It hurts to know that someone you care about on the other end of a text, phone call or email has gotten your message and chosen not to reply.
Whether it’s a potential romantic partner, a friend or a family member, when relationships become uneven, it cuts at our very core.
Being “ghosted” isn’t anything new, but it’s made worse in a world of instant messaging, online dating and social media. Experts say this can impact our mental health in ways we might not even realize.
A January 2023 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that ghosted people lacked a sense of closure in their relationships. Study author Christina Leckfor, a Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of Georgia, says that being ghosted is more common than it used to be, thanks to modern technology.
“It’s more common and in some ways more painful,” says Leckfor, who adds that not only are we able to meet more people thanks to social media and by communicating at long distances with text messages, “we also have an expectation that people are easier to reach because we know they have their smartphones on them at all times.”
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When you’re directly rejected, for example, when you’re in a relationship, and that person breaks up with you, it might hurt, but you know where you stand, says Leckfor. Whereas when you’re ghosted, there’s uncertainty because you’re not sure of your position in the relationship.
“You’re left to come up with your own scenarios of what could have happened,” says Leckfor. It extends the pain associated with rejection longer than it would if you knew the other side’s opinion of you.
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Leckfor says that while it’s common in romantic relationships, over half of the relationships she noted in her study were friendships, where one side was left high and dry without knowing what had happened to their bestie.
But no matter who it is, you’re left without an opportunity to seek closure when you’re ghosted.
According to psychologist and author Michelle Drouin, closure in relationships is important because, as human beings, we want to see things as a whole. We’re always interested in how things end. “That’s why we watch the movie all the way through, and we finish books even when we don’t like them,” says Drouin.
A lack of closure threatens our sense of self and can make us feel unbalanced because we’re not used to it. Drouin says that the world we live in is extremely chaotic, so we do psychological things to make it all make sense. “We have schemes for how people are supposed to act and the rules that people are supposed to abide by,” she says. This helps us to make sense of the world, and when things don’t turn out how we might have expected, it turns us upside down.
The need for closure varies from person to person, and some need it more than others. “Some people are more comfortable in uncertain situations; maybe they’re indecisive themselves and prefer some uncertainty,” says Leckfor. However, research shows that, surprisingly, those who are ghosted are more likely to ghost others.
Ghosting in romantic relationships hits us where we’re most vulnerable by impacting our self-esteem. “It makes us question whether we are valued and whether we’re as important to the other person as we might have thought we were,” says Drouin. We’re left doubtful of both ourselves and the reason that the relationship is ending.
According to Stacey Litam, an assistant professor in counseling at Cleveland State University, ghosting may be happening more often for people who haven’t established the interpersonal skills to end relationships without it.
Litam says that those who grew up with social media and are used to communicating with emojis have trouble identifying emotions, so they might have trouble having uncomfortable conversations.
“It might be perceived as an easier way to end unwanted or undesirable relationships rather than having those direct and honest conversations,” Litam says. Online relationships may also feel less serious, so it’s easier to cut off communication rather than address it.
But whatever the cause, ghosting hurts. The combination of having your self-esteem deflated with the uncertainty of not knowing why takes its toll. Ultimately, no matter the modern technology we use to communicate, we’re still human, and being rejected never feels good.
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