The haunting effects of ghosting

By Syed Muhammad Faris


You pick up your phone and open Tinder. You are greeted by a stranger’s profile. She barely piques your interest. You swipe left, and another profile appears.

You open your inbox to check if the person you swiped right from a week ago has finally responded to your messages. Just a week ago, the two of you were having a great conversation and seemed to hit it off. Nope, she’s still giving you the cold shoulder. No response again.

Does this sound familiar?

Ghosting occurs when someone abruptly cuts off all communication with the other party. Although it can occur in any social relationship, the expression is more commonly used in the realm of online dating.

As someone who has been ghosted before, I am all too familiar with how it feels like. I spent days thinking about where I went wrong, wondering if I had been the problem. Then this morphed into a feeling of anger of being unfairly treated.

But how did ghosting become so common — even socially acceptable — these days?  

As reported by Dr Nicole Cromer, a New York-based psychologist, this could be due to the popularity of mobile dating apps such as Tinder. Some find these apps a godsend because of their abilities to go beyond the limits of physical boundaries.

By connecting us virtually, these online social networks spontaneously expand the variety of people we are able to interact with, which is difficult to replicate in real life.

Yet, these dating apps tend to create an unrealistic expectation of an endless pool of potential partners.

Such expectations promote ghosting as a strategy to avoid social relationships we do not want,  when we end up interacting with more people than we can manage.

Ms Laurie Davis, founder and dating coach of an online dating consultancy, eFlirt, explains: “You will find yourself interacting with too many people for you to handle, that you end up letting them fall through the cracks. Eventually, you tend to lose track of any budding relationships.”

As I discovered eventually, the girl I had been talking to was a fan of ghosting. I heard from a mutual friend that she had disappeared on many other guys on Tinder.

This was not an experience unique to me. A 2016 survey conducted by dating site Plenty of Fish revealed that nearly 80 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 33 have been ghosted at least once.

I find it concerning that ghosting has become a common occurrence, especially since it has adverse effects on the victim.

A study conducted by the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2014 finds ghosting to be a physically painful experience. “Social rejection activates the same pain pathways in the brain as physical pain,” it reports.

If the pain of being ghosted is significantly detrimental to an individual, then why do we still do it?

With the increased popularity of online dating, it is likely that the people we meet online do not feel as connected to us as our real life friends. Many, therefore, assume ghosting to be less impactful and severe.

“The more frequent ghosting happens, either to themselves or their friends, the more people become desensitised to it. Eventually, it is highly likely that they will do it to someone else too,” warns Dr Jennice Vilhauer, a director at the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, US.

While I agree with Dr Vilhauer’s explanation, I am surprised that society has become desensitised to ghosting. Strange enough, ghosting has already become a common occurrence, but I do not think that this should be the case.

Perhaps there is a deeper reason to explain its prevalence. Are people ghosting to avoid confronting their own emotions?

Dr Vilhauer suggests this might be the case: “People who ghost are primarily focused on avoiding their own emotional discomfort and they aren’t thinking about how it makes the other person feel. This causes the victim to question him or herself.”

Confronting our emotions, especially those which cause us great discomfort, will always be a challenging process. However, it should not be used conveniently as an excuse to tap out of an uncomfortable situation.

Ironically, as more social networking platforms are created, the more the quality of our communication within our social relationships regresses.

It is time we think through how we can interact with others in more respectful ways, online and offline.

Just as we are told to confront our emotions and issues in real life, the same rule should be applied online as well.