This probably won’t come as much of a surprise, but breaking up with someone is hard. There’s the rejection, the tears, the possible shouting and if nothing else, it’s just really awkward! Maybe that’s why, for better or worse, some people decide a proper break-up isn’t worth it. Instead, they choose to just, disappear. In other words, they ghost.
Ghosting is when someone terminates a relationship by ending communications abruptly and without explanation. It’s something people have probably been doing forever, but the word has only started to pick up steam within the last few years. In fact, it’s picked up so much steam that psychologists have started to study it. Recently, they have begun investigating why people do this and their results suggest that at least some of it might have to do with how people view relationships in general.
If it’s never happened to you, ghosting might seem like some weird, worst-case-scenario Internet thing, but it actually happens all the time. For example, in a 2018 study that polled almost 750 people, 23% of participants reported being ghosted by a romantic partner. And almost 40% reported being ghosted by a friend. Studies have even found that people ghost employers or potential employers by not responding to offers or by not showing up for work or interviews.
This isn’t a Millennial or Gen Z thing, either, because ghosting isn’t new. The term may have started getting traction recently, but this behaviour has probably been around forever. It’s just that, for your grandparents, “ghosting” might have looked like not sending letters or skipping phone calls.
This phenomenon has likely become such a Thing because technology has changed the way many people communicate. Texting and social media have made communication easier and more instantaneous and many relationships or jobs are now started through apps and e-mails instead of in-person meetups. Among other things, that makes it really easy to avoid someone if you think things aren’t going to work out. When it comes to why people do this, though, there likely isn’t just one answer.
Like, in a 2019 study published in Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, participants reported that they ghosted someone because of everything from attractiveness to convenience to safety, Which is quite a range of explanations. Other researchers, though, have suggested that how you feel about ghosting could be based on something more fundamental: how you think about relationships more broadly.
Research on relationship theories covers two types of beliefs: destiny and growth. If you are a stronger believer in destiny, it means you think that the outcome of a relationship is more set in stone: It’s either going to work out, or it’s not. This is associated with a fixed mindset, and if you think like this, you might believe that you have a soulmate, someone who is fundamentally a perfect match.
On the other hand, if you are a stronger believer in growth, it means you think relationships can grow over time. If you think like this, you probably believe that all relationship hurdles can eventually be overcome.
In that 2018 study mentioned earlier, the researchers didn’t just look at how frequently people ghosted. They also asked participants about their relationship beliefs and they found that stronger destiny beliefs led to more positive views toward ghosting.
More specifically, when compared to people with weaker destiny beliefs, this group was about 63% more likely to say that ghosting was an acceptable way to end a long-term relationship. Those with stronger growth beliefs tended to say the opposite.
This may have happened because people with stronger destiny beliefs are often quicker to end a relationship when they don’t think it’s a good fit. Alternatively, these results could be related to whether participants thought they could be friends with someone after a breakup. If they didn’t, they might not have cared as much about how that person responded to being ghosted.
Now, we are not here to make sweeping claims about how you personally should end your relationships; we are just here to talk about what psychologists have observed. Because, really, it’s super fascinating that this is even something researchers have studied.
Ultimately, while all kinds of survey participants have different opinions on whether ghosting is okay, the overarching theme seems to be that there are better ways to end relationships. If nothing else, ghosting doesn’t allow someone closure and if there is something they could have done better, it doesn’t give them a chance to learn.
In the long run, this may also make it harder for the ghoster to communicate disinterest or what isn’t going well for them. In a professional setting, well, the employer suddenly has an unexpected vacancy, which isn’t great.
Every relationship is different, though, so whether you want to ghost because of safety or a destiny mindset, we will leave those decisions up to you.