During the 1980’s my friend Martin developed an interesting habit of simply disappearing at some point during an evening out without saying a word to anyone. One minute he’d be there and the next he’d be gone. It became an expected punctuation in the evening. “Where’s Martin?” “He must have gone”, and then we’d just continue as normal. We didn’t realise it at the time but he was “ghosting”.
My friend Simon once told me about someone he knew with a very senior position in a corporate business but, when the pressure built too high, his strategy would be to go and sit in the toilet hoping that by the time he emerged, the crisis would have eased. He was “ghosting” too.
These days, if you’re familiar with the term “ghosting” at all, you will be aware that it most usually describes the process of someone with whom you believed you were building a relationship or had a relationship with suddenly going silent or disappearing without warning, sometimes never to be heard of again. It seems like strange behaviour and, on the receiving end, it’s decidedly distressing, so what’s going on? Why do we “ghost” and what does it mean?
At the root of the ghost is a lack of emotional fortitude. Quite simply we ghost because we lack the courage or emotional intelligence to do what is constructive, thoughtful or just plain courteous. Ghosting is the act of avoiding emotional difficulty in ourselves and therefore inflicting more than is necessary onto someone else.
Being ghosted in a relationship hurts so much because it screams “indifference” and that’s a painful feeling, implying that “you don’t matter”, and we definitely want to matter. It’s emotionally cruel and denies us a right of reply, making it harder to explore our own emotions. Sometimes we don’t know how we really feel until we have the chance to hear ourselves speaking about it.
Ghosting creates ambiguity, an ending without explanation and most of us struggle with the unexplained. We have a tendency to chase for an answer, but ghosts don’t like to be chased, they just float through walls where we can’t follow and where we can’t see them anymore anyway.
But far from being regarded as a destructive scourge of twenty first century life it seems as if we are actively encouraged to ghost. The protocol for online dating is to stay silent in rebuffing an approach from someone who doesn’t light your fire and that seems to extend to letting go of someone you’ve examined and decided not to pursue.
Ghosting is also encouraged by the plethora of choices available to us. We have potentially so many partners from which to choose that dropping one in the road like a sweet wrapper makes little difference because the next sweet shop is unlikely to be more than a few steps away. It’s absurdly easy but extremely worrying for human communication where silence and emotional abdication appear to be valued more highly than the truth and a sense of emotional responsibility.
But ghosting isn’t just the preserve of the tech generation, where dating is conducted on the basis of swiping left and right. Ghosting has existed for all time, and whenever we do something purely to avoid emotional discomfort we are ghosting and ghosting is damaging. Neither is it something which we do only to other people.
Did you ever procrastinate over a task you felt to be important to you? Did you ever hold back from saying or doing something because you feared the consequences? Did you ever overlook yourself in a painful way so that someone else could feel more comfortable? If so, you’re ghosting on yourself.
I hear people constantly giving examples of how they are unwilling to assert themselves for fear of embarrassment or conflict, and that’s ghosting. Someone always suffers when a ghost is at work because the ghost’s strategy for getting the result desired is to take the line of least resistance while the other party is left with whatever scraps remain. So if you’re ghosting on yourself, it’s inevitably going to be you that ends up with the dissatisfying crumbs.
Recently I talked to Martin about his ghosting way back in the past. From the outside it looked like a calling card, a badge of honour but his perspective was markedly different, spoken from the many painful intervening years. “I didn’t want to say goodbye because I didn’t want to go home, but I knew that I had to, and saying goodbye meant admitting to myself things I didn’t want to admit”. I didn’t know it at the time but he was at the start of a very long and destructive battle with alcoholism. He knew neither what he wanted nor where to find it, and so ghosting on his own emotions seemed to make absolute sense. Through the years which followed we have spoken a great deal about the twists and turns we have taken, and we have both come to realise that it is honesty with ourselves and a refusal to ghost on our own needs and desires which is the single most powerful way of avoiding the temptation to ghost other people.