An age-old relationship phenomenon is resurfacing with a new name and, possibly, a stronger presence. According to board certified psychiatrist and educator Dr. Nzinga Harrison (who has an amazing blog where she discusses current issues—like the death of Sandra Bland—from a mental health perspective), “Ghosting is when a person ends a relationship, whether business or personal, without any notification of any sort. Like Casper the Ghost, one minute you have a relationship with this person and the next minute they have vanished into thin air. Despite your attempts to make contact via whatever method, the person never resurfaces.”
It’s nothing new, argues Dr. Harrison, just the longstanding behavioral issue we’ve known all along as avoidance. She adds that what gives ghosting a new twist is our incessant need to stay connected all the time and in every way imaginable. “In today’s über-connected society, we’ve been trained to expect the instant ability to connect with people via cell phone, text, email, social media, etc. So even more so than in the past, when communication options were more limited, ghosting someone is an intentionally hostile act that requires active avoidance.”
How is ghosting active avoidance? Because our iPhones tell us when a message is read, and we can see that someone is tweeting from their cellphone (while obviously ignoring the text we sent). It’s as if the person ghosting is telling you everything about how little he or she cares for you, while telling you absolutely nothing.
And knowing while not exactly knowing can be infuriating and painful. When I spoke to several friends and readers about being ghosted, each one who was ghosted said the experience severely impacted their ability to trust and be open to new romance. I also read this account of being ghosted at XO Jane, which translated like a tragic, heartbreaking poem.
I had many questions for Dr. Harrison, and she expertly and thoroughly answered them all.
How has avoidance, in the form of ghosting, become more prevalent in the digital age? Because technology has allowed us to become connected with people who are otherwise outside of our daily routine, there’s more opportunity to be ghosted.
For example, in the past, if you ghosted from a personal or business relationship, there was likely a higher risk you’d run into that person as you went about your daily activities. That risk undermined people’s motivation to ghost. Now, largely as a result of connections made possible by technology, we’re in relationships with people who we won’t see in our daily lives unless we intentionally and actively make plans to do so. The idea that I won’t ever see this person again anyway makes it a lot easier to just disappear.
Additionally, technology can give a sense of relationship closeness that’s not entirely accurate. One person in the relationship may be very invested, while the other is less so. This type of dynamic increases the risk that the less invested person will ghost—either being unaware or uncaring of the effect it will have on the other person.
Because technology makes this kind of avoidance easier, how can one recognize a person capable of ghosting? Signs that a person is capable of ghosting are many:
Conflict Avoidance. If you are in a relationship with a person who seems to avoid conflict at all costs, the risk of you getting ghosted his high. This is because the person will not be able to tolerate the conflict of breaking up with you if and when the time comes that they no longer want to be in a relationship.
Passive Aggression. Passive aggression is when a person is unable to speak up concerning being angry about something, so rather than address it head on, they do mean things in a passive way, i.e., ghosting. What could be meaner than leaving a person who you know is invested in you high and dry with no explanation? It is a red flag, as these are exactly the same scenarios that drive ghosting—I disappear because I either don’t care or it never even occurs to me to think about how you will feel. Or I want to hurt you so badly that I ghost as an ultimate stab to your heart.
Narcissism. This is a code word for self-centered. If your partner’s main concern is him or herself, and you find yourself fighting for a place within their field of vision, you are at risk for getting ghosted.
In discussing a ghoster from a psychological standpoint, Dr. Harrison noted this difference in American culture:
“Ghosting is becoming more of an option for people, partly as a result of American culture becoming more and more conflict avoidant,” she says. “We are unintentionally raising children to believe that it is easier to protect their and others’ feelings by avoiding confrontation, when in reality the opposite is true. We are also unintentionally raising children to believe that they don’t have the right to end relationships if their needs are not being met.”
Lastly, Dr. Harrison wants readers to know the following:
“We can be proactive in addressing the ghosting issue,” she says. “To emphasize the point I made above, let’s start teaching children and adults that they have the right to have their needs met in relationships. Let’s help them begin to define their needs, and undermine the idea that they have to compromise everything. Let’s work to provide healthy homes and role models for healthy relationships to our children, and focus on teaching assertive communication skills and empathy that doesn’t require you to forget that you too have emotional needs. If we can do all of those things, we can start to change the quality of relationships that are happening in this country for ghosting is but one of the unhealthy ways we interact with one another.”
In the end, we all have the right to loving, reciprocal, communicative relationships. When we see signs that we won’t receive that kind of relationship for someone, we should demand it or move forward, making ghosting and avoidance a nonissue.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.