Have you ever pulled the plug on a relationship without warning or explanation? Ghosting, the act of ending a relationship by disappearing, has been a popular topic of conversation in dating circles, but it’s happening in friendships and in the workplace, too. This article explores the connection between ghosting and self-care.
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A Vice article recently reported that some ghosters are using self-care as an excuse to go dark. While it’s true that disconnection can sometimes be an act of self-care, it’s not a free pass to hurt other people with reckless abandon.
I decided to randomly poll some friends to learn more about their personal experiences with this new phenomenon. Not surprisingly, most of my married friends had never heard of the term, but the single ones were much more familiar.
Here’s what they had to say:
- “I’m old! It must be a millennial thing.”
- “I’ve probably ghosted people without knowing it. It’s a different time. No more corded phone conversations and letters in the mail.”
- “Dating today makes it so easy to ghost because your interaction is based mostly on text messages so you can just write someone off but never have to tell them in person why.”
- “I actually have ghosted on a few friendships recently…if I am using the term correctly.”
- “I think some people feel they’re going to hurt the other person‘s feelings if they do tell them in person that ‘hey I am just not interested in you,’ but I think it’s totally appropriate to tell that person how you’re feeling and also take that pressure off of them expecting a call that’s not going to come or a text message that’s not going to get answered.”
Let’s examine some of the signature characteristics of ghosting.
What is Ghosting?
To answer this question, I talked with Lara Currie, author of Difficult Happens: How Triggers, Boundaries, and Emotions Impact You Every Day, a book that tackles the art of honest communication. Lara has over 26 years of experience in high-stress, high-conflict fields where she developed a signature system to help people communicate clearly, build stronger boundaries, identify and understand triggered-reactions, and identify responses that lead to conflict.
According to Currie, ghosting, is “when someone disappears without an explanation and you never hear from them again. And when you reach out to them there’s complete silence.”
To those new to the term, this behavior may seem like a lazy attempt to set boundaries. Hold that thought; we’ll get to that in just a minute. While there are many definitions of ghosting out there, for the purpose of this discussion let’s start with a few assumptions to make sure we’re on the same page.
For ghosting to occur:
- There must have been a pre-existing relationship. After all, you can’t disappear from a relationship that never existed in the first place, can you?
- There must have been expectations. Maybe they used to text you back within 5 minutes, or maybe you had a standing date on Tuesdays. In order to ghost someone, there has to be some kind of rhythm already established for a change in their behavior to be noticed.
- There must be total and complete disconnection. The ghoster in question must be unwilling to communicate at all — no returned calls, no returned emails, only crickets.
- The person doing the ghosting must have done it intentionally. The ghoster in question must be consciously choosing to disappear rather than have a difficult conversation with you about it.
Now, even if you don’t agree with one or more of these assumptions, stay with me. (And please share your suggested edits in the comments below!)
Why Do People Disappear?
“What happens,” Currie explains, “is that people feel a need to protect themselves from other people and fall into a pattern of ghosting.”
So, why do people ghost?
Because they want to avoid having a difficult conversation.
Most of us don’t enjoy hurting other people’s feelings, and telling someone you don’t want to spend time with them isn’t an easy task. Many ghosters report feeling embarrassed about letting the other person down, and they simply don’t want to have to face them. And can you blame them? These days, even seemingly civil conversations can go off the rails in a matter of minutes. For some, ghosting is a form of escapism, a way to avoid conflict.
Because they believe it’s a form of self-care.
Some people view ghosting as an act of self-care. It’s an effortless way to set boundaries. (See the end of the article for my personal thoughts on this.)
Because they want to leave the door open.
Some ghosters have admitted they don’t want to close the door completely on a relationship, and having a “goodbye” conversation would make closure official. By disappearing quietly, they believe it might still be possible to return to the relationship at some point in the future.
Because they’re struggling with their own life circumstances.
We often forget that sometimes people disconnect because they’re struggling with something in their personal life. There are often mental or emotional reasons that people disconnect, and it could even be a cry for help.
Because they don’t realize they’re doing it.
Because ghosting is still so ill-defined, and because it’s often confused with healthy boundary-setting, it’s easy to see how some people may not even realize they are ghosting.
Because they feel overwhelmed.
This week I read an article about a mail carrier in Philadelphia who resigned after leaving dozens of bins of undelivered letters on the side of the road, and another one addressing the growing epidemic of disappearing workers in the workplace. Ghosting is no longer isolated to intimate relationships.
Because they can.
Let’s face it, there are few, if any, consequences associated with walking away from a relationship. We aren’t connected today the same way small communities were in past generations. We don’t run the risk of coming face-to-face with our ghost or their family members at the grocery store when we live in a city of a million vs a hundred.
Why Does Ghosting Upset Us So Much?
