It’s that time of year again: the air is getting colder, jack-o’-lanterns are cropping up along your walk across campus, and that special someone you’ve been thoroughly stuck in the talking stage with isn’t answering your DMs anymore. Or maybe you’re the one who’s got your head on a swivel as you trek from class to class, hoping you don’t run into whoever it is you’ve been less-than-politely ignoring. Spooooky!
If you haven’t guessed, we’re feeling a little festive this week. In the spirit (pun intended👻) of all things Halloween, today we’ll be investigating the prevalence of ghosting in modern dating. How exactly do college students behave when looking to turn down a potential partner or break things off with a current one?
We looked at students’ responses to I would rather ghost someone than outright reject them from the 2022 Marriage Pact surveys at Stanford, Case Western, Michigan, and Georgetown. On the whole, it seems students seem to prefer more direct methods of spurning romantic advances.
When we split things up by gender, male students are consistently the least likely of their peers to prefer ghosting over direct communication.
What about sexual orientation? In heterosexual relationships, women are more likely to be the perpetrators of ghosting. While we can't know for sure the reasons for this trend, it's possible that women are more likely to succumb to a socially ingrained desire to avoid confrontation, or they may resort to ghosting as a means of protecting their safety.
This trend was true to a lesser extent with bisexual men and women. However, among homosexual students, the trend was reversed: homosexual men are more likely to resort to ghosting than homosexual women.
Responses by political affiliation were pretty mixed, with different groups taking the top spot at each school. When we looked at class year, the results were also a mixed bag. However, we did find that seniors are consistently the least likely of their peers to ghost their partners. Who knows, maybe after a few years, the oldest students haunting their campuses have matured and learned better than to ghost their partners.
Next up, majors. Below are the three majors with the highest and lowest preferences for ghosting their romantic partners. There’s a hearty mix of STEM and non-STEM majors across the top and bottom three, leading us to believe that ghosting preferences are more personal than professional (but if you know a physics fanatic at Stanford or Michigan, maybe don’t expect them to text you back).
With these preferences in mind, let’s look at what kind of people might lean towards ghosting over a direct approach to breaking up. The higher a student’s preference for ghosting, the more likely they are to:
Think that stability is just a synonym for boring
Judge couples who say "I love you" too quickly
Think that expensive dates would be more fun
End a friendship over differing political views
Believe that their partner should be the primary caregiver in the relationship
On the other hand, students who would rather confront their current or would-be paramours are more likely to:
Say what is bothering them, even if it makes their partner uncomfortable
Believe that hurting someone is never justified, even if they hurt you first
Be motivated by criticism
Though it may feel like a more modern phenomenon, ghosting as a concept isn’t new and is rooted in some interesting relationship science theories. To learn more about why ghosting seems to have become so prevalent in dating, I spoke with Joy Zheng, a relationship scientist at the Marriage Pact.
Similar to the debate between passion and practicality in long-term relationships, the lens of Implicit Theories of Relationships can be used to explain why some people may feel justified in ghosting a current or potential partner. People who have a “destiny belief”, who think that there is only one perfect person out there for them, are more likely to resort to ghosting than those with a “growth belief”, who think that they can evolve to become compatible with someone over time.
This may be due to the cognitive dissonance “destiny believers” engage in, Joy hypothesizes. They may know objectively that ghosting is a hurtful thing to do, but they feel they can rationalize it as acceptable because the relationship wasn’t meant to be in the first place.
Another lens through which to view relationships is attachment style, which lends itself to a slightly more straightforward analysis of ghosting: people who do not have a secure attachment style are more likely to ghost their partners. Beyond that, as compared to people who have never experienced ghosting, ghostees report having higher attachment anxiety, and ghosters report a higher attachment avoidance. This demonstrates that the act of cutting off a current or potential relationship without closure has emotional consequences for both sides.
What’s interesting is that both people who ghost and have been ghosted know that it’s wrong, but that doesn’t always stop them from being ghosters. Even if they themselves have been ghosted before, it doesn’t stop them from doing it to someone else. This could be because people who don’t have a secure attachment style don’t know how to resolve an awkward situation in their relationships directly.
Joy explains that for many, whether they recognize that it can be hurtful or not, ghosting is a self-protection strategy. If you’re in a short-term relationship and you don’t think it’s going to work out, engaging in the conversation necessary to end it feels like a pretty considerable mental and emotional weight. If you can’t handle the awkwardness—and you aren’t that invested in the relationship in the first place—would you rather put yourself through the discomfort of being straight up with your partner and ending it directly, or would you prefer to quietly step back and allow the other person take on the uncertainty of whether or not the relationship is going to continue?
I think the introduction of the online dating world has exacerbated this effect even more, because most of the time you’re talking to someone on a dating app, it feels very disconnected. You don’t see them in front of you; it’s almost as if they’re not a full person. They’re just a few pictures on a profile and messages in a chat box. Even if you’ve met them in person, it’s a bit easier to have that disconnect, which could make you feel more comfortable ghosting them—because when would you encounter that person again? It’s easier to ghost someone just by not returning their messages as opposed to ghosting someone you see face-to-face regularly.
With so many relationships being reliant on technology instead of face-to-face communication, ghosting feels like an extremely convenient way to avoid all the awkwardness and confrontation that goes along with rejection. Online dating introduces low-risk connection and even lower-risk disconnection: as soon as you stop answering someone’s messages, it feels like they stop existing as part of your world. This can be reassuring to people who are not interested in the emotional vulnerability of dating—but on the other hand, it’s confusing and hurtful to anyone they’ve cut off without an explanation.
While ghosting as a buzzword is all the rage these days, the concept of breaking off a relationship without explanation or closure has been around as long as relationships themselves.
We’ve always avoided each other as a strategy to end a relationship. Imagine not returning someone’s calls decades ago, or not returning their letters hundreds of years ago. But those were slower forms of communication: if you don’t respond to a call or a letter, it could take weeks or months for the other person to realize. But now that we have access to instant messaging at our fingertips, it’s easy to expect someone to be constantly around or able to respond to your messages instantly. And with that expectation, given how connected and quick communication is, not hearing anything back from someone feels sudden and even more stark.
If anything, Joy mentions, ghosting and its long-term impacts are a very fruitful field of research, because you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know what it is.
It’s interesting that ghosting has become such a prevalent thing within our current dating culture. The fact that it’s as accepted as it is now is an interesting phenomenon, and even though people recognize that it’s wrong, it continues. I wonder whether or not it’s going to impact our long-term relationship development, because ghosting is not the most adaptive strategy, but it’s very much in use. I’m curious to know what that is going to mean for people who are still developing their communication and relationship strategies.
All in all, it can be scary to be vulnerable with someone you’re no longer interested in—so much so that blocking their number and pretending they no longer exist sometimes feels like the easier way out.
With the exception of escaping an unsafe situation, if you’re thinking of pulling a Casper on someone you’re talking to, addressing the awkwardness head-on may be better for both of you in the long run. Sure, it’s uncomfortable, but you’ll spare them the uncertainty of not knowing where they stand with you and practicing your communication skills all in one fell swoop. That’s kind of a win-win, right?
But what do we know? It’s a good time of year to get a little bit ghosty, after all.