The psychology of ghosting: Why people disappear from relationships

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Ghosting is a communication style we’ve probably all encountered at some point.

Leaving someone hanging feels cruel when you’re on the receiving end. But maybe you’ve also been guilty of ignoring someone too.

So why do people ghost?

One study decided to dig deeper into that very question, looking at the reasons behind ghosting, and its potential effects on our mental health.

Key takeaways from the ghosting study

  • The most common reason for ghosting was a lack of interest in pursuing a relationship with that person
  • 45% of people ghosted to remove themselves from a “toxic,” “unpleasant” or “unhealthy” situation
  • Emotional protection was cited as one reason to ghost, with participants afraid of stirring up their own emotional or sexual feelings
  • Being the victim of ghosting brings feelings of rejection and confusion and can lead to mistrust, paranoia, and low self-esteem
  • Half of those who have ghosted someone said they felt remorse or guilt over their actions

The modern phenomenon of ghosting

Cutting people off isn’t something new. But the reality is that it’s more prevalent than ever.

Ghosting happens when someone simply stops all online communication.

It can be sudden, come without explanation, and feel pretty brutal.

A 2018 study found that it’s happened to at least 25% of us.

The increasing prevalence of ghosting led one team of researchers to try to get to the bottom of why we ghost in the first place.

The qualitative study titled “Disappearing in the Age of Hypervisibility: Definition, Context, and Perceived Psychological Consequences of Social Media Ghosting,” was led by Professor of psychology at Wesleyan University, Royette Tavernier Dubar.

It set out to discover both the motives and psychological consequences of the act of ghosting.

The research

Dubar and her team were specifically interested in the impact of thwarted relationships during the young adult ages of 18 to 29.

So for the study, they brought together 76 college students, which were recruited via social media and on-campus flyers.

Of those, 70% were female, and the remainder were male. The mean average age was just under 20 years old.

They split participants up into 20 focus groups, each made up of anywhere from two to five students.

In sessions lasting on average 48 minutes each, they were asked to reflect on their ghosting experiences.

And this is what they revealed…

The findings: Why do we ghost?

So perhaps the real million-dollar question is:

What is the real reason for ghosting?

Well for starters, there wasn’t only one reason, there were several clear motives that emerged from the research.

But the biggest reason that the students gave for ghosting was simply losing interest.

As one participant confessed: “Sometimes the conversation just gets boring.”

Some students even believed it was kinder to ghost than directly reject someone.

Despite it being one of the least-reported reasons, some participants felt ghosting could be a better way of protecting someone’s feelings than honesty.

Summing it up, one 18-year-old explained it could be: “a little bit politer way to reject someone than to directly say, ‘I do not want to chat with you.’”

Perhaps some wishful thinking cognitive bias is at play here, as another recent study actually concluded that “being ghosted may hurt worse than direct rejection”.

In reality, ghosting is about what is best for the ghostee and not the ghosted.

Ghosting as a means of self-preservation

Along with a lack of interest, self-preservation also factors in as a potential motivation for ghosting.

Ghosting was used by some if they thought having to meet face-to-face would stir up feelings (either emotional or sexual). Feelings they were not ready to or did not want to pursue.  

So in this sense, the choice to ghost was a way of trying to avoid a relationship from escalating or going any deeper.

Self-preservation also includes safety and well-being though. 

As many as 45% of students said they’d opted to ghost someone as a way of getting out of a “toxic”, “unhealthy” or “unpleasant” situation.

For example, if you are chatting to a guy online who suddenly starts to behave in a creepy way.

You could argue that in this situation, you don’t owe the other person an explanation if you ghost in order to avoid inappropriate behavior.

But what about the other scenarios?

If you decide you’re not interested or have a change of heart. Do they not deserve an explanation?

Why don’t we just tell the other person how we feel?

We ghost when we don’t know what to say

Fundamentally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it comes down to us trying to dodge awkward situations.

Or as one 21-year-old female participant in the study rather succinctly put it:

“It’s easier to hide behind the screen and not face the music”.

The students highlighted how they felt like they lacked the communication skills to talk openly and honestly either in person or through tech.

So ghosting becomes an attempt to avoid challenging conversations that feel uncomfortable to have.

It seems when you don’t have the words, saying nothing at all is a more appealing option.

A lack of confidence or potential social anxiety were also given as reasons for avoiding an honest conversation.

If you’ve ever wondered what ghosting says about a person, perhaps the main takeaway is poor communication skills.

Summing it up, one 19-year-old female explained:

“I’m not good at communicating with people in person, so I definitely cannot do it through typing or anything like that.”

Ghosting after sex is used as a signal things aren’t going any further

Perhaps the irony of ghosting is that by saying nothing, we often aim to speak volumes.

When we’re on the receiving end, we probably wonder ‘Why would someone ghost you for no reason’?!

But the truth is that there is always a reason.

