Halloween ghosts I’m good with. On real ghosts—spirits who haven’t crossed to the other side—I try to keep an open mind. But ghosting in relationships? That brings out the judgmental in me.
In case you’ve missed it, “ghosting” is a “dating trend.” (More later on why I put that in quotes.) It’s when a person who’s been dating someone just disappears from their life. Suddenly, there are no texts, no calls, no responses, no explanation. Like a ghost, the person is just…gone.
If there have been only a couple of dates, well, fine. In that case, there may be hope of an ongoing relationship, but there’s no expectation.
But when there’ve been months of spending time together and one person ghosts out, you can imagine the impact on the person who’s left behind. They were in a relationship, and suddenly they’re not. At first they worry whether the other person is okay (like, not in the hospital). They worry they’ve done something to hurt or offend them and spend hours trying to figure out what it might have been. They’re confused, scared, and hurt. They feel devalued and dismissed. And all this hurt and confusion can last for months.
Then there’s a variation on ghosting called “submarining.” That’s when the person who disappeared suddenly reappears and tries to resume the relationship—with no apology, no explanation, nothing. Just pretending the abandonment didn’t happen. You don’t need a therapy degree to imagine how that messes with someone’s head.
Another “trend” is “breadcrumbing”: a slightly less dramatic approach in which one person shows just enough tidbits of interest to keep the other person thinking there might be hope for the relationship. Just when one person decides the other isn’t interested, there’ll be a short, ambiguous text. It’s a variation on old-fashioned “stringing someone along,” only the person being strung along has even less information than they would have years ago, since now it’s all by text rather than phone or in person.
Not Really “Trends”
I don’t like calling these “dating trends” partly because that sounds so innocuous. We all know that trends change, and that’s usually not better or worse, just different.
So online dating and the popularity of various apps are trends. Speed-dating, using a matchmaker, or activity-based groups for singles are all trends. All of those change the dating landscape; they affect how we meet romantic partners. They work well for some people, less well for others, but on their face are neutral.
Dating Partners Are Human Beings
In contrast, ghosting, submarining, and breadcrumbing are not morally neutral. They are dehumanizing. They hurt people. The person being strung along or abandoned is not an Amazon shopping cart full of items you’re not sure you want. They are not an object.
There are many, many things you can do in a dating or sexual relationship for which I will not judge you. Consenting adults can arrange their love lives however works for them.
But if you do something cruel to another human being, I will judge: You are being selfish and unfair.
Is that really the kind of person you want to be?
Why People Ghost
I think I understand the temptation to ghost or breadcrumb. Thanks to dating apps, there are so many potential partners out there that it can be hard to choose only one. The person you’re seeing might be great, but maybe there’s someone even better out there. What if it’s this other person who just showed up on your screen?
Then you’re faced with a choice: stick with your current relationship, end it—or keep your options open by being ambiguous. Staying in the relationship likely means you can’t keep looking for someone better. If you end things, it might be hard to go back if the new candidate doesn’t work out. Plus you have the unpleasantness of telling the person you’ve been seeing that you want to break up; you have to see or hear their hurt and disappointment.
So it’s just easier to disappear, or to pull way back but send the occasional text to keep the person from moving on.
But there’s the rub. What’s easier for you is much, much harder for the other person.
No one likes being broken up with. It hurts. But when there’s been a clean break, it’s easier to recover. At least they know what’s going on. They can cry, complain to their friends, or whatever they need to do. They can start to heal.
Stopping the Ghosts
So what can we do to stop hurting people with this awful “trend”? Here’s what can help.
Don’t give in to the temptation to disappear. If you’re tempted to ghost, pause for a moment and think about the effect it might have on the other person. If the shoe was on the other foot, how would you like to be treated?
If you’ve gone on only a couple dates with the person, maybe non-responsiveness isn’t so bad …but it’s still wimpy. It’s not that hard to send a short text saying, “It was nice to meet you, but I don’t think we’re a fit” or “Thanks for your text yesterday. But I’ve got a lot going on and am going to step back here. Best of luck with [name something happening in their life].”
If you’ve been seeing the person for weeks or months, you owe them at least something. Step up, find your courage, and treat the other person with compassion. Most people would want an actual, in-person conversation where their disappointment can be acknowledged and where they can ask questions. (The longer the relationship has existed, the longer this conversation should be, IMO.) Of course these conversations aren’t easy, but they’re important; they recognize that the other person’s feelings matter, even though the relationship is ending.
If you can’t muster the courage to have a real talk, a farewell text is an absolute bare minimum.
Don’t let anyone tell you ghosting is decent behavior. If you’ve seen ghosting happen to friends, you may think it’s just something you have to accept when it happens to you. Nope. You don’t have to pretend to be fine with it.
If you get ghosted, your hurt and confusion are reasonable. If you feel you’ve been mistreated, you’re right. There’s nothing wrong with you for having feelings or not being “accepting” enough or whatever.
There is one small upside to being ghosted: You just got very important information about the person. They are not trustworthy; they behave selfishly. This is not someone you want to be with. You deserve someone who considers other people’s feelings and doesn’t always put themselves first.
Help your friends understand why they shouldn’t ghost. If a friend ghosts someone, don’t act as if it’s fine. Call them out on it. Ask them to think about the effect on the other person. You can’t control a friend’s behavior, of course, but you can encourage them to be their best self.
How You Benefit from Not Ghosting
If it’s easier to just disappear, why take the harder step of having an in-person break-up conversation? There are two reasons:
It’s important practice. If you hope to someday be in a committed relationship, you need to learn to deal with the tough stuff. It’s part of being a responsible, caring adult. Real relationships are worth it—but they require being able to have hard conversations and listen to someone else’s hurt feelings.
It lets you live your values. Most of us want to be good people…but sometimes putting that into practice is hard. Taking the easy way out is, by definition, easier. When you find the courage to do something difficult like telling someone directly and kindly that you want to break up, you build your moral backbone. You learn that you have what it takes to be brave in order to do the right thing.
None of us always does the right, brave thing, of course. But the more often you practice, the better you’ll get at being the person you want to be.