When someone goes silent, it’s unsettling. “It presents unknowns, and we hate unknowns,” says Currie. “First, we make assumptions. We assume things about what the other person is thinking, what we may have done to cause them to disconnect from us, or what might be going on in their life. Then, we make a judgement around those assumptions. We determine we’ve done something wrong, or that they’ve intentionally tried to hurt us. And finally, we have a reaction. Depending on your go-to coping strategy, this may be self-hatred, anger, or self-development.”
And the trouble is, this assume-judge-react loop keeps us feeling vulnerable and defensive, and it can carry over into our other relationships.
Is Ghosting Ever Okay?
Most people I’ve talked with about this topic believe there’s no excuse for ghosting. Disappearing is hurtful and it only takes a few seconds to send a text message. But there are some who defend the practice. In another article featured on Medium, one author writes that she believes we aren’t entitled to anyone’s attention or time, and that we’re only entitled to things we have mutually agreed upon.
So, are there any situations where ghosting is okay?
Abuse. If you’re in an abusive relationship, is it okay to ghost? Many people who find themselves in abusive relationships are fearful for their safety, if not their lives. Having an open conversation about the possibility of leaving could result in more abuse.
Prior failed attempts to end a relationship. If prior attempts to have an open discussion about ending a relationship have gone sideways, is it okay to ghost? Many people say they have attempted to leave a relationship multiple times, but each time their partner talks them out of it. Clearly, this highlights a need for improved boundary-setting skills, but some people may feel ghosting is their only option. And it may be why some people see ghosting and self-care as one in the same.
Difficult life situations. When we’re dealing with big life transitions, like the loss of a loved one or the end of a relationship, it’s difficult to focus on much else. When we’re grieving, it’s next to impossible to maintain connections. When we disappear to heal from traumatic life experiences, is it considered ghosting?
The Gray Areas
This leads me to wonder if there might be some gray areas. For example, are there degrees to ghosting, or is it a “ghost or no-ghost” situation?
Here are some more questions to consider:
Is there a time limit on ghosting? For example, if you don’t respond to a message right away (or within 24 hours), does that make you a ghoster? Sometimes I don’t respond right away because I’m in the middle of something that requires my full attention, and there are other times when I need to give more thought to my response. Does that mean I’m a ghoster? We’ve become so used to immediate responses that it makes me wonder if these unrealistic expectations are in fact hurting our relationships in the long run.
Is there such a thing as selective ghosting? What if you choose not to respond to a specific kind of message, but have no intention of ending the relationship? For example, I don’t respond to hurtful or passive aggressive comments or messages, whether it’s a social media post or a statement someone makes during a conversation. I simply won’t acknowledge unkindness because I don’t want to invite more of it. Is refusing to respond to a specific message a form of ghosting?
Can you ghost unknowingly? This goes back to assumption #4 above. What happens when someone accusing you of ghosting and it comes as a complete surprise to you? You’ve responded to their messages (albeit, perhaps not in the way they wanted you to, or on the timeline they expected) and you can’t understand why they believe you’ve faded out. This has happened to me. To be honest, there have been times when I forget to respond to someone’s meme or message, especially if it’s a simple How are you? question. There have also been times when I’ve spent 30 minutes trying to remember where I received a message. Was it on Facebook, LinkedIn, email, text, or somewhere else? We’re flooded with messaging these days, and honestly it’s hard to keep up. If someone accuses you of disconnecting and you don’t agree, does that still make you a ghoster?
Can you be ghosted while you’re in a relationship? Is it possible to be ghosted while you’re actually in a relationship with someone? I’ve felt invisible and disregarded in past relationships, and it feels an awful lot like ghosting. Being ignored can make you feel deserted and rejected, even when the person technically hasn’t disappeared. So, is this a form of ghosting?
So many questions…
What’s the difference between setting healthy boundaries and ghosting?
Setting healthy boundaries is about teaching people how to treat you. That’s why setting expectations early on in a relationship is so essential. We’re responsible for the patterns we set up (or accept) when it comes to our connections and interactions with others.
Establishing healthy boundaries is an act of self-care because it encourages open, honest communication, which ultimately prevents the resentment that often creeps in when we allow our boundaries to be violated over and over again.
I’ve dealt with this a lot over the years as an introvert. I rarely participate in gatherings where the purpose is purely social unless there’s a speaker or an opportunity to learn something. I just don’t enjoy it. I’m much happier staying at home and reading a book.
My close friends understand this and don’t take it personally. They respect my choice and know it isn’t a reflection of anything they’ve done or not done. Because the moment we stop being authentic – true to who we are – in order to please someone else, is the moment the relationship becomes inauthentic. And it’s all downhill from there.
“We can overstep our own boundaries, too,” says Currie. Over-commitment has become all too common in our high-hustle culture. The frequency with which people cancel or reschedule plans due to feeling overwhelmed is just one of the many symptoms. And it leads me to wonder if this may be fueling ghosting behaviors.
