The Mental Health Effects of “Ghosting”

Source: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Ghosts occurs when a person suddenly stops all contact with someone else without explanation. Instead, they seem to simply disappear – like a ghost. This phenomenon is most often associated with romantic relationships, but it can also refer to the sudden and expected breakdown of friendships and relationships at work.

Although ghosting is hardly new, it is becoming more common and well-known as a result of the intersection of social media, technology, and relationships. Basically, technology has made ghosting an incredibly easy way to remove yourself from relationships. And although it has received considerable attention in the popular media, there is limited empirical research on the topic, the motivations behind it, and its various potential effects on psycho-emotional health and well-being.

A 2021 study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media[1] recruited 76 students through social media and campus flyers to provide answers to questions that prompted them to reflect on their experiences with ghosts. Participants, 70 percent of whom were female, signed up for one of 20 focus groups ranging in size from 2 to 5 students. Group sessions last an average of 48 minutes each.

Some students admitted that they ghosted another person because they lacked the necessary communication skills to have an open and honest conversation. Others described a lack of confidence to communicate more directly or social anxiety as a barrier. Some participants chose a ghost if they felt that meeting the person would trigger emotional and/or sexual feelings that they were not ready to pursue. Almost half of the study participants ghosted because of safety concerns—45 percent reported ghosting to remove themselves from a “toxic,” “unpleasant” or “unhealthy” situation.

In relation to the significant incidence of post-sex ghosting, the culture of ‘hooking up’ was cited by some participants as antithetical to open and honest communication. Ironically, some report engaging in ghosting as a kinder way to end a relationship than a more outright rejection. In this sense, ghosting is seen (or perhaps rationalized) as a way to avoid hurting the other person; to effectively protect their feelings. However, recent data shows that in the US, adults generally view breaking up via email, text message or social media as unacceptable and prefer relationships to end through in-person contact.[2]

Other research shows the adverse effects ghosting can have on mental health and emotional well-being.[3] The short-term consequences include overwhelming rejection and confusion along with hurt self-esteem. Contributing factors included lack of closure and clarity – not knowing why communication suddenly stopped, leaving the person as a ghost trying to make sense of the situation.

Long-term effects for “ghosts” center around feelings of mistrust that have developed over time, in some cases carrying over into future relationships. Such experiences often lead to internalized rejection, self-blame, and feelings of low self-esteem.

However, there were also psychological consequences for those who performed ghostly acts. Approximately 50 percent of those who ghosted others experienced feelings of guilt, remorse, or guilt. The findings also suggest that as people increasingly use ghosting as a way to end relationships and essentially practice “serial ghosting,” it may become commonplace. This has the potential to hinder personal growth as true intimacy becomes increasingly unfamiliar and “ghosts” feel more comfortable avoiding it.

On a practical level, ghosting is impressively convenient—it’s far easier to simply cut off communication than to deal directly with the challenges and inherent discomfort of taking on responsibility and the possibility of confrontation and conflict. However, the negative effects on the mental and emotional well-being of those on both sides of the relationship are not to be underestimated.

Copyright 2022 Dan Mager, MSW

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