The Psychology Behind Ghosting

The mysterious disappearing act newly popularized as "ghosting" surfaces as a frequent topic in psychotherapy. Ghosted individuals wonder how and why someone would suddenly disappear following a series of great dates or months of a great relationship.
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The mysterious disappearing act newly popularized as "ghosting" surfaces as a frequent topic in psychotherapy. Ghosted individuals wonder how and why someone would suddenly disappear following a series of great dates or months of a great relationship. Therapy sessions can begin with a client's longing to understand the motivation of an elusive ghost:

"He texted five times a day and said we should take a trip to New York!"

"She said she wanted me to meet her family next week!"

"He introduced me to his friends - why bother bringing me in only to cut me out without a word!?"

The term may be relatively new, but ghosting is a long-standing exit strategy that exemplifies the concept of passive aggression. Sex and the City devoted an an entire episode to the concept of ghosting before the term had been coined and before the rise of social media gave the practice such visceral impact. Miranda advised her girlfriends to use her tried and true method for dealing with disappearing suitors -- when a guy vanished without a proper goodbye, she simply told herself that he died. She felt badly that his life was cut short in its prime, and moved on. Next! Miranda understood that if someone couldn't bother to let her down easy, he was not worthy of her emotional energy.

Ghosting is also a common strategy for ending therapy. It is much easier to ghost a therapist than it is to ghost a suitor; therapists are obligated to follow up once or twice, but anything more can constitute a violation of the client's privacy. It is ethically prudent for therapists to request that clients sign a "termination agreement" when the clinical relationship begins. Without such an agreement, therapists can unknowingly continue certain ethical responsibilities to clients long after the therapist has been ghosted. My agreement explains:

"Clients who have not had a session in over 30 days (or within a mutually agreed upon time) will be considered inactive...It is always preferable to have a final session before ending therapy in order to review and evaluate the sessions and assess overall progress. Please be fully assured that anyone wishing to return to therapy can do so at any point in the future."

I emphasize the importance of goodbyes and let clients know that I will respect their decision to end. I make a deliberate effort to understand the urge to end without saying goodbye, and I encourage clients to schedule a final session to evaluate our work before they terminate. I am only just now learning about the term "ghosting" and feel pleased that there is such a suitable term for this phenomenon. Interestingly, when clients open up about how much it hurts to be ghosted, they can often recall several stories in which they have ghosted others. Many times, they don't realize that they have ghosted others until I ask. Even more relevant, such experiences often relate to primary formative relationships. These earlier experiences are usually more meaningful and worthy of exploration than trying to over-analyze the motivations of a random someone met on Tinder who seemed great until he or she became a ghost.

Our society tends to shy away from endings. They are awkward and uncomfortable and it is becoming easier and easier to avoid them all together. The same client who speaks of how much it hurts to be ghosted will describe skipping a close colleague's going away party, or begging an employer to skip planning their own departure celebration so that they can move to a new job without saying a proper goodbye to co-workers that have been a huge part of their lives for years. The dynamic of ghosting is long-standing, and technology has amplified the inclination to ghost. We have less practice with direct communication. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram make it easier to share personal details with many. Meanwhile, we spend less time than ever practicing direct communication in our most intimate relationships.

Each ending is an excellent opportunity for emotional growth. The passive aggressive act of ghosting represents a missed emotional opportunity. Concluding a relationship with the respect it deserves demonstrates the ability to own and articulate an independent decision. The next time you have the urge to ghost someone, consider sharing this simple and direct sentence with them instead:

"I'm not developing the feelings I should be developing, so I don't think we should continue hanging out."

If you don't feel ready to say it, do yourself and the object of your rejection a favor and send it in a text!

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