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Barbara S. Held is the Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College.
In an episode of “Sex and the City,” Carrie awakens to find her boyfriend has broken up with her in a post-it note he left during the night: “I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.” Does the post-it break-up count as ghosting?
Although the act of ghosting isn’t new, labeling that act “ghosting” is: What was previously known as “dropping” or “dumping” someone cold is now called “ghosting.”
Much has been made of ghosting lately. Wendy Rose Gould maintained in Verywell Mind that ghosting originally referred to romantic relationships in which a person cuts “off contact with someone without giving that person any warning or explanation for doing so.” Without using the term, Paul Simon offered such ghost-your-lover prescriptions as “Hop on the bus, Gus, You don’t need to discuss much.” Gould also said that ghosting now includes “any scenario where contact unexpectedly ceases, including friendships and family relationships.”
The ghoster is often characterized psychologically as immature, passive-aggressive, and/or emotionally abusive. In Psycom, Susan McQuillan accused ghosters of cowardice and cruelty; in the New York Times Adam Popescu noted psychologist Jennice Vilhauer’s view of ghosting as “akin to emotional cruelty.”
The ghostee is thus cast as the victim of a moral crime, and is told how to cope with the inevitable self doubt, grief, and anger that allegedly follow.
Self-help gurus offer ways to let friends and lovers down easy while telling them to their face, with some explanation, that you’re ending the relationship. Is this always best?
Long ago, I was dumped by my best friend from our preteens to our late college years when she announced, “We aren’t like your mother and Lennie” (who were best friends from childhood till death). Though I didn’t ask questions, she explained my lack of cool: It was 1971 — she was a hippie; I wasn’t. She probably thought she was being kind; I would have preferred a post-it note like Carrie’s.
Some months later she sent me a gift, without explanation. I didn’t acknowledge it, which may have made me a ghoster. If so, so be it.
My point is, in some cases less is more. How much less depends on the relational circumstances, and whether the ghostee wants an explanation.
In another situation, over the course of a long friendship, the negatives increasingly outweighed the positives. I no longer looked forward to getting together. I didn’t decide to disappear deliberately; I was just happier without her. My friend eventually asked me to explain my avoidance — my ghosting her. Fair enough.
Over lunch, I answered her question forthrightly. “I don’t feel comfortable around you. I’ve often felt demeaned, which put me on edge. I need a break. If I feel like resuming contact, I’ll let you know.” She asked questions; I answered them with examples.
She suggested we see a therapist together. If I felt she could treat me differently, therapy might have been worth a try. But I wasn’t the only person she treated this way, which I knew meant her behavior was probably as much a result of her personality as it was of our relationship. So I demurred. In the past I had told her ways in which she had upset me, to no effect. Still, I give her credit for asking.
I’ve concluded that the ghostee bears some relational burden too. After all, the ghostee is not without agency. If a ghostee asks the ghoster for an explanation but gets no reply, the ghostee is then morally justified in their condemnation of the ghoster. Otherwise, not so much.
The way to end a relationship should depend on the nature of the relationship, the people involved, and the reasons for ending it. Relationships are two-way streets.
We must consider the particulars before demonizing either party based on generalities that don’t always apply, and may impede mature, responsibility-taking expressions of agency on both sides.