Ghosting: Why Some End Relationships by Disappearing
Research shows that people prone to “ghost” their partners have a stronger belief in destiny.
Almost everyone who has been in a relationship has experienced a break up. Some are amicable, but many are acrimonious or just plain awkward and uncomfortable. Wouldn’t it be great if we could avoid all the hassle of ending a relationship? If we could cut a partner out of our lives quickly, decisively, and with the least possible effort?
If this sounds appealing, you may be prone to “ghosting”. It’s a relatively new term for what is likely an age-old solution to a relationship that is going nowhere. To “ghost” someone is to cut them out of your life entirely, and to ignore all their attempts at contact. To vanish into the ether like a phantom, leaving the partner to work it out for themselves that they’ve been dumped.
Although this type of behavior may be tempting in that it demands the least possible effort (who doesn’t approve of efficiency?), it does seem rather heartless. And technology may be adding to the problem: after all, it’s easier to block a person you met on a dating app than to avoid a former office crush.
So, why are some people more likely to ghost than others? How can we choose a partner who, if love fails to bloom, will let us down gently rather than disappearing into the night?
Gili Freedman, a postdoc at Dartmouth college in New Hampshire, recently ran two studies to find out. She wondered whether willingness to ghost may be explained by the lay-theories we all hold about how relationships work. Some of us believe in destiny: that there is one soul-mate we are meant to be with. Others believe more in growth: that people change over time and that a relationship that has lost its way can be successfully prevented from hitting the rocks. Maybe believers in destiny or growth feel differently about ghosting.
Freedman had over 500 men and women complete questionnaires about their destiny and growth beliefs and their attitudes to ghosting. When is ghosting permissible: only after a few dates or even when the relationship is long-term? Had the respondents ever ghosted or been ghosted? Would they think less of someone who ghosted? And, finally, how likely would they be to use ghosting to end a short- or long-term relationship?
Around a quarter of the volunteers reported having been ghosted in the past; around a fifth said that they had ghosted someone else. What’s more, volunteers with strong beliefs in destiny were more likely to think it was OK to end a relationship by ghosting, compared to those with weaker beliefs in destiny: 22% more likely in the case of a short-term relationship; 63% more likely in the case of a long-term relationship. Growth beliefs weren’t related to feelings about the acceptability of ghosting a short-term partner, but believers in growth were 38% more likely than non-believers to think it acceptable to ghost a long-term partner.
Stronger believers in destiny were 24% less likely to think poorly of a ghoster, and 43% more likely to consider ghosting; stronger believers in growth were 35% more likely to think poorly of a ghoster, but were no more or less willing to ghost someone themselves.
Freedman argues that her results are:
consistent with the possibility that destiny theorists [people who believe that the ideal relationship partner is our “soul mate”] are more likely to act decisively on their relationship once deciding it is not “meant to be.”
In other words, if you think you are destined to find “the one”, and decide that your current partner doesn’t fit the bill, ending the relationship abruptly may feel appropriate. Why attempt to work at the relationship when you are not destined to be together, and don’t believe that relationships can evolve and change over time?
Earlier research has also shown that believers in destiny are less likely to remain friends with an ex. An unwillingness to maintain any kind of relationship with a former partner may mean that destiny theorists aren’t concerned about harming or confusing an ex they will probably never see again.
Perhaps it’s time for the belief in soul mates to give up the ghost.
Freedman, G., Powell, D. N., Le, B., & Williams, K. D. (in press). Ghosting and destiny: Implicit theories of relationships predict beliefs about ghosting. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi:10.1177/0265407517748791
Support Rob at patreon.com/psychology and receive bonus podcasts and blogs.