New Research Explains The Psychological Costs Of Ghosting

A psychologist offers some compelling reasons why not to use 'ghosting' as a relationship termination strategy.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 26, 2022

A new study unpacks the many downsides of terminating a relationship via ghosting, such as how it sows seeds of self-doubt and confusion and prevents people from exploring new romantic relationships in the future.

I recently spoke to Katherine Anne Holmes, Psychologist at the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and the lead author of the paper, to understand the psychological effects of ghosting in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What is ghosting? What inspired you to explore this topic?

Ghosting, in its most concise definition, is an indirect relationship termination strategy that involves total withdrawal of communication from one party in the relationship.

Ghosting is most prevalent in domains of online communication, like dating apps, Instagram, and Snapchat.

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.

What are the practical takeaways from your research? Do you have any words of wisdom for people who rely on dating apps to find partners?

The unfortunate reality for Gen Z and most young adults is that dating culture has completely changed in the 21st century. With access to more and more people via social media and dating apps, potential partners seem easily replaceable.

With that as a precaution, it is important to remember that ghosting is harmful and can lead to poor consequences for both parties, especially when the parties are developing, young adults.

The main takeaway for anyone from this research is to simultaneously be prepared to be ghosted yet avoid using it as a relationship termination strategy yourself.

No level of clear communication or ideal behavior on your part can guarantee freedom from ghosting, but if you are direct and clear in ending any type of relationship, it could be a more beneficial experience for everyone involved.

What do you think are the motivating factors of resorting to ghosting as a way to terminate relationships? Are there any particular personality traits that underlie ghosting?

Given that ghosting can happen anytime during a relationship's lifespan it is safe to say there is no amount of time or particular arrangement that can prevent it.

Things like a fixed mindset and very strong beliefs in destiny, however, may explain why some people are more inclined to ghost than others.

Presence of the Dark Triad personality traits (i.e.,narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism) and an avoidant attachment style can influence the likelihood of ghosting as well as simple things like disinterest or lack of intimacy in the relationship.

What was the methodology of your study?

"Something Would've Been Better Than Nothing" is a qualitative study that utilized in-depth, experiential interviews from twenty-one young adults through the lens of the Narrative Paradigm, a communication theory based on the idea that humans are natural storytellers and therefore understand and experience life through stories and narratives.

The transcripts from these interviews with young adults were analyzed extensively for similarities, and those found especially repetitive and forceful were identified as common themes.

In your study, four themes, namely, justifications, confusion over responsibility, avoiding future vulnerability and contribution of technology, have emerged. How do each of these themes explain the psychological costs of ghosting on the ghostees?

Each of the emergent themes highlight some sort of consequence for the ghostee.

First of all, many ghostees provided the interviewer with justifications or reasons — besides being ghosted — that their relationship with the ghoster would have ultimately failed. While ghostees may find this self-preserving, it could prevent them from grieving the loss of a potential partner.

Their true feelings, perhaps disappointment and sadness, about the situation are suppressed.

In another vein, many ghostees struggle to make sense of who was responsible for the fallen relationship. Did I do something wrong? is a question that haunts ghostees. They experience an exhausting mental tug-of-war trying to find the "why" and, at times, devalued themselves in the process.

Perhaps the most upsetting consequence of being ghosted is the avoidance of future vulnerability. Ghostees are much more hesitant and anxious in future romantic endeavors, adopting a level of self-protection that could easily prevent them from making a meaningful connection with someone new.

As far as the contribution of technology, ghostees noted that dating apps tend to promote ghosting. With the anonymity of being online, ghosters will never have to see the emotions of the ghostee (in other words, the consequences of their action).

This makes dating even more uncertain and emotionally tumultuous as your partner could just simply disappear, and it would be so easy for them to do so.

Do you think ghosting is as likely in face-to-face contexts as it is in the world of online dating?

Ghosting is just as likely to occur with someone you meet in the face-to-face context as it is on an online platform for the reason that our communication norms as a society have completely changed.

It used to be that you could only write or call people to get in contact with them, both methods of communication with strict limitations.

Now, with an ever-expanding workforce of technology at our disposal, we have almost unrestricted access to an essentially unlimited number of people. This makes potential partners quite replaceable and gives the ghoster a certain level of safety and anonymity.

Even if you are not a dating app user, you are not immune to this phenomenon. The mindset is culturally transmitted.