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Pulling the sheet back on 'ghosting'

ASU professor explains the digital age dating trend of disappearing without a trace

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September 19, 2019

Your grandparents would just call it being rude, but millennials and Generation Z call a troubling new trend in courtship “ghosting.”

It works like this: Two people are dating, but one of them suddenly drops off the face of the earth. Doesn’t answer their phone, doesn’t return texts or emails …they're just gone. It's confusing and hurtful to the person who has been ghosted. This phenomenon has been captured by MTV in a new docuseries called “Ghosted: Love Gone Missing.”

“Ghosted” debuted Sept. 10 and helps jilted lovers and those who have been emotionally stiff-armed by friends or family by confronting their “ghost” in a one-on-one sit down. Sounds intriguing, but the reality show has received criticism for romanticizing stalking and for its potential for invasion of privacy.

ASU Now consulted Maura Priest, an associate professor and bioethicist in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies and the author of the forthcoming book, “The Ethics of Dating,” to explain the how and the why of this phenomenon.

Woman with sunglasses on her head

Maura Priest

Question: Let’s start off with a clear definition of “ghosting.” Most point to the fact that it’s the ending of a relationship by someone suddenly without an explanation to the other party. Does that sound right?

Answer: Like anything, “ghosting” is a term that has nuance to it, and what exactly it refers to varies by context. Your definition certainly gets at the gist of things. Doing my best to offer a definition that includes most of the common cases, I would say that “Jill” is ghosted by “Jack,” if the following conditions hold:

1. Jack and Jill were involved in some type of nonplatonic relationship — this might be a long-term committed monogamous relationship, the beginning of what might become that kind of relationship, casual dating, friends with benefits, or anything else that involves two persons who are, in some loose sense, “more than friends or associates.”

2. Jill expects, with good reason, that her nonplatonic relationship with Jack will continue — he has not given her any direct information that it will not, and often, he has implied or even explicitly told her that it will.           

3. Without warning, Jack ceases all forms of communication and interaction with Jill, and is unresponsive when she makes any attempts at contact, including demands for an explanation.

4. Jack’s sudden withdrawal from the relationship was deliberate, and he made the decision to withdraw as a means of ending the current nonplatonic arrangement.

Q: Is this a fairly new dating trend, and why has it become so mainstream or widespread?

A: It is new as a trend. I find it likely that there have been cases of this sort as long as humans have engaged in dating and relationships. But it was never so common as to require a name of its own.           

It would be difficult to get an empirically supported answer that explains why ghosting has become so common. I believe it is a combination of factors, with those listed below having important contributing roles:

1. Online dating has made it much easier to find dates. The easier something is to get, the easier it is to give it away. After all, you can just go get another one. A friend of mine who is about 50 told me the following when we were discussing ghosting. Back when he was on the dating market, getting a date demanded the merging of three not always easy-to-come-by conditions. First, he would have to find a woman he liked enough to ask out. Second, he would have to find the courage to ask her, and third, she would have to say “yes.” When all these stars aligned, he continued, he would be motivated to see things out with this potential relationship; he would not just move on if the first date wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t going throw away the opportunity. Contrast that with today, where persons can scroll through hundreds or thousands of potential dates right on their phone. Finding someone of interest is easy. And asking someone out behind the protection of a computer screen is less scary than doing this in person. Ask enough people, and someone will say yes. The point is that persons are probably quick to discard a potential relationship because finding a new one has low costs.

2. Ending a relationship often comes with hurt feelings. For good reasons, our culture today is one that has less tolerance for hurt feelings than cultures of the past. In a misguided attempt to avoid hurting feelings, persons often ghost and end up hurting feelings even more.

3. Online dating has made it much more common to date someone with whom you have no social connection. Before online dating, most dates came through school, work, friends, etc. When you date someone from your social circle, you are less likely to ghost, as compared to a stranger you meet online, because you will have to face this person again. Persons are less likely to ghost if they might run into the ghosted at work, school, or if they might get grief from friends and family members. When ghosting someone you meet through an app, ghosters can count on never seeing the person again.

4. Chivalry might not be dead, but it is dying. And a case can made that this is a welcome development. Nonetheless, norms of chivalry are anti-ghosting. The idea that gentlemen — when this was a complimentary term — will always treat women with a certain level of dignity and respect does not mesh well with ghosting. If ghosting was a term around 70 years ago, I would imagine that there would be a norm along the lines of “gentlemen don’t ghost.” But today, there is not much concern for being a gentleman. Dating is much more of an egalitarian experience, and so men do not feel a special pull to treat women with a unique degree of concern, and women feel empowered to move on with a relationship on their own terms. To be clear, these might all be ethical changes, but they might still contribute to the ghosting phenomenon. 

