Can’t Handle the Truth: Why People Prefer Ghosting When They’re Unable to Have Honest Conversations

look at your phone Are there unanswered texts, snaps, or direct messages that you’re ignoring? should you answer Or should you regard the person who sent it as a ghost?

Ghosting occurs when someone cuts off all online communication with someone else without explanation. Instead, they disappear like a ghost. The phenomenon is rampant on social media and dating sites, but with the isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forcing more people together online, it’s happening now more than ever.

I’m a psychology professor and I research the role of technology use in interpersonal relationships and well-being. Given the negative psychological consequences of frustrated relationships—particularly during the growing years of adulthood, ages 18 to 29—I wanted to understand what drives college students to ghost others and whether ghosting has mental health implications.

To answer these questions, my research team recruited 76 college students through social media and campus flyers. The sample is 70% female. Study participants signed up for one of 20 focus groups ranging in size from two to five students. Group sessions lasted an average of 48 minutes each. Participants provided answers to questions asking them to reflect on their ghosting experiences. Here’s what we found.

The results

Some students admitted to ghosting because they lacked the communication skills needed to have an open and honest conversation — whether that conversation was face-to-face or via text or email.

From a 19-year-old woman: “I’m not good at communicating with people face-to-face, so I definitely can’t do it by typing or anything like that.” From a 22-year-old: “I don’t dare tell them that. Or I think it could be social anxiety.”

In some cases, participants chose to ghost if they thought meeting the person would stir up emotional or sexual feelings they didn’t want to pursue: “People are afraid that something is going to be too much… the fact that the relationship somehow ends next level.”

Some ghosted because of safety concerns. Forty-five percent ghosted to extricate themselves from a “toxic,” “uncomfortable,” or “unhealthy” situation. As one 19-year-old woman put it: “It’s very easy to chat like that to complete strangers [ghosting is] like a form of protection when a creepy guy asks you to send nudes and stuff like that.”

One of the least reported but perhaps most interesting reasons for ghosting someone: to protect that person’s feelings. Better to haunt, so the reasoning, than to evoke the hurt feelings that come with overt rejection. An 18-year-old woman said ghosting is “a slightly more polite way of rejecting someone than saying outright, ‘I don’t want to chat with you.'”

However, recent data suggests that US adults generally find disconnection via email, text, or social media unacceptable and prefer to talk face-to-face.

And then there are ghosting after sex.

In the context of connection culture, there’s an understanding that when the ghoster has gotten what they’re looking for – often that’s sex – then that’s it, they don’t need to talk to that person anymore. Finally, more talk could be interpreted as a desire for something more emotionally intimate.

According to a 19-year-old woman: “I think it’s rare to be open about how you really feel [about] what you expect from a situation. … I think the hookup culture is really toxic when it comes to encouraging honest communication.”

But the most common reason for ghosting: lack of interest in a relationship with that person. Do you remember the movie He’s Just Not That Into You? As one participant said, “Sometimes the conversation just gets boring.”

The consequences

Attending college represents a critical turning point in forming and maintaining relationships outside of one’s family and hometown neighborhoods. For some aspiring adults, romantic breakups, emotional loneliness, social exclusion, and isolation can have potentially devastating psychological effects.

Our research supports the idea that ghosting can have negative mental health consequences. In the short term, many of the specters felt overwhelming rejection and confusion. They reported feelings of low self-esteem and self-esteem. Part of the problem is the ambiguity – not knowing why the communication was abruptly cut off. Sometimes an element of paranoia arises as the Ghostee tries to make sense of the situation.

Over the long term, our study found many of these ghostly reported feelings of distrust developing over time. Some bring this distrust into future relationships. With this can come the internalization of rejection, self-blame, and the potential to sabotage those relationships.

However, just over half of the participants in our study said that ghosting provides opportunities for reflection and resilience.

“It can be partly positive for the Ghostee because it recognizes some of its shortcomings and maybe can change them,” said an 18-year-old woman.

As for the Ghoster, there were a number of psychological consequences. About half of the focus groups that were ghosted experienced feelings of regret or guilt; the rest felt no emotion at all. This finding is not entirely surprising, as those who initiate a breakup generally report less stress than the recipients.

Also emerging from our discussions: The feeling that ghosters may have been stunted in their personal growth. From a 20-year-old man: “It can [become] a habit. And it becomes part of your behavior and that’s how you feel like you should end a relationship with someone. … I feel like a lot of people are serial ghosts, like that’s the only way they can relate to people.”

Reasons for ghosting out of fear of intimacy represent a particularly intriguing avenue for future research. Until that work is done, universities could help by offering students more opportunities to boost their confidence and improve their communication skills.

This includes other courses that cover these challenges. I remember a psychology class I took as an undergraduate at Trent University that introduced me to the work of social psychologist Daniel Perlman, who taught classes on loneliness and intimate relationships. Outside the classroom, college life coordinators could design seminars and workshops that provide students with practical skills for resolving relationship conflicts.

In the meantime, college students can subscribe to a number of relationship blogs that provide readers with research-based answers. Just know that help is out there – even after a ghosting, you’re not alone.

Leave a Comment