And then there are the smaller violations. “Micro-boundary breaches are the most devastating breaches because they are so minor that we don’t acknowledge them,” Currie explains. “Answering the phone at 10 p.m., doing chores of other family members rather than asking them to do them…these seemingly insignificant actions can lead you to feel resentful over time. And you forget that you’re the one allowing it. It becomes a rhythm.”
As authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend write in the popular book Boundaries, “Your words let people know where you stand and thus give them a sense of the ‘edges’ that help identify you.” Here are some examples of open, honest statements that we can use to communicate our boundaries:
- “I require more alone time than most people, but I really appreciate you as a friend.”
- “I know we’ve always done it this way, but would you be open to this instead?”
- “This isn’t something I can continue doing. How can we work this out?”
What should you do if you think you’ve been ghosted?
Before you get angry and begin making assumptions, give your alleged ghoster the benefit of the doubt. Just because they haven’t responded immediately doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care about you, or even that they’ve ghosted you. It’s quite possible there’s something else going on in their life that requires their full attention. But if you truly believe you’ve been ghosted, here are some tips from Lara on how to best handle it:
- Reach out. If you believe someone is ghosting you, reach out in the normal way that you would (text, email, call, etc.) and simply say, “This is what I see happening, this is what I want, can you do that?”
- Follow-Up. If you don’t get a response, send a follow-up message saying, “Hey I’m not sure if you received my message, can you please confirm? If you’re busy and have a lot on your plate right now, I totally understand.”
- Close the loop. And if you still don’t get a response, send one final message saying, “You’ve not responded, so I’m assuming there’s something more going on. This is going to be my last correspondence with you, but I’m always here if you want to reach out.”
Another important question to ask yourself is this: Do you really even want someone like that in your life? Experiences like these offer us opportunities to re-examine our own boundaries — what we’re willing and unwilling to accept.
What should you do if you’re thinking about ghosting someone?
If you’ve been spooked by something that’s happened in a relationship, romantic or otherwise, say so. Maybe the relationship is headed in a direction you’re not comfortable with. Maybe your differences are starting to become clear and you’re realizing it’s not a good match.
But before you make a fast getaway, at least text a Dear John note to explain that you need some space. Tell them you’re not interested in continuing the relationship. Tell them anything. As much as it can hurt to be on the receiving end of the “It’s not you, it’s me” conversation, at least there’s no confusion about where things stand.
At least they aren’t holding onto hope that eventually you’ll reach out to them again, or worry that something horrible has happened to you. And at least they won’t spend the rest of their lives wondering why they weren’t good enough for you to want to stay in their life.
But also know that your behaviors have consequences. People notice how you treat them, and they tell others about their experiences with you. We’ve seen this all too clearly in the news recently: the consequences of our actions may not always be immediate. They may come to light years later.
So, if you find yourself frequently using self-care to defend your ghosting behaviors, then it might be a red flag that something else is going on. Patterned behaviors like this usually warrant further exploration, and it’s something worth talking over with a good therapist who can help you peel away the layers in a safe place.
What should you do if you’ve already ghosted someone?
Is it ever too late to make amends? If you’ve ended a relationship badly in the past, you can still attempt to make things right, even if you have no desire to maintain a connection with that person.
If you’re conscience is nudging you to seek closure, then do it. Call. Email. Text. Of course, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be open to having a discussion, but it might just give you both some relief.
Is ghosting a form of self-care?
So, let’s revisit the question: Can ghosting be considered an act of self-care?
For me, the answer is no. Ghosting and self-care do not align with my personal definition of self-care. While establishing healthy boundaries is an essential component of self-care, it does require communication. Boundaries must be communicated; otherwise, how can we expect people not to violate them? Unless someone knows what we will and will not allow, anything goes.
I’m of the opinion that people will choose to be in my life or not. That isn’t up to me. No one owes me their time or attention, and if they choose to disappear without respecting me enough to have a conversation about it, then at least by showing me who they really are, I can see that they didn’t belong in my life to begin with.
I’ve learned that what people say and do have nothing to do with me, and everything to do with them. Likewise, how I respond to them has everything to do with me, and nothing to do with them. It isn’t our job to change people; it’s to accept them wholly as they are. But acceptance doesn’t automatically give them a place in our lives. We get to decide if and how long they stay.
Here’s what I know to be true: Everything we say or do is either an act of love or a call for love.
As I’ve studied A Course in Miracles over the past couple of years, I’m beginning to understand that my anger and hurt feelings are indicators that I have some untangling to do of my own. When we become angry over something someone else says or does, it’s often a reflection of something we don’t like about ourselves. Every relationship presents us with a lesson in love, which means every person that comes into our life is our teacher. When we want only love, we see nothing else.
But self-care is personal. And you must decide for yourself what it is or isn’t, and how to respond to situations like ghosting and self-care.
The Relational Dimension of Self-Care addresses setting healthy boundaries to develop and maintain meaningful, respectful relationships.
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