Ghosting Someone? Here’s the Best Way to Handle a Breakup Instead
Leave the ghosting antics to Halloween. Here's why people ghost out on relationships, the effects on both parties, and ways to end things that'll be healthier—for you both. (Plus: the one scenario when it's OK to ghost.)
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Ghosting someone: What it means
“One day we were fine, texting about the next movie we wanted to watch together. The next day I never heard from him again,” says Lyla Pratt, 24, of Minneapolis, MN. “Not only did he stop texting, but he blocked me on social media, too.”
The “he” she’s referring to was her boyfriend of six months. The couple had met through a dating app and hit it off immediately, quickly becoming exclusive. “We talked or hung out nearly every day, even through Covid, so it was a huge shock when he ghosted me in November ,” she says. “He just stopped answering my texts and calls.”
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Why would a guy who had given her a ring with their initials as a birthday present—and whom she was sleeping with regularly—suddenly cut off all communication? “I have literally not a single clue,” she says, adding that the couple hadn’t fought or even had a disagreement prior to his disappearance. “That’s the worst part: I will never have any closure, I’ll never know why he left me, and that really hurts,” she says.
What’s ghosting? Ghosting happens when one person disappears from the relationship without any explanation, no longer responding to or initiating communication. Here, mental health specialists weigh in on what this avoidant way of dealing with a relationship can do to both people involved. Plus, some expert tips on how to have a healthier breakup.
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What is ghosting?
Ramani Durvasula, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and an author. “Ghosting is exactly what it sounds like: it’s quietly disappearing from someone’s life, like a ghost,” Dr. Durvasula says. “And it can be incredibly hurtful.”
“Ghosting” is a term that largely emerged in the era of digital dating, says Claire Postl MA, LPCC, licensed professional clinical counselor and certified sex therapist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Ghosting is a term almost always employed to describe a breakup in a romantic relationship, but it can also happen in friendships or other non-romantic connections.
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Why do people ghost?
Why would someone choose to go incommunicado rather than simply break up? The short answer, according to Postl: it’s easy. Many of us fear confrontation so much that we’ll do anything to avoid it.
After all, it’s so much easier to just stop talking than it is to have a real conversation and get into all the messy, complicated feelings that come with relationships—especially if you’ve already mentally moved on. “Many people weren’t taught what healthy adult communication looks like in relationships, so they default to the easiest way out—ghosting,” Dr. Durvasula says. “For some people, it becomes a dysfunctional pattern.” Knowing how to communicate effectively is one of the characteristics of a healthy relationship.
In a time when meeting someone new is as easy as swiping your screen, she adds, it makes sense that many people would want breaking up to be as simple. In fact, ghosting after a first or second date—or even after just chatting through an app or texting—is so common that it’s often the expected way to end the interaction now. But, Dr. Durvasula says, just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s OK, especially when you use ghosting to end longer-term relationships with no explanation. (Believe your relationship still has hope? Here’s how to fix a broken relationship.)
Effects of being ghosted
Being ghosted, even by someone you’ve only seen a couple of times, can hurt. If you were in a longer relationship with them and developed real feelings, the experience of being ghosted can be intensely painful…and it can last for awhile.
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Ghosting makes you doubt your self-worth
At best, ghosting leaves you feeling confused, self-conscious, and concerned. At worst, it makes you doubt and question your self-worth, leaving you with a lot of unanswered questions that you may then ruminate over, Postl says. (Some people use “breadcrumbing,” where they give you tiny bits of attention, instead of totally ghosting.)
“It can feel like you’re being ‘discarded’ or thrown out,” says Dr. Durvasula. “That’s one of the most painful things a person can experience.”
Ghosting triggers negative feelings
“We all have doubts and vulnerabilities, and being ghosted can bring up all those insecurities,” Postl says. “It’s those unanswered questions that do the damage. People wonder, ‘What did I do wrong?’ ‘Did something happen to them, are they in trouble?’ ‘Do I need to do something different for someone to like me?’ ‘Are they angry at me?’ which increases self-doubt.”
