Returning to the dating scene after a ten-year absence has been enlightening. I am not altogether unfamiliar with the struggles of dating because so many of my clients are swimming laps in the dating pool. Just as often as not they are fighting to stay afloat and not drown in the deep end of the pool where the water is dark and chilly. And the lifeguards are too busy checking out the hot-bodied swimmers to notice somebody going under and hoping for compassionate rescue.
Which brings me to my recent adventure in dating: ghosting. For those of you unfamiliar, ghosting is when someone suddenly and inexplicably cuts off all communication. It can happen at any stage of the dating cycle, from the first date to months and months of dating and significant intimacy. This isn’t about sending a message on a dating app and getting no reply. It’s about actually meeting someone in person, usually for several dates or longer, and then they completely disappear. As if by alien abduction. Or being kidnapped by the Sandinistas…minus the ransom note. Or, given my known love of all things Harry Potter, they disapparate and never reappear.
I met a guy recently who seemed to be a good fit. We are both mental health professionals. We work within a few miles of each other. We have several real-life friends in common. We emailed and texted for hours a day, days at a time, until he couldn’t take it anymore and insisted we finally meet in person. It was a great first date with three hours of talking and laughing. There might have been some kissing. I’m too much of a gentleman to share details, but I will say there was no sex. More texting and talking later that night and the next day, and plans for a date the next night. Which he cancelled abruptly a few hours beforehand citing a head cold. In July. In Texas. Me being me, I give the benefit of the doubt based on my own experience with Texas weather and sinuses that view life here as a form of torture reserved for enemy combatants and prisoners of war. More so because he was so apologetic and hopeful for a rain check. A few more days of talking and texting about life and shared interests. And then it happened. He disappeared into the ether of the universe, never to be heard from again. Thinking perhaps he took a turn for the worse and somehow this dubious head cold might have worsened into a near-death experience I did check on him a few more times, even offering soup or a drug store run. No response at all. I think perhaps his disapparation skills are not strong and he vanished into non-being, which is to say everything according to Minerva McGonagall. He’s out there somewhere.
When a friend explained I had been ghosted I was appalled. Not just because this happened to me, a seemingly nice guy who could be considered a “catch” by some standards. No, I was appalled at this practice in general, and even more so that a fellow mental health professional that should know better chose this cowardly approach.
According to a 2014 survey, 26% of women and 33% of men have both ghosted and been ghosted. A 2012 study from the University of Kansas showed that while ghosting has become more common in the past decade, it is ultimately the worst possible way to end a relationship. This is not news. We have studies dating back forty years about avoidance (the psychological classification of ghosting) being a shameful and potentially reckless way of ending things. Most studies frame this in terms of the ghost being tracked down and confronted, creating a far more traumatic and potentially embarrassing interaction than a politely worded and appropriate ending ever would have been.
I am not going to invest any effort in tracking down this person for a confrontation. What he did was inappropriate and hurtful, but having a drama queen fight in a public space is not going to change anything. And let’s be serious…do I want the last image somebody has of me, and those watching us, to be me as a screaming shrew venting my hurt and anger? I try so hard not to end up on Jerry Springer, and taking that “high road” often encouraged of us requires me to look beyond a moment that will in no way be cathartic and focus my energy on improving me.
Right about now you might wondering if we are going to delve into the psychology of ghosting to try and understand why somebody ghosts a seemingly nice person. Sure, we could talk about ghosting as a way to avoid one’s own emotional discomfort. We might conceptualize ghosting as a preemptive strike against assumed and expected rejection. We could even wax poetic about cycles of perceived and realized rejections fostering a fear of real and genuine connection that makes it impossible to avoid ghosting. But I’m not going there because quite frankly I don’t care why it happens. What I care about is how to move past it.
Banishing the Ghost
This is not about you. Yes, that is hard to accept. Our first inclination is to assume if we were better in some way we would be too irresistible to ghost. The problem with that is it puts all responsibility for a match or a mismatch on us and alleviates the responsibility and accountability of that jerk. If he/she/they does not have the courage to deal with the discomfort of a friendly “no thanks,” they are not capable of a genuine relationship and should not be swimming in our dating pool. That is on them, not you.
Dating is a numbers game. You will not be a good fit for every person you meet where there is unilateral or bilateral interest. Sometimes it takes spending time together to know it’s not a good fit. Otherwise we could simply fall in love with anybody and everybody. You date a lot to find a good match, and hopefully that match leads to love. And hopefully our odds are better than the lottery.
Feedback loops are important. Remember the lifeguards too distracted by the hotties in the shallow end of the pool to notice we’re drowning in the deep end? They are not good feedback loops. The guy/gal/enby who just ghosted you is not a good feedback loop. Your friends and family are good feedback loops. They know you. They respect you. They love you. And that’s in spite of everything you see as potential shortcomings for a mate! Trust the people in your life when they tell you it’s not about you. Because they are right. You are wonderful and valid and deserving of love. Allow your friends to serve as a mirror and reflect back all that is wonderful about you. Make sure you allow yourself to see it.
Self-care is critical. Go for a 10-minute walk around the block. Get a massage. Pamper yourself with a manicure or a facial. Meet friends for happy hour. Meditate. Read a book. Take yourself on a date.
Break the cycle. The point that most struck me in the 2014 study was that so many people had both ghosted and been ghosted. Don’t be a jerk! Be honest. If you think you might not be able to do an in person rejection, it can be as simple as a candid text, email, or a brief phone call. You don’t have to have some boilerplate response, but being honest about a lack of long-term potential is honorable and compassionate. Even when it’s done through text it’s better than just disappearing.
Keep dating. Remember that finding love is a numbers game and you have be willing to put yourself out there. I promise that hiding out at home is not the answer. Nobody is going to randomly show up at your door asking you to fall in love….and if that happens I promise it’s not someone you want in your life! Get out there in the big wide world of possibility and allow yourself to be vulnerable and possibly even find love.
Rinse and repeat.