worst, ghosting is a trauma that can affect your willingness to trust others again or enter into future relationships. You might find yourself so fixated on getting closure from the ghoster that you can’t move forward. Or you may now feel that it is unsafe to be vulnerable when people can simply vanish without notice which might lead you to become overly hardened and ghost future partners when they start to get close or use other protective mechanisms that prevent you having the kind of relationship you want.
For this reason it’s really important to commit to processing your experience and beginning to heal, so that the person’s absence no longer has a hold over you.
As we’ve seen, when someone ghosts you it is a reflection of their own issues, not your self-worth. So commit to replacing your inner critical voice with a kinder, more caring voice of compassion. Practice speaking to yourself every single day like you would to a good friend who had been through a similar experience. Be gentle with yourself.
Taking a ‘good riddance’ attitude to the ghoster can certainly be empowering, but that doesn’t mean you should try to bypass natural feelings of sadness, anger or loss as well. Give yourself time to process what has happened and remember that even if the relationship was casual, short-lived or online-based, your emotions are still totally legitimate.
Although it can be painful to accept, the truth is that your ghoster may never contact you again, or apologise, or explain. The very act of ghosting signals that they are unable or unwilling to communicate and provide answers.
For this reason, you might find that you have to create your own sense of closure totally independent of them. This could include writing them a letter about how you feel (but not sending it), taking a firm action like deleting them all on social media apps or just gently working towards forgiving them.
It might sound obvious, but taking care of your health is everything when you’ve been through an emotional upset. So if you feel that this loss has caused you to over-indulge with alcohol, binge on unhealthy foods or miss out on sleep, then make time to care for your body. This could include simple steps like trying out gentle exercise, meditating or cooking yourself some decent meals. If the ghoster has left an emotional gap in your life, then it is important to show the vulnerable parts of yourself that you can love and care for you too.
Recovering from being ghosted is often about turning inward, turning your focus away from the missing person (and any attempts to decipher their mysterious motivations) towards yourself. So why not reclaim an old hobby again? Or make a list of future goals? Or finally take that photography class? There is life after ghosting and it’s time to remind yourself of that.
It is easy for ghosting to make us feel cynical towards other people, yet cutting yourself off from them won’t help in the long term. So why not nurture some of the safer connections in your life, whether that’s meeting an old friend for coffee or phoning a trusted family member? It’s important to remind yourself that you are loved and there are some people who would never dream of vanishing on you.
And if you feel that you are lacking in safe connections then you could look into developing some new ones — perhaps via some communities you could join, either online or in your area, that share similar interests, faith or experiences to you. Alternatively seeing a therapist might feel a safe way of starting to connect with someone again in a more boundaried way, and for other reasons as we go into below.
If you feel that being ghosted has affected your wellbeing, relationships or that you’re struggling to let go, then therapy could help you to find a way through it.
For instance, trauma-based approaches such as EMDR and body-focused psychotherapies can help you to release the trauma of old and new abandonments so that you can move forward. And if you feel that this situation keeps happening to you, then schema therapy or cognitive analytic therapy can help you to make sense of any childhood wounds that could be causing this pattern.
Finally, if you’re struggling with low self-esteem or self-blame after your experience, then CBT, CFT, ACT and Mindfulness therapy can all help you to manage that critical inner voice.
Whatever the circumstances, ghosting can be incredibly painful and confusing. But the first step is in understanding that this is not a reflection on your worth. Also, no matter how invisible a person may have made you feel, you can overcome this by becoming more visible to yourself. And you can do this through self-care, self-love and most of all, the belief that you deserve a whole lot more.
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