The Spirited Debate About Ghosting
I feel like I’m being haunted by the term “ghosting”. Every time I think all the hot takes have been taken, another article comes out telling me that I should feel ashamed of myself if I ever cut off communication with someone without giving them reasons why.
Being ghosted can feel really shitty. You send a couple messages into the void, never really understanding why the other person isn’t responding. Is it something you did? Is it them reassessing what they want? Without any indication, it can be easy to criticize yourself, assuming your shortcomings is why you’re now being ignored. I totally get it, as someone who struggles a lot with anxiety. Not having a dialogue can instigate a lot of self doubt.
However, a lot of articles discussing how terrible ghosting is, calling it emotional abuse and selfishness, seem to forget the myriad ways that power dynamics, communication issues and, yeah, abuse, can make ghosting a necessary tool in your boundary-asserting arsenal.
Being direct is only effective when the other person is open to hearing and respecting your “no”. It’s also worth noting that when the other person isn’t open to respecting your “no”, continuing communication in an attempt to be clear and direct can lead to endless emotional labor, manipulative attempts to change your mind, and even threats.
One article waxes nostalgic about the “good old days” before mobile phones, where people didn’t ghost each other. Of course, communication could take weeks, months or even years, depending how far back in time you’re going. And there were many reasons you might not write back — you might be dead of one of thousands of diseases, you might have moved house, you might have thought your lover was dead and gotten married to someone else. Hell, maybe your mail just got lost. There was no way to look up a tracking number.
Back in the good old days, people learned to take care of their own feelings of anxiety, because you had to be ridiculously patient.
Perhaps, then, it could equally be said that our dogged belief in instant communication is part of the problem, rather than the ignoring of a message. I certainly get panicked when my partner reads a Facebook message and doesn’t respond in a couple of hours, but that’s not on him. That’s on me. It’s part of my baggage. Additionally, it’s not a terrible thing for me to send a clarifying message asking for what I need communication-wise rather than assuming that he’ll read my mind.
This is someone I have an ongoing relationship with, so there’s some reasonable expectation of mutual accountability. What I don’t understand is the number of writers who seem to think that one date entitles both people to the emotional labor of explaining why you don’t want to see them again. Having been the person trying to explain why I don’t want to go on another date, or why I don’t enjoy spending time with an acquaintance, I have spent hours, up to days in giving someone emotional labor and, frankly, borderline therapy. This demonstrates that “no” doesn’t mean “no”, that my no-contact boundary is worth violating, perhaps continuously, in order to make someone who makes me uncomfortable feel better.
That seems toxic as hell to me.
The idea that people owe other people a certain type of communication style also seems ineffectual and problematic. I feel that in a consent culture, it’s vital that people don’t feel pushed to “owe” each other anything outside of respect for each other’s autonomy. I don’t think that demanding people be coerced into interacting with people they don’t want to is a sensible or desirable alternative.
I DO want to note that people who are on the spectrum may not pick up on cues like ghosting. They may read any ongoing lack of response as ghosting, or may not understand that you’re trying to break off contact. As with any communication style, be mindful of who you’re communicating with and use tools that will be effective for both speaker and listener.
Also I want to note that many of the stories I’ve heard from people who have done the ghosting, it’s because they are in a position of less privilege than the person they were communicating with, and they were afraid of escalation if they continued to engage. That is also fair and something to be mindful of.
I would like to propose that if any work deserves doing around ghosting, it’s that we learn how to see a lack of response as a response and respect it as such. I think it can be worthwhile to send *one* message, after a message goes unresponded to, saying that you are interested in continuing contact, but that you want to respect the other person’s agency, and are thus leaving the ball in their court unless otherwise instructed (I like to leave a smily face in order to be reassuring that I’m not angry). This allows someone who is ghosting because they are trying to avoid you to do so without harassing them, but also lets someone who is busy or struggles with mental health issues know that you are still interested in spending time with them.
I know personally what I need to work on is getting back to people I do want to spend time with and not ghosting them accidentally. Most of the people I have ghosted, it has not been purposeful, but due to my own disorganization! Now I’m working on adding reminders to myself to set up plans with people so I don’t inadvertently communicate that I’m looking to create distance.
Maybe there’s more to be gained in recommending that ghosting be purposeful and intentional, rather than incidental. That seems like a better way to be mindful than shaming people for whom its the only way they can close off contact with abusers.
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