Q: What is the typical length of a courtship when someone gets ghosted?

A: I do not think there is a typical length. An ethical complication of ghosting is that it can refer to the ending of a relationship after one date — or even no dates — or after 20 years. Most agree that, ceteris paribus, the longer the relationship, the more problematic the ghosting. 

Q: What are the reasons you’ve heard why the offenders chose to suddenly end the relationship without telling the other person?

A: That is an interesting question. Most of my conversations have been with people that have been ghosted, and not the ghosters themselves. Lots of ghosters, after all, can keep their ghosting under wraps. They have no need to publicize why they ended a relationship. They might not have told anyone they were dating. To the limited extent that I have heard explanations, they tend to come in one of three flavors:

1. It was for the ghosted person’s own good. Because the ghoster simply “was not into” the person ghosted, leaving would be easier on the ghosted than would hearing the truth.

2. The ghoster claims they are under no obligation to do otherwise. They point out they never promised this person a relationship, that they were up front about “not knowing what they want,” and that the process of dating is all about meeting new people and moving on when the new person isn’t working. In long term relationships, they might still make all but the last claim.

3. “Deny, deny, deny.” Against all evidence, the person denies that they ghosted, and claims they were just busy, and that people in relationships need not communicate “all the time.” They might say this even if it has been six months since they last contacted the relevant individual.

What people say is their reason for ghosting might be much different from their actual reason. What seems a common actual reason runs as follows: Jack thinks Jill is OK. He likes spending time with her now and then, and he likes having sex with her, but the truth is, he thinks he can do better. He doesn’t want to officially end the relationship, as that will close off the possibility to future encounters. If Jack simply stops communicating, he can contact Jill, say, two months later, and explain how he had been “dealing with a lot of stress” and really wants to see Jill again.

Q: Do jilted parties end up hunting down the ghoster? Is this a typical response and is it understandable?

A: I will assume we are talking about the online “stalking.” Assuming the ghosted person does not attempt to contact the ghoster, and that they do not attempt to contact friends, family or acquaintances of the ghoster, then I think it is understandable. At first someone might do this to simply confirm that the ghoster is alive. After all, the ghoster suddenly stopped communicating with no explanation. If ghosting wasn’t as common as it is, the normal response would be to wonder if the disappearance was due to injury or death.

Once the ghosted confirms that the ghoster is alive, it is often natural to wonder what is going on in the ghoster’s life. If it was a long-term relationship, then the ghosted had developed an interest in the interests of his/her partner. It is hard to turn that off immediately. And if it was a short relationship, the ghosted might be trying to see who the ghoster prefers, romantically, i.e. who was “better” than the ghosted. This is probably not healthy, but I think it is still a somewhat common human response to rejection — and ghosting is, however you slice it, a form of rejection.

Q: What advice would you give to millennials and members of Generation Z who want to break it off with someone if a relationship isn’t going anywhere?

A: Well, as an ethicist I will attempt to give ethical advice. And I can start by saying that I am on the fence about whether ghosting, in the very early stages of dating, is morally problematic. Suppose, for instance, that someone has been on two dates. In this case, unlike longer term relationships, it is unclear that either party has an expectation of continued interaction. And because ghosting is so common, a nonresponse to attempts at contacting is actually saying something quite clearly. Moreover, I know that I myself would prefer to end an early dating relationship by simply going our own ways, rather than the awkward end via conversation. So I am not sure I could advise against ghosting in early stages, unless the circumstance involves clear plans for the future. If someone set-up a third date but then wants to ghost, doing this is wrong. My advice would be to remember that being the sort of person who means what they say, and does what they say they are going to do, will get you a lot of deserved respect.          

With longer term situations, my advice would be this: Please be a minimally decent person. Think of all the time spent with this individual, and the trust that was acquired over that time. In ghosting, you are not only breaking that trust, but you are showing yourself to be untrustworthy. Untrustworthiness cannot be circumscribed to a person or situation. It is a character trait, and an antisocial one. Do not be that person no one can count on.

Top photo: Photo illustration courtesy of Getty Images/iStock.