On ghosting

On ghosting. Photo by Brady. 2016.

On ghosting. Photo by Brady. 2016

“I don’t know what it is that I am doing wrong, doc. And it must be me, right? Guys don’t just disappear on you like that. They can’t all be like that. Can they? I mean, I am the common denominator. This sucks. I’m done.”

The paraphrased sentiment above, though I hear it coming from different people, pertaining to different forms and stages of relationships, nevertheless points to an altogether too familiar problem that too many people face. Being in a relationship, or even starting a relationship, and it abruptly ending, not with a conscious decision to end it from the agreement of all parties, but from one person unilaterally ending it and not telling the other person that it was ended, is the operation of being ghosted.

It is deeply unsettling and uncomfortable for so many reasons. Notably, the person left behind is alone in figuring out what went wrong, what didn’t work, what they did do or didn’t do that caused distance, and they can never fully come to understand what happened because that other person isn’t there to answer the questions. Any empty, if conciliatory, answers one gives oneself, even if kind or compassionate, aren’t the needed answers from the other person, which makes ghosting all that harder to endure. There is no ability to answer the, “why,” of their absence. Therein lies much of confusion and bewilderment that happens in the wake of being ghosted.

And it must be me, right?”

Ideally, when persons decides to end a relationship together, in surveying the damage done, both parties can theoretically walk away with more discernible challenges and areas of growth, so that they can be better for their next relationship or for their own personal growth. Without knowing what one did do, or what one didn’t do, substantive growth is unreachable. And this goes for all parties involved.

The above blanket statement aside, walking away from a relationship without deciding together to end it isn’t ghosting in an abusive relationship. I can’t stress this caveat enough: for all parties in those abusive dynamics know what happened, even if it is hard to acknowledge.

Figuring out if someone ghosted you or didn’t ghost you does take some careful, and perhaps clinical, consideration. Being ghosted hinges, largely, on you being present in a relationship while they are absent. It isn’t something as simple as them not texting back. For example, it is them not texting back in the middle of planning communications, after you asked them what they are doing tomorrow night for dinner. There is a distinct difference there. Some people conflate the two kinds of non-responsiveness, which is to say: you might both be ghosts.

Before we even get into what to do about others being a ghost, or a potential ghost, a big part of the problem is developing an awareness of one’s self and our own capacity to ghost.

Any empty, if conciliatory, answers one gives oneself, even if kind or compassionate, aren’t the needed answers from the other person, which makes ghosting all that harder to endure.

To do this, to not become someone else’s ghost, means clearly, and unambiguously, ending relationships with others, preferably with concrete reasons. If you think this is mean, so be it. Nevertheless, please do so. And give no hints. No, “I’m just in a weird place in my life.” No, “I don’t know if I can handle a relationship right now.” No, “I’m too busy this week.” No hints. Because, if you are irked in any way that they aren’t getting the hint that you aren’t interested, then you are oblivious to the fact that you are actively ghosting.

Searching your own heart to better understand why you do not want to pursue a relationship with someone, is a big challenge. A vague answer of, “I’m just not feeling it,” isn’t enough. It is a non-answer, and for their sake, and your sake, a concrete answer, of what exactly you, “aren’t feeling,” provides a place from which to grow. They may grow in changing themselves, or may not, but that is for their growth. You may grow, too, in holding a boundary, or eventually outgrow a boundary, but not with them, and that is okay too. But all parties involved have reasons to work with, on their own.

There isn’t nothing you can do about others being ghosts. You can do some self care strategies to prevent over-injury from being ghosted. I like to think of it as preventative care, or wound care, so the injury doesn’t get infected.

One big strategy for self care is to not over extend the relational effort. Relational effort is the felt sense of a relationship moving forward, and more mechanically, it looks like introducing yourself, planning a date, counter-offering if you can’t give your partner exactly what they want, following up on a conversation, etc.. Lacking relational effort would be the negative, or the absence, of effort: wanting someone to introduce themselves, having someone else plan the date, simply rejecting without counter-offering, not following up on a conversation. So not over extending the relational effort means being aware of how much you are putting in and how much, or how little, they are putting in, when it comes to the effort of relating.

Now this is where it gets tricky: being at peace with the amount of effort you put in, knowing you could do more, call more, ask them out one more time, send another text, and yet, knowing you can’t do their effort for them. It is tricky because there is the inherent possibility that they might not put any effort in and it ending, as much as the possibility that they might put in effort and grow the relationship. You are allowing it to grow, or fail, equally.

If you are irked in any way that they aren’t getting the hint that you aren’t interested, then you are oblivious to the fact that you are actively ghosting.

It takes a lot of self reflection, and a lot of practice, to fine tune that sense of effort and operate from a place that feels right for you and does right by others. Because, if you are doing all the effort, even with earnestness, sincerity, or love, you also aren’t allowing that other person to do their part. You might be efforting the whole relationship, doubling-down on effort, and subsequently liking them more because you are putting effort in. Meanwhile, you could be efforting a relationship that the other person doesn’t like or want to be in. Therein lies more insecurity, and vulnerability, in putting effort into a relationship.

They may not return the effort. And it can be incredibly hard to allow another person to fail in this way. However, being more aware and in tune with your relational effort and limits, means you are less likely to grow more attached to those more likely to ghost.

Even if you do everything “right,” there is still another person involved that can’t be controlled. They can’t be, and that’s actually a beautiful thing if you look closely enough at it. If you could control, exactly, when other people come and go in your life, always on your terms, and your terms alone, then you are sabotaging dynamic growth from occurring in your own life. You would only ever believe that you should always be in control of all of your relationships. Which leads to becoming more afraid, more defensive, and more tense in relationships, unable to allow them to grow. And yet, so much beauty and growth comes from actively doing your part, and only your part, of a relationship.

But yes. It hurts. To open up to a person, to want them in your life, to invest in cultivating a connection, and to be coldly left, is to be left without an ending to tangibly feel. They have become a ghost to a relationship you can’t exactly grieve. They hunger for something they lack the ability to taste; those hungry ghosts can’t be fed. Not by you. There is the hope that one day those ghosts may be able to feed themselves, to put effort into being with others, to be seen. And other than allowing them to be ghosts, you can also allow yourself to be at peace with knowing you did your part, and you could only do your part.

About the Author

Brady

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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

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