Gaslighting is another toxic communication pattern that creates self-doubt. (Here are the gaslighting phrases to know about this type of emotional abuse.)
The effects of ghosting someone else
It’s not just the person who was ghosted who’s left with emotional work to do, Dr. Durvasula says.
Ghosting can leave you emotionally stunted
Dr. Durvasula says people who have a habit of ghosting can keep stay stuck in immature relationship patterns, unable to establish lasting connections with others.
Ghosting can lead to a lack of empathy and understanding
Another problem is that when you ghost someone, you don’t see the other person’s reactions and feelings. “That may sound like a good thing, but it’s not. It’s a lie you are telling yourself—you are pretending like someone is not hurt when they really are,” Postl says. “Our feelings are what make us human, and it is a very powerful thing to sit with someone who is hurting or in emotional pain.”
Relationships are about the good and the bad. If you’ve participated in a relationship on any level, it’s a responsibility to be present when that person is sad or angry, as well as when they’re happy. “If this is something you don’t feel you can do, then you need to ask yourself, ‘Should I be in a relationship right now?'” Dr. Durvasula says, adding that she suggests therapy as a way to learn healthier relationship patterns.
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What to do instead of ghosting someone
Ending a relationship with a disappearing act isn’t the most evolved approach. “Breaking up using direct communication is difficult, but necessary,” Postl says, adding that this is true whether it’s been one date or 100. “Even when casually dating online, letting someone know that you are no longer interested or that you have met someone else will provide the person with a sense of close or finality,” she says.
Easier said than done? Here’s an expert primer on how to break up without ghosting:
Break it off in person
Having a two-way conversation is important so both people feel heard, Dr. Durvasula says. The best way to do this is in person but if you can’t physically get together, a phone call is the next best thing. Texting isn’t a great way to break up but it’s still better than ghosting.
Do it at an appropriate, respectful time
Choose a time to talk (or preferably meet) that is respectful of the other person and how this news will impact them, Dr. Durvasula says. For instance, don’t dump them right before they’re going away to visit family, or when they’re on their way to work.
Practice ahead of time
Knowing what you want to communicate and having it come out of your mouth that way can be hard, especially if your emotions are running high. One way to combat that is to practice breaking up with a friend, Dr. Durvasula says.
Another way to keep your thoughts clear is to write it down and read it to them, she adds.
Use “I” statements
Dr. Durvasula suggests you frame your thoughts in a way that makes them about you, rather than the other person. So instead of saying “You’re moving too fast and stressing me out,” try saying, “I feel stressed out and worried this is moving too fast for me, so after a lot of thought, I need to end our relationship.”
Offer direct but kind feedback
Giving the other person feedback during a breakup isn’t necessary, but it can provide a sense of closure. If you decide to answer the person’s questions about what went wrong, provide the feedback in a tactful and kind way designed to help them in future relationships. Do not make them feel bad about this one, Postl says.
Accept that it will hurt—and that’s OK
“Breaking up is, by nature, painful, and it’s best to acknowledge that and prepare for it,” Dr. Durvasula says. After all, that’s why ghosting happens—to avoid these painful feelings. But a breakup hurts either way, and doing it in a clear, straightforward way can minimize the hurt overall. “Know that the other person will feel hurt, but it’s not your responsibility to fix that,” she adds.
Block out some time to care for yourself afterward, as well. Even if you’re the one who initiated the breakup, it can still be painful.
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The one time you should ghost someone
There is one specific time when you should absolutely ghost someone: that’s if you’re ending a relationship worried that your partner will react in a violent or abusive way, Dr. Durvasula says. Put your safety first—in the case of abuse, ghosting is often the best and safest option.
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- Claire Postl, licensed professional clinical counselor and certified sex therapist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center
- Ramani Durvasula, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, author, and expert in toxic relationships
- YouGov: "Daily Question January 23, 2019 - Ghosting"