2 Toxic Ways To End A Relationship
New research examines the unsavory tactics of 'ghosting' and 'orbiting.'
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 4, 2022
A recent study published in the academic journal Cyberpsychology examines two relationship termination strategies, ghosting and orbiting, that have emerged from the world of online dating.
"Ghosting and orbiting occur when a relationship is ended unilaterally by suddenly withdrawing from all communication and without explanation," say the authors of the new research, led by Luca Pancani of the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy. "However, in orbiting, the disengager still follows the victims on social networking sites after the breakup. With the advent of the digital era, these practices have become increasingly common, gaining the attention of researchers."
To better understand the psychological effects of these unsavory dating tactics, the researchers recruited 176 adults between the ages of 18 and 36 to take part in an online survey. In the survey, the researchers asked participants to recall a time they were either ghosted, orbited, or rejected. They read:
- Ghosting is a practice in which one person decides to quit a romantic relationship or friendship without an explanation and ignoring any communication attempts from the other person.
- Orbiting occurs when one person decides to quit a relationship without explanation but still follows the former partner's social networking activities and occasionally reacts to his/her multimedia contents (e.g., liking posts).
- Rejection is a practice in which the disengager directly communicates the decision to quit the romantic or friendship relationship and provides explicit explanations.
Participants responded to a battery of psychological questions that asked them to reflect on how the experience of being ghosted, orbited, or rejected made them feel. For example, the researchers asked participants to rate their agreement with statements such as 'I felt hurt,' 'I felt responsible,' and 'I felt angry.' Participants also rated how 'unexpected' and 'important' the breakup was, and whether they exhibited an aggressive inclination toward the former partner.
The authors found that while all three of the breakup strategies stirred up rejection-related emotions in participants, ghosting, followed by orbiting, caused the most psychological harm.
"We found that feelings of exclusion were stronger for ghosted than rejected participants," say the authors. "This result suggests that ghosting represents a more threatening exclusionary experience. Concerning orbiting, victims' level of exclusion was in between those felt by ghostees and rejected individuals."
According to the researchers, orbiting may be less severe than ghosting due to the ambiguous signals sent by an orbiter. Orbitees may think that the orbiter is still interested in them or wants to come back.
This sporadic attention, however, can be counterproductive as it potentially inhibits orbitees from closing the relationship and moving on.
Moreover, ghosting was perceived by participants as more unexpected and unfair than rejection.
"Direct communication might be seen as an assumption of responsibility that reduces victims' negative construals of the event," surmise the authors.
One upside of ghosting or orbiting, according to the research, is that it may attenuate feelings of aggression or hostility toward the partner. The authors found that the probability of hostile intention was higher for rejected individuals than for ghostees. This alone, however, is not a valid reason to ghost someone.
"Not every breakup strategy hurts the same way," conclude the researchers. "Compared to rejection, ghosting generally leads to worse outcomes."