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Headlinesn > Lifestyle > Ghosting a date is easy. But what about the trauma it leaves behind?
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Ghosting a date is easy. But what about the trauma it leaves behind?

These days, when you think of a ghost, you’re probably just as likely to think of an ex as you are a pallid Victorian child rendered supernatural by unfinished business. As of last month, Hinge is the proverbial medium trying to change that. The app’s newly installed “your turn limits” feature prompts users with eight or more matches awaiting a response to either reply or terminate a conversation before matching with someone new. “We’re encouraging daters to keep the momentum going with their current conversations or properly close out a conversation to give the person on the other side the closure they need,” explained Hinge’s chief product officer Stéphane Taine in a statement.

The change comes amid a dating app reckoning: sign-up rates are dwindling and users are reporting burnout. And it’s “ghosting” – or suddenly disappearing from someone’s life (or phone) without warning – that is often credited with inspiring such a sense of disillusionment.

The term “ghosting” entered the cultural lexicon in the late Noughties, and by 2012 was shortlisted for the Collins English dictionary word of the year. The nomination was a harbinger of what was to come: more than a decade later, a 2023 study revealed that 84 per cent of Generation Z and millennial daters have fallen victim to the vanishing act. Today, it appears, we’re all haunted or haunting. (I, personally, am both.)

But although the term was coined amid the dating app epoch, ghosting is not a novel practice: people have always initiated romantic connections and then vanished into the ether. Before technology colonised romance, however, most people met through work or friends, so bump-intos and follow-ups were inevitable. The anonymous nature of Hinge and its ilk, however, has granted users the space to ghost with impunity.

Ghosting, although ubiquitous, is generally considered callous. Unlike a plaster-ripping breakup, it necessitates slow death. It leaves you on tenterhooks waiting for a text. Or tapping and untapping airplane mode. Maybe you upload nondescript Instagram stories in the hopes of eliciting a response. Then the realisation dawns: a reassuring message replete with a tenable excuse isn’t coming.

Understandably, this can cause lasting psychological damage. “Many clients report experiencing anxiety, decreased self-esteem, as well as depressive symptoms,” observes Sylvia Anim, a psychosexual therapist who supports individuals and couples across diverse identities and relationship dynamics. Dr Darcey Powell, associate professor of psychology at Roanoke College, conducted a study into ghosting that yielded similar findings. “When participants reflected on being a ghostee, they reported a reduced sense of belonging, lowered self-esteem, less control, and a reduced sense of meaningful existence,” she tells me.

‘When someone is ghosted after such an intimate connection, it can amplify feelings of betrayal, shame, and emotional pain’
‘When someone is ghosted after such an intimate connection, it can amplify feelings of betrayal, shame, and emotional pain’ (iStock)

Unsurprisingly, it’s the impact ghosting has on one’s self-worth (over the dissolution of the relationship itself) that seems to hit hardest. “The sudden and unexplained nature of ghosting can leave them questioning their worth and what they might have done wrong, which can be particularly damaging to their mental health,” remarks Anim of her clients.

It’s an experience that 29-year-old book editor Carmilla* is all too familiar with. She had been seeing a man she met on Hinge for two months when he invited her to his rugby game. When they were supposed to meet at the bar after the match, he never showed, and abruptly stopped answering her texts. “It messed me up in the head,” she says. “I FaceTimed my friends crying for several days afterwards because it felt like the rug had completely been pulled from under my feet and I didn’t know what I had done wrong to be treated that way.”

US-based creative Aleksandr* tells me he was ghosted by his boyfriend after seven months of dating. “When you get ghosted you start doubting yourself, trying to find what’s wrong with you or just your character traits which are bad,” he says. “And the other person probably never thinks of that, but it’s this very self-destructive thing.”

Often, the anxiety sparked by a ghosting has an impact on future relationships, too. It resurfaces when you’re left on read for a millisecond too long, for example – you hear the death knell of a budding romance long before it’s sounded. “Being ghosted can create trust issues and fear of abandonment in future relationships,” Anim tells me. “Clients may become more guarded and reluctant to open up emotionally, fearing that they might be ghosted again. Clients have expressed feeling more clingy or desperate for reassurance in subsequent relationships, while others have expressed feeling even more detached and resistant to intimacy.”

When you get ghosted you start doubting yourself, trying to find what’s wrong with you or just your character traits which are bad. It’s this very self-destructive thing

Aleksandr*

But what are the rules of ghosting? It tends to depend on the context. Some seem to think it’s acceptable to ghost after sporadic texting. According to New York Magazine’s 194 Modern Etiquette Rules for Life After Covid, “it’s okay to ghost after one date”.

“I am a chronic ghoster,” says New York-based writer Elle*. “First step is admitting! Because I’m dating men, I’m encountering mostly s****y prospects so I generally don’t feel remorse.” It’s a sentiment rife among millennial women. “But every now and again there’s a perfectly nice guy who comes along that I just don’t feel an attachment to, so I’ll cut it off after a brief talking period or a date.”

Ghosting after sex, however, significantly heightens the chances of hurting others, particularly after months of amorous texting or multiple dates. “Sexual intimacy often involves a higher level of vulnerability and emotional investment,” explains Anim. “When someone is ghosted after such an intimate connection, it can amplify feelings of betrayal, shame, and emotional pain.” It’s a boundary that’s even observed by repeat offender Elle, who “can’t can’t even fathom doing that to someone”.

Although it can be tempting to paint whoever ghosted you as a textbook bad person, the act has its own knotty incentives. “Motivations vary, but commonly include fear of hurting the other person’s feelings or a lack of emotional investment in the relationship,” Anim says. “Some clients with avoidant attachment styles ghost to maintain emotional distance and avoid vulnerability. Others may ghost due to a lack of communication skills or discomfort with confrontation.”

Meanwhile, another of Powell’s studies found that recipients were more likely to ghost if they had been ghosted in the past. And yes, according to Powell, although they often experience relief (ouch), they also experience guilt. (They’re also notorious for eventually coming back, as was the case with Aleksandr’s partner.)

Being ghosted is not a reflection of their worth or value as a person

Sylvia Anim

So, does Hinge’s new feature have the potential to mitigate ghosting and its fraught aftermath? Powell has her doubts, citing that it fails to address the phenomenon’s most pressing upshot: its ambiguity. “With this new feature, if the individual chooses to simply ‘end the conversation’, although the recipient hasn’t necessarily been ghosted, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some uncertainty as to why,” she says. She also warns that it could unintentionally encourage “benching” – the internet’s term for stringing someone along – as users may be encouraged to “say something that makes them sound interested … to ensure they are able to continue matching with others”. The feature also only addresses in-app, early-stage ghosting, when it’s at its most innocuous.

It’s unlikely that ghosting will vanish overnight. But with dating apps a prime breeding ground for this behaviour, perhaps cultivating real life connections is a safer bet. Alternatively, if you’re already contending with a spectre, perhaps you could find solace in the advice Anim offers her patients.

“It’s important for clients to recognise that being ghosted is not a reflection of their worth or value as a person,” she explains. “By reframing the experience and understanding that ghosting often says more about the other person’s behaviour and circumstances, clients can avoid falling into a cycle of self-blame and negative self-talk.”

*Names have been changed

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