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What Am I, A Ghost ?

A number of years ago Paul Simon, the song-writer and entertainer, famously sang "there must be 50 ways to leave your lover." Well we can officially add one more to this list - Ghosting someone you are in a romantic relationship with.

As it relates to dating and intimate relationships ghosting is defined in Wikipedia as "the practice of ending all communication and contact with another person without any apparent warning or justification and subsequently ignoring any attempts to reach out or communication made by said person." Figuratively and literally you become a ghost, cut off from any and all communication with and by the person you have been in a relationship with.

The term became a part of our modern lexicon in the early 2000's. Since then it has became more prevalent with the rise of dating apps and use of social media. Not only can you "swipe left" when you decide not to date someone but also you can now "swipe left" to stop dating them.

Psychologists and social scientists have recently noticed a dramatic increase in the practice of ghosting. As I discussed in a related post, a recent survey of 500 millennials showed that 57% had broken up with someone via a text message and 69% say they have been on the receiving end of such a message before. Indeed this survey also showed that once someone has been ghosted they, in turn, are more likely to employ ghosting as a means of ending a subsequent relationship.

This trend is not limited to millennials. The actress, Chalize Theron, broke off her engagement to Sean Penn, the actor, during their joint appearance at the Cannes Film Festival by ghosting him (i.e. I will take red carpet photographs with you but please don't call or text me). By doing so she earned herself the "Black Belt in Ghosting" according to New York Magazine. Matt Damon did likewise with his former girlfriend who didn't figure out that she was a "former" for several weeks. Finally, the aging songster/entertainer Phil Collins found out from his on-again-off-again wife, Orianne Collins, that they were through via a text message. What was different about this? They were both in the house together when she sent the text to him.

So, who and why do people ghost their romantic partners or acquaintances? Primarily, people ghost in a relationship as a way of avoiding that difficult and often emotionally draining conversation with your friend or lover. For sure it is a “kiss off” more cruel than the slightly less harsh letdown “it's not you, it’s me."

A recent survey from BuzzFeed indicated that 81% of people who ghosted did so because they "weren't into" the person they ghosted, 64% said the person they ghosted did something they disliked, and 25% stated they were angry with the person. Of course, the person on the receiving end of the ghosting has no idea why this happened. Instead they are left with the feeling "it must be me - it's not you."

The reality is that the practice of ghosting says more about the person who is doing the ghosting. People who are reluctant to get very close to anyone else due to trust and dependency issues often use indirect methods of ending relationships such as ghosting.

Mental health experts have also found that the more that individuals subscribe to what are called destiny beliefs (which means they think people are either meant for each other or they're not) the more they tend to think that ghosting is an acceptable way of ending a relationship. In their world "it just was not meant to be" so I don’t need to take responsibility for ending it and I don’t have to explain to the other person how destiny works.

Indeed, this was the very excuse used by a self-centered boyfriend who had received a life-saving kidney transplant from his girlfriend. Instead of being eternally grateful he cheated on her and then later dumped her over the telephone saying: "If we are meant for each other, God will bring us back together in the end." Apparently he was absent from school the day they taught the lessons on “empathy” and “gratitude."

However, the worst example of ghosting involved the case of Brie Duval, a 25 year old Australian beauty living in Canada with her partner of four years. In August of last year Brie experienced a tragic and life threatening accident when she fell headfirst from an elevated parking structure. She was rushed to the hospital by helicopter and placed on life support with a traumatic brain injury and multiple broken bones. Her doctors told her parents that she only had a 10% chance of survival. Despite the grim prognosis the parents refused to discontinue life support treatments. Brie remained in a coma for four weeks.

Miraculously, Brie emerged from her coma and showed signs of improvement. When she was strong enough to speak and her memory had returned sufficiently the doctors gave Brie her cell phone back. Her first thought was to call her boyfriend of four years who, strangely, had not been to visit her. Brie's recovery became all the more difficult and painful when she opened the phone and found a message from another woman telling her that Brie's boyfriend had moved in with her and instructing Brie not to contact him. The boyfriend had also blocked her from any telephonic contact.

Brie continued to be hospitalized for five more months and has substantially recovered from the trauma of the fall. As to the trauma of the ghosting Brie observed "“I have not heard from him since I have been in hospital, he’s completely and utterly left me in the dust. So I don’t even have closure as to why this happened." Indeed Brie suggested that the letdown of the relationship was almost as painful as the traumatic brain injury.

Some mental health professionals consider ