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How ‘ghosting’ is linked to mental health

Royette T Dubar

THE WASHINGTON POST – Check your phone. Are there any unanswered texts, snaps or direct messages that you’re ignoring? Should you reply? Or should you “ghost” the person who sent them?

Ghosting happens when someone cuts off all online communication with someone else without an explanation. Instead, like a ghost, they just vanish. The phenomenon is common on social media and dating sites, but with the isolation brought on by the pandemic – forcing more people together online – it happens now more than ever.

I am a professor of psychology who studies the role of technology use in interpersonal relationships and well-being. Given the negative psychological consequences of thwarted relationships – especially in the emerging adulthood years, ages 18 to 29 – I wanted to understand what leads college students to ghost others, and if ghosting had any perceived effects on one’s mental health.

To address these questions, my research team recruited 76 college students through social media and on-campus fliers, 70 per cent of them female. Study participants signed up for one of 20 focus groups, ranging in size from two to five students. Group sessions lasted an average of 48 minutes each. Participants provided responses to questions asking them to reflect on their ghosting experiences. Here’s what we found.

Some students admitted they ghosted because they lacked the necessary communication skills to have an open and honest conversation – whether that conversation happened face-to-face or via text or email.

In some instances, participants opted to ghost if they thought meeting with the person would stir up emotional or feelings they were not ready to pursue: “People are afraid of something becoming too much … the fact that the relationship is somehow getting to the next level.”

Some ghosted because of safety concerns. Forty-five per cent ghosted to remove themselves from a “toxic”, “unpleasant” or “unhealthy” situation. A 19-year-old woman put it this way: “It’s very easy to just chat with total strangers so ghosting is like a form of protection when a creepy guy is asking you to send pictures and stuff like that.”

One of the least-reported yet perhaps most interesting reasons for ghosting someone: protecting that person’s feelings. Better to ghost, the thinking goes, than cause the hurt feelings that come with overt rejection. An 18-year-old woman said ghosting was “a little bit politer way to reject someone than to directly say, ‘I do not want to chat with you’.”

That said, recent data suggests that United States (US) adults generally perceive breaking up through email, text or social media as unacceptable, and prefer an in-person breakup conversation.

Attending college represents a critical turning point for establishing and maintaining relationships beyond one’s family and hometown neighbourhood. For some emerging adults, romantic breakups, emotional loneliness, social exclusion and isolation can have potentially devastating psychological implications.

Our research supports the idea that ghosting can have negative consequences for mental health. Short term, many of those ghosted felt overwhelming rejection and confusion. They reported feelings of low self-worth and self-esteem. Part of the problem is the lack of clarity – not knowing why communication abruptly stopped. Sometimes, an element of paranoia ensues as the ghosted tries to make sense of the situation.

Long term, our study found many of those ghosted reported feelings of mistrust that developed over time. Some bring this mistrust to future relationships. With that may come internalising the rejection, self-blame and the potential to sabotage those subsequent relationships.

But just over half the participants in our study said being ghosted offered opportunities for reflection and resilience.

As for the ghoster, there were a range of psychological consequences. About half in the focus groups who ghosted experienced feelings of remorse or guilt; the rest felt no emotion at all. This finding is not surprising, given that individuals who initiate breakups generally report less distress than the recipients.

Also emerging from our discussions: The feeling that ghosters may become stunted in their personal growth. From a 20-year-old man: “It can become a habit. And it becomes part of your behaviour, and that’s how you think you should end a relationship with someone … I feel like a lot of people are serial ghosters, like that’s the only way they know how to deal with people.”

Reasons for ghosting out of fear of intimacy represent an especially intriguing avenue for future research. Until that work is done, universities could help by providing more opportunities for students to boost confidence and sharpen their communication skills.

This includes more courses that cover these challenges. I am reminded of a psychology class I took as an undergraduate at Trent University that introduced me to the work of social psychologist Daniel Perlman, who taught courses on loneliness and intimate relationships. Outside the classroom, college residential life coordinators could design seminars and workshops that teach students practical skills on resolving relationship conflicts.

Meanwhile, students can subscribe to relationship blogs that offer readers research-based answers. Just know that help is out there. Even after a ghosting, you’re not alone.