Ghosting Is an Inescapable Part of Dating. Is It Ever OK?

Ghosting, the popular term for cutting off all communication without explanation, has become an inescapable part of modern dating. (Alexis Jamet/The New York Times)
Ghosting, the popular term for cutting off all communication without explanation, has become an inescapable part of modern dating. (Alexis Jamet/The New York Times)

About a decade ago, Brenna Holeman was on the perfect first date with a man she’d met on a dating app. It was a rainy night in a cozy London bar, and before the date even ended — with a kiss — they’d breathlessly made plans for their next rendezvous.

“He even texted me that night saying, ‘I can’t stop smiling,’” recalled Holeman, 40, a travel writer now based in Canada. He also wrote, “I can’t wait to see you again,” she added.

But when she texted to confirm the timing for their next date, there was radio silence.

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Ghosting, the popular term for cutting off all communication without explanation, has become an inescapable part of modern dating. And it can be even harder to stomach than flat-out rejection, psychologists and researchers said, because it involves uncertainty.

Elizabeth Earnshaw, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia, said people who have been ghosted “start to question their reality.”

“They’re looking back and saying: ‘Where did I miss the signs? What is wrong with me that I thought we had so much fun on our last date?’” Earnshaw said.

She has seen many clients — of various ages, genders and sexual orientations — grappling with a “crisis of self-esteem” after being repeatedly ghosted. But in a fast-paced world of dating apps and endless options, is it ever OK to ghost?

Therapists, researchers and an etiquette expert weighed in on when you can ghost with a clear conscience, and the ways to get around it.

Measuring the Fallout

Though ghosting is still a relatively new area of research, some data is starting to emerge. In one 2019 study, 25% of participants said they’d been ghosted by a romantic partner, and just over 20% said they had ghosted someone themselves.

Another small study, which specifically surveyed dating app users, found that 85% had been ghosted at some point, which led many respondents to feel sad or angry and experience lower self-esteem; some also felt more distrustful of the world.

People who have been ghosted have a tendency to ruminate, wondering: “What’s going on? Why is this person not responding to me?” said Richard Slatcher, a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia who studies close relationships. “Along with that is a real lack of closure for people.”

Therapists like Earnshaw have been seeing the fallout from ghosting in their practices for years, particularly as people have burned out on dating apps. People really shouldn’t ghost if they can help it, because of the hurt it can cause, especially when it happens repeatedly, she said.

She said her clients ask, “Am I doing something that’s creating this over and over again?” Some even wonder, “How could I be so worthless that someone would not care to say goodbye?”

When to Consider Ghosting

Still, there are times when it is appropriate, even wise, to ghost, the experts said. If the person has been aggressive or made you feel unsafe, you are justified in walking away without explanation, Earnshaw said. She also gave the green light if a person is simply not respecting your boundaries.

“If they’re just not listening to what you’ve already expressed, then I think it’s OK,” Earnshaw said, adding that she hesitates to even categorize that situation as ghosting.

In the study that found most online daters have been ghosted, the reasons people gave for disappearing were complex: Some did so because they feared verbally abusive or even stalking behavior; others said they didn’t feel they owed anything to the person they were talking to on an app; and some said they did not want to hurt anyone by rejecting them verbally.

“Sometimes, for the person who is doing the disappearing, it’s just easier,” said Rachel Sussman, a psychotherapist in New York City who is the author of “The Breakup Bible.” “Nobody likes delivering bad news,” she added.

Earnshaw said that a useful question to ask yourself before ghosting someone is: Am I thinking about ghosting this person simply because I want to avoid an unpleasant conversation? If the answer is yes, it is kinder to offer a goodbye and even a brief explanation.

A Better Approach

If you have been on only one or two dates, a text ending things is usually sufficient, said Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert in Carlsbad, California. She acknowledged that might be surprising advice from a stickler for manners, but she said that etiquette evolves.

Keep it brief, she recommended, something along the lines of: “I don’t think we are a good fit, but best wishes to you and I hope you find the connection you are looking for.”

If, however, you have gone on more than a date or two or been physically intimate in any way — “even just making out!” — Swann believes breaking up in person or with a phone call is in order. (Or, if you cannot stomach that, a voicemail message or voice memo could work, she said.) It is important that the other person hears your voice and your tone, Swann said. And do not try to “fix” the person on your way out.

“You do not need to make this a teachable moment,” she said.

How to Handle Being Ghosted

Sussman said she often tells her clients that even if they have had a really good date (or several), they can protect against emotional turmoil by simply telling themselves ahead of time that they may not hear from the person again.

Remember that ghosting is unfortunately now “normal” and “happens to everyone,” she said, adding that she has heard these stories from clients of all kinds.

“Even the supermodel is saying: ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have said this, or I shouldn’t have worn that,’” Sussman said.

But be gentle with yourself. The days and weeks after being ghosted are a good time to practice emotional self-care, Earnshaw said. See friends, write in a journal, lean into a hobby or move your body, she said.

At the same time, you can help lessen the damage to your self-esteem by simply reminding yourself — as often as you need to — that it probably wasn’t about you, Sussman said.

After her perfect London date, Holeman was ghosted once more by someone she’d been seeing for months. She blogged about her experiences nearly a decade ago in what became her most popular post, and readers shared their own ghost stories.

Opening up about the experiences was cathartic and eye-opening for Holeman as she recovered from her “spiral of anxiety,” she said. Her initial confusion and hurt subsided, and she realized that silence sometimes speaks volumes.

“This person was showing me who he was,” she said. “He was showing me that he was immature, lacks empathy and couldn’t be bothered to even send a quick text.”

She then added, “The biggest realization for me to move on was, ‘Oh. No answer is the answer.’”

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