How To Handle The Psychological Consequences Of Being Ghosted

All breakups affect us on a deep level. The experience of being ghosted may be especially hard to get over.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 6, 2022

There's no good way to end a relationship. Psychological research, however, shows that some relationship termination strategies cut deeper than others.

A new study conducted by researchers at California Polytechnic State University examined the emerging phenomenon of 'ghosting' – an abrupt and indirect relationship termination strategy that involves total withdrawal of communication from one party in the relationship.

The researchers found that the experience of being ghosted invokes a heavy psychological cost on ghostees, preventing them from exploring new romantic relationships due to the uncertainty engendered by the ghosting experience.

"With an ever-expanding workforce of technology at our disposal, we have almost unrestricted access to an unlimited number of people," says Katherine Anne Holmes, the lead author of the paper. "This makes potential partners quite replaceable and gives 'ghosters' a certain level of safety and anonymity."

Talking about her inspiration for the study, Holmes shared:

"We were inspired to study ghosting not only by our personal experiences with it and its increasing relevance to all age groups, but its possible effects on young people and the quality of their future relationships and dating experiences."

To gain a deeper understanding of the experience of being ghosted, the authors conducted interviews with 21 young adults who had been the victims of ghosting.

They identified four broad themes that defined the experience of being ghosted. They are:

  1. Confusion. Many ghostees find themselves confused as they struggle to make sense of who was responsible for the fallen relationship. They experience a mental tug-of-war wherein they try to find the 'why' and, at times, end up devaluing themselves in the process. "Did I do something wrong?" is a question that haunts ghostees, making it a traumatic experience for them.
  2. Justification. Ghostees try to find some justification for why the relationship ended. While this is self-preserving in nature, it can prevent ghostees from grieving the loss of a potential partner. Their true feelings, perhaps disappointment and sadness, are suppressed.
  3. Avoidance of future vulnerability. Perhaps the most upsetting consequence of being ghosted is the avoidance of future vulnerability. Ghostees become more hesitant and anxious to venture into new romantic endeavors. This may prevent ghostees from making a meaningful connection with someone new.
  4. Contribution of technology. Ghostees mention that online dating apps make ghosting (without any consequences) easy. With the anonymity of being online, ghosters don't have to face the consequences of their actions.

The researchers point out that certain personality characteristics make someone more inclined to engage in ghosting.

"The presence of the Dark Triad personality traits (i.e., narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism) and an avoidant attachment style can explain the likelihood of ghosting behavior," says Holmes.

Other factors that increase the likelihood of someone using ghosting as a relationship termination strategy are a disinterest or lack of intimacy in the relationship, possessing a fixed mindset, and having strong beliefs in destiny.

The authors offer the following words of advice for those who have 'ghosted' someone in the past:

  • Take a step back, reflect on your actions, and try to see your actions through the eyes of the ghostee. This may help you break your habit if you find yourself chronically ghosting people.
  • Work on your ability to communicate directly with people even when the topics may be difficult or uncomfortable.
  • Seek help from a mental health practitioner who may be able to provide you with tools to increase the level of empathy you bring to your interpersonal relationships.

Furthermore, Holmes offers the following words of wisdom to those who have experienced ghosting:

  • Remember that you are not alone in the experience
  • Try not to engage in the self-blame spiral
  • Try not to contact the ghoster again
  • Don't use ghosting as a relationship termination strategy yourself
  • Walk yourself toward acceptance
  • Seek out mental health support as you need it

A full interview with psychologist Katherine Anne Holmes discussing her new research can be found here: New research explains the psychological costs of ghosting