And in the modern hook-up culture, it seems ghosting can be a way to send a clear message.

According to the research ghosting after sex is a way to clearly call time on whatever the encounter was.

The suggestion is that the ghoster has already got what they were after, and so there is nothing more to say.


The fear is that continuing the conversation might give the wrong idea — aka offer false hope that they are looking for emotional intimacy when they’re not.

Ghosting can do both short and long-term psychological damage

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of ghosting, you probably don’t need this research to tell you that it can dent your mental health and well-being.

The study confirmed that ghosting creates short and long-term psychological damage.

The potential negative short-term impact of being ghosted included:

  • An overwhelming feeling of rejection
  • Confusion
  • Feelings of low self-worth and low self-esteem

As the saying goes, once bitten, twice shy.

The reality is that for some people, being ghosted can have lingering effects that grow over time.

The potential negative long-term impact of being ghosted included:

  • Feelings of mistrust that developed over time
  • Internalized rejection
  • Self-blame
  • Potentially self-sabotaging future relationships

The not knowing is what kills us

“But why?!”

It’s a thought that echoes through many of our minds when we are abruptly cut off without explanation or warning.

One of the conclusions of the researchers was that part of the damage to our mental health comes from the lack of clarity.

Ghosting can be damaging because we are left scratching our heads over the reasons behind it.

And the study found that this questioning can foster an element of paranoia as we try to grasp at answers.

One 19-year-old female participant described her own experience of being ghosted.

And it’s one I suspect many people will relate to:

“It becomes a lot of self-doubt at first. I think a lot of personal insecurity comes out when you get ghosted because you begin to question because you don’t have answers. So you question yourself, you question what you know about yourself and you blame yourself. You say that it’s because ‘I’m not pretty enough,” or ‘I’m not smart enough,’ or ‘I said the wrong thing,’ or ‘I did the wrong thing,’ or whatever. And at least for me, that’s really harmful and can really affect my mood for a long period of time.”

This is supported by another recent study that discovered our need for closure can indeed magnify the emotional effect of ghosting.

But wait a minute, can being ghosted build character?

Perhaps a silver lining in the cloud is that the study participants noted that ghosting isn’t always all bad.

As unpleasant as it can be, there is still a potential for personal growth.

In fact, as many as just over half of the students in the study agreed that ghosting did offer them opportunities for reflection and to build greater resilience.

Interestingly, through their actions, the ghosters on the other hand were perceived as standing in the way of their own potential growth.

The students highlighted how taking the easy way out cuts the ghoster off from accountability.

For example, one 20-year-old male taking part suggested:

 “It can [become] a habit. And it becomes part of your behavior and that’s how you think you should end a relationship with someone. … I feel like a lot of people are serial ghosters, like that’s the only way they know how to deal with people.”

And the lead researcher on the study Dunbar agrees that the failure to confront our own communication shortcomings is doing us no favors:

“Ghosting may prevent someone from engaging in healthy conflict resolution. Thus, over time, serial ghosters may be ‘stunted’ in their ability to develop intimacy in future relationships,”.

Do Ghosters feel guilty?

Ok, so we’ve looked at how it feels to be ghosted, but what about the perpetrators?

​​How does the ghoster feel after ghosting someone?

According to the research, it’s a pretty even split.

About half of the students who took part revealed that they have experienced some feelings of guilt or remorse after ghosting someone.

But the other half confessed to feeling no emotions at all about it.

Rather unsurprisingly, the researchers concluded that it feels far better to be the one ghosting that the one who is ghosted:

“Overall, the perceived psychological consequences of ghosting were generally positive for the ghoster and negative for the ghostee. Notably, most participants had experienced ghosting both as ghoster and ghostee.”

So what’s interesting there is that:

  • Ghosting is an easy way out for the one doing it.
  • Ghosting feels bad for the one receiving it.
  • Yet most people have been on both sides of the fence.

We might wonder what type of person ghosts. But the findings suggested there isn’t one specific “ghosting type”.

Instead, as Dunbar says, it seems to be less about your personality and more about the situation:

“It appears that the decision to ghost was mainly due to the specific circumstances of the relationship, rather than a specific personality characteristic. Interestingly, several participants reported having the experience of being both a perpetrator and a victim of ghosting,”

If we want to ditch ghosting, we should improve our communication skills

One area for potential future research that emerged from the study was around fear of intimacy as a reason for ghosting.

Perhaps we use ghosting as a way of protecting ourselves against the threat that confronting our emotions can feel like.

Many of the explanations and excuses offered up for participating in ghosting by the students do suggest some difficulty with expressing ourselves in healthy ways. 

Having to confront the way we feel, and be honest with ourselves as well as others takes emotional maturity.

This is why ghosting potentially highlights our societal failings in that area.

Skills like conflict resolution, developing our emotional intelligence, boosting our confidence, and generally improving communication skills might offer a practical solution.

Can a relationship coach help you too?

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