Ghosting: Why Can't We Make Love, Not War?
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There’s an unfriendly trend in dating called ghosting. It involves one of the people completely vanishing. There will be no warning, no fight, no reason, and no discussion. It’s almost like a magic trick: Now you see them, now you don’t — but no one is applauding at the end.
Whoever coined the phrase was a genius because most of us would rather believe our ex-partners to be a John or Jane Doe in some forgotten morgue rather than so dispassionate that they can disappear without a word.
Maybe they were abducted by aliens, we hope; or perhaps they’re CIA operatives and couldn’t endanger you with a goodbye. That one is my favorite: It imbues their disappearance with a sense of mission and nobility. Or fearfully, we wonder if they were called to duty by a recently awakened sleeper cell — I once had a friend who checked the FBI’s most-wanted list to see if her ex was on it. Clearly, that was a search she should have done before things got serious. But I digress; the point is that to us they are dead, yet their social media feeds provide constant proof of life, making them more like the undead.
In an age when there are so many options for communication that don’t require actual communication, it’s baffling that someone would choose to end the situation — heaven forbid it’s called a relationship — in such a passive-aggressive manner when they could simply send a text or a WhatsApp.
It’s become such a trend that in an effort to ward off ghosting, the dating app Bumble stipulates that all matches respond to a text within 24 hours or they disappear. Essentially, the site will ghost you before you can ghost on the site.
Seriously, people, we need the Ghostbusters. So who did I call? Laura Kogel, LCSW, faculty and clinical supervisor at the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute, who has also been in private practice in New York City for almost 40 years. Kogel discussed the issue with her colleagues at the WTCI and directed me to an essay by psychotherapist and author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, Esther Perel of TED Talk fame, who says, “Ghosting, icing, and simmering are manifestations of the decline of empathy in our society — the promoting of one’s selfishness, without regard for the consequences of others. There is a person on the other end of our text messages (or lack thereof), and the ability to communicate virtually doesn’t give us the right to treat others poorly.”
The art of ditching someone with kindness (i.e., the old “It’s not you, it’s me”) is no longer necessary when you never have to 'face' or even have voice-to-voice communication with the other person. You can block texts, calls, and your social media feeds, thus virtually disconnecting. Disembodied connection is dissociative.
Psychotherapist Andrea Gitter, MA, LCAT, BC-DMT, shared that in our age of technology, virtual or disembodied connecting (texting, social media, email) is the current relational standard, which leads to ghosting or disembodied breaking up. Gitter states, “The art of ditching someone with kindness [i.e., the old “It’s not you, it’s me”] is no longer necessary when you never have to 'face' or even have voice-to-voice communication with the other person. You can block texts, calls, and your social media feeds, thus virtually disconnecting. Disembodied connection is dissociative.” This behavior eventually takes a toll on the emotional health of both people involved, which therefore affects us all.
As someone with abandonment issues — my father was the OG ghost — the idea of being ghosted is like emotional terrorism. To some degree, those who have been abandoned are always expecting to be left because once a bomb has randomly exploded, the fear of another going off grows in the brain, making us overly cautious of another attack. It’s like meeting for drinks in a field of land mines — some part of you is always wondering if this will be the step that blows the whole thing up.
Meanwhile, your mind is hard at work doing reconnaissance on what prompted the first attack, since ghosts don't leave notes. It’s like an episode of Homeland on the heart: Every once in a while you thwart a disaster, but usually you’re just left picking through the aftermath for clues.
A friend from college who always had a laissez-faire attitude on love would say, "Take it for what it is," in answer to every relationship query. “But what, exactly, IS it?” my Gemini monkey mind constantly cries before being distracted by what it wasn't, what I wanted, what I didn't want, and what I wasn't sure about.
But my real question is this: Why can’t lovers simply abide by basic rules of etiquette? Perhaps there could be a standardized breakup text. Casual scenarios (i.e., three dates or fewer without full-on sex) could end with: “I’ve enjoyed getting to know you, you didn’t do anything wrong, but I want to explore other options. Good luck and thank you.” More substantive relationships deserve a phone call, or at least a slightly longer text or email sharing the same sentiment and perhaps customized to include what they enjoyed about being with you. Or the more poetic Ho’oponopono: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you” really covers all bases and can be said in any order.
The would-be ghoster would send this communication and it would be understood that a simple “Thank you for letting me know” is the only response necessary. If it was an extended relationship, the person being left should be allowed one query as to why, which would be answered honestly (to the best of the breaker-upper’s ability because it might take decades for them to truly realize why), and that would be that. No endless “How come? Come back, I can change” melodrama. It would be swift and decisive. But maybe that is what ghosting already is — swift and decisive, at least for the ghost. The ghostee is left bleeding on the battlefield of love from a shot they never saw coming.
To some degree, those who have been abandoned are always expecting to be left because once a bomb has randomly exploded, the fear of another going off grows in the brain, making us overly cautious of another attack. It’s like meeting for drinks in a field of land mines—some part of you is always wondering if this will be the step that blows the whole thing up.
Maybe it would be better to have relationship report cards that singles could access as easily as a Carfax. That way, you would know the hardwiring of your next potential S.O. had been damaged at the factory, resulting in multiple emotional collisions. Although people still buy damaged cars if the body looks good enough — just like people still swipe right based on looks even when they know left is the saner choice.
Recently, seeking a second opinion, a friend read a series of texts to me between her and a guy she’s been seeing. She was concerned that he was attempting to ghost her but was too polite to really pull it off. No, I responded, ghosts are not polite. And if you've been ghosted you know it: A cold deadness envelops your bones at the first unanswered text. It's the same chill people describe when encountering traditional ghosts. Once she was convinced that he was not planning to ghost her, she wanted to know if she should ice him.
In general, men ghost and women ice — though obviously, both sexes are capable of either. Ghosting is a form of emotional terrorism used to end a relationship, while icing is typically a tactical maneuver for advancing the relationship. Yet both require periods of no communication. Remember, people, wars result when dialogue fails.
In an effort to bring back “relationship accountability,” Dr. Perel has offered the chart below with “power parting” options that are much healthier than ghosting, icing, or simmering.
For the sake of full disclosure, you should know that I once iced a man. It was barely three days since I don’t have the constitution for games, and it was at the unanimous behest of my BFFs. It immediately sent him into a tailspin of calling, texting, and asking me out. This ice is magic, I thought! Why hadn’t I applied it before? But I was new to the treatment and might have applied just a little too much ice, or mixed it badly with simmering, and it sent him into a state of shock from which he has yet to fully recover. My icing resulted in his semi-ghosting. Love is indeed a battlefield.
So to the ghosts out there, living and dead, please know that all is not fair in love and war. Let’s be kind to each other. Let’s begin and end with love — even if that “love” is only a like or a swipe.
To those who have been ghosted, in the end, all you can do is bring out your dead. Bring them out and bury them. Or better yet, light them on fire and send them down the river. For ghosts have nothing to give the living.