With ghosting in the headlines week after week, even those who’ve never swiped right are aware of its presence – now so ubiquitous, it has even engendered its own Halloween costume – but if you need a refresh, we’ll refer you back to our A-Z dating guide. ‘Ghosting’ (verb): Pulling a disappearing act and seemingly dropping off the face of the planet never to be heard from again, instead of telling the person you're dating or sleeping with you're no longer interested. “We had such a great evening but he never called after, then I text him and he ignored it – he's definitely ghosting me.”
The term dates back to at least 2011 – it first appeared in the press in CNN’s ‘Netiquette’ column – and, just as the way we find love online has shifted (from paid-for subscriber sites to free apps galvanising the market), ghosts have taken on new forms too. The politer ghosters among us are ‘Caspering’: Letting someone down gently before vanishing from their life completely; named after Casper the friendly ghost. The seemingly socially unaware ghosts are ‘haunting’: Ghosting someone, yet still liking their social media posts and watching their Snapchats or Instagram Stories frequently. And there’s even a festive version, ‘Marleying’ (verb): Ghosting an ex-partner and then suddenly reappearing in their life at Christmas, inspired by A Christmas Carol.
It’s now so commonplace, two of the biggest dating apps – Bumble and Badoo – have implemented new software in an attempt to curb the behaviour. If a user hasn’t replied to someone after three days, it will notify the user and provide reply suggestions. If you’re no longer interested in a match, you can simply choose to close the chat or use one of the polite responses, “Hey I think you’re great, but I don’t see us as a match. Take care!”.
Bumble has adopted a similar strategy and now sends prompts to people who haven’t replied to messages, urging them to either politely end the conversation or continue it. The app has also asked users to stop outright, requiring them to take a ‘ghosting vow’ before using the app, along with providing support and advice to those who have experienced the behaviour. It’s even hired an in-house ‘ghosting expert’, journalist and author Kate Leaver – whose book The Friendship Cure, an exploration of our loneliness epidemic, is a startling glimpse of just how disconnected most people really are from one another.
It’s a business move other apps are likely to copy. As Leaver revealed, ghosting is driving many people to delete their apps altogether. "If you experience ghosting multiple times, it just strengthens this idea in your head that you’re unlovable,” she told the Telegraph. It can also feel like the dating scene is broken so why bother with it. That’s why we’re addressing it this way."
Use any form of online dating, and you’ll most likely be ghosted – so why do those who’ve experienced the hurt first-hand still put their fellow singles through it? Leaver believes it’s down to the overload of options apps provide: "The culture of having access to so many people makes those relationships feel more disposable and there isn't accountability on apps. They don't feel like real life." And Badoo’s in-house dating expert, psychologist Claire Scott agrees, stating that use of apps to date has definitely increased the behaviour as it’s “expanded the dating pool and created more opportunities for people to meet”.
But we’re not only ghosting potential partners – people are ghosting their friends, their therapists and their hairdressers (an alternative to the ‘it’s not your cut, it’s me’ break-up chat). It’s even a rising trend in the workplace. An article on LinkedIn titled ‘People Are Ghosting At Work, And It's Driving Companies Crazy’, details how the tightening job market has contributed to a surge in professionals abruptly cutting off contact and turning silent during the hiring process.
In the piece, HR experts bemoaned the “emotional rollercoaster” of being ghosted by potential employees. “Candidates are winding up with multiple offers and you can’t accept them all,” explained Dawn Fay, District President at HR firm Robert Half International in New York. “Individuals just inherently don’t like conflict or disappointing people.”
And it’s this desire to steer clear of conflict at all costs that psychologists suspect is really driving ghosts’ behaviour. Having multiple dating options and job offers is certainly fuelling ghosting – as is our ever-increasing use of technology for communication, which makes ignoring someone all-too-easy – but our brains are hard-wired to do it.
“Avoidant behaviour is always rooted in fear of undesirable consequences,” explains psychotherapist Dr Julie K Jones. “Abandonment, disappointment, guilt, shame, blame, anger, grief, loss… Avoiding feelings is a preemptive strike on avoiding a threat of expressing what they are feeling.” Student researchers have also theorised that, as previous studies have shown that people who are insecure in their relationships tend to feel stronger negative emotions and experience more stress during conflict, those who are insecurely attached may be more likely to ghost as a way to avoid an upsetting experience.
Leadership expert Christine Comaford calls this state of conflict the ‘Critter State’, otherwise known as our flight-or-fight response. “We dive into Critter State when we feel threatened,” she told Forbes. “Any time there’s conflict, the animalistic instincts in our limbic and survival systems kick into gear.” Comaford says this reaction is confounded by our socialisation: “Many of us have learned as adults that conflict is ‘bad’ and in order to succeed, we should appear optimistic and positive at all times. Yet while this avoidance of conflict leads to superficial harmony, it denies what is really going on, and undermines genuine trust.”
And with stress on the rise across every generation, according to a major new US report (Gen Z are doing worst of all, with 90% calling themselves stressed out), it’s no wonder we’re doing all we can to banish more troubling feelings. But along with tackling stress levels and teaching good communication skills, relationship therapist Anita A Chlipala has another smart solution for tackling ghosting – ditching the term altogether, as its constant use is making ghosting seem all the more normal and desensitising people to the actuality and effects of their stressed-out behaviour.