PHOTO: Mika Baumeister
Text: Alejandra Misiolek
Have you ever experienced a situation when someone you have been dating disappeared without a word? If so, you have been a victim of ghosting, like other 20% of the population.
In this post we will discuss what ghosting is and why some people use this strategy to end a relationship.
Ghosting is a relatively common and an indirect form of relationship termination where one person simply stops communicating with the other and often “unfriends” and “unmatches” them on social media. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ghosting means “a way of ending a relationship with someone suddenly by stopping all communication with them”.
Ghosting prevalence has been examined mostly in US adults. Prevalence rates range between 13% and 23% for those adults who have been ghosted by a romantic partner. In Spain, 19.3% have reported having suffered ghosting at least once in the past year.
Moreover, in the recent years, technology has become indispensable among dating partners and an increase in the use of mobile applications for dating has changed the dynamics of relating. One of the features of such communication in romantic relationships is that it gives dating partners the opportunity to dissolve unwanted relationships without ever having to break up, using dissolution strategies such as ghosting. However, besides technology, personality plays an important role in how people behave in various aspects of their social lives and the behavior in romantic relationships has been given a lot of scientists´ attention.
Let´s have a look at what insights can scientific research provide into the understanding of why people ghost.
- If we first looked for answers in the personality, according to numerous studies, traits like the Dark Triad (e.g., narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism), would correlate with ghosting. These personality profiles are associated with interest in casual sex, more sex partners, promiscuous attitudes, behaviors, and desires, tactics to capture mates from others and less relationship authenticity in long-term relationships. It appears that those characterized by these traits have a selfish, causal, and even exploitive approach to relationships. In an international study published by Jonason et. Al. (2021), the investigators analyzed ghosting that may be common in people characterized by the Dark Triad traits. As ghosting is a passive aggressive strategy, that avoids the undesirable or punishing aspects of relationship termination (i.e., difficult conversations), and callous in that it is done with selfish and unempathetic intent, it seems to match perfectly people with the Dark Triad traits. These people tend to have low levels of empathy and prefer reward-seeking behaviors which may be the reason why ghosting is appealing to those characterized by these traits.
- Another important feature of relationships that might account for ghosting is the degree of investment. Long-term relationships are characterized by a degree of embeddedness and emotional connection that may make ghosting exceedingly complicated. In contrast, short-term relationships lack substantial embeddedness and emotional connection making it easier and, thus more acceptable, to extract oneself via ghosting. If we consider that short-term relationships may be characterized by lack of commitment, or can be sporadic sexual encounters, technology can facilitate the processes to break up relationships. Additionally, if there is no mutual social network and there are no emotional ties, ending these kinds of relationships through ghosting is much easier. As dating apps create an abundance of potential partners one can interact with rather than talking to one person at a time, they create “perfect conditions” for the mobile daters to pursue several interests simultaneously and often, these connections are with people outside their social network. Indirect relationship dissolution strategies such as ghosting, are more likely to be used if there is a low degree of investment and a lack of strong social and environmental overlap between two people. Thus, while dating apps allow easy access to potential partners, they also enable easy withdrawal, resulting in connections that are as easily disposed as they are formed (LeFebvre, 2017). Studies that support such theories (Koessler, 2019) indicated that relationships that ended through ghosting were shorter and characterized by lower commitment than relationships that ended directly.
- According to various scientific analyses, people, men in particular, high on psychopathy and narcissism may engage in ghosting as an efficient low-cost way of divesting themselves of one casual sex partners to either pursue other opportunities or simply to avoid getting in unwanted commitments. Therefore, one thing is psychopathy and narcissism as traits of character that explain why some people would opt for ghosting rather than other break-up strategy, and another thing is that people with narcissistic and psychopathic traits would prefer not to get engaged in a romantic relationship as they would rather treat other people as disposable. In other words, they would never get to the beforementioned high degree of embeddedness in a relationship.
- Freedman et al. (2019) studied the relation between implicit theories that some people might have and ghosting. They observed that those participants who reported more ghosting acceptability, more ghosting intentions, and who had practiced more ghosting in the past, also reported stronger and more destiny beliefs. People with destiny beliefs are more likely to believe that persons within relationships are either meant to be together or they are not (i.e., there is a soulmate for everyone). The authors explain that those with this type of beliefs may end a relationship quickly when they do not feel the partner fits their ideal and, in consequence, more prone to use ghosting.
- Other investigators hypothesized that low self-esteem would be related to ghosting behaviors because those who feel less positive about themselves may be less confident about communicating directly with their dating partners to end their relationships. Therefore, we might connect low self-esteem with lack of assertiveness, that has been confirmed by other authors as a reason for ghosting. No assertiveness has been described as associated with using ghosting more to dissolve dating relationships, which means that less assertive people then cut any communication rather than confront their partner, and directly express their desire to end the relationship.
- Moral disengagement would also be associated with ghosting initiation as individuals may disengage themselves from the “unfairness” of their behavior. For example, the breaker partner could initially think that is not fair to cut off any communication with the receiver of the breakup without any explanation or avoiding direct confrontation. However, if the breaker activates moral disengagement mechanism (the moral self-regulatory process that restrict him/her from acting unfairly) they will experience less moral restrictions to use ghosting.
- There is also evidence to suggest that conflict resolution styles predict the dissolution of dating relationships. Such evidence highlights the importance of non-constructive styles (i.e., engagement, withdrawal) for relationship discord and dissolution. It is, therefore, plausible to suggest that a positive approach to conflicts (i.e., negotiating, discussing differences constructively) would decrease ghosting dissolution strategies.
- Some studies also confirmed that having been ghosted before increases the chances to ghost others. The theory that explains why that happens is the social cognitive theory or theory of social learning (Bandura, 2018) that accounts for aggressiveness in victims of aggression or bullying in those who were bullied.
In the following post we will talk about the harm that ghosting can do and about coping strategies for the ghostees (people who suffer from ghosting).
- Bandura, A., & Hall, P. (2018). Albert bandura and social learning theory. Learning Theories For Early Years Practice, 63.
- Freedman, G., Powell, D. N., Le, B., & Williams, K. D. (2019). Ghosting and destiny: Implicit theories of relationships predict beliefs about ghosting. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(3), 905-924.
- Jonason, P. K., Kaźmierczak, I., Campos, A. C., & Davis, M. D. (2021). Leaving without a word: Ghosting and the Dark Triad traits. Acta Psychologica, 220, 103425.
- Koessler, R. B., Kohut, T., Campbell, L., Vazire, S., & Chopik, W. (2019). When your boo becomes a ghost: The association between breakup strategy and breakup role in experiences of relationship dissolution. Collabra: Psychology, 5(1).
- LeFebvre, L. E., Allen, M., Rasner, R. D., Garstad, S., Wilms, A., & Parrish, C. (2019). Ghosting in emerging adults’ romantic relationships: The digital dissolution disappearance strategy. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 39(2), 125-150.
- Navarro, R., Larrañaga, E., Yubero, S., & Víllora, B. (2020). Psychological correlates of ghosting and breadcrumbing experiences: A preliminary study among adults. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(3), 1116.
- Navarro, R., Larrañaga, E., Yubero, S., & Víllora, B. (2021). Individual, interpersonal and relationship factors associated with ghosting intention and behaviors in adult relationships: Examining the associations over and above being a recipient of ghosting. Telematics and informatics, 57, 101513.
- Timmermans, E., Hermans, A. M., & Opree, S. J. (2020). Gone with the wind: Exploring mobile daters’ ghosting experiences. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 0265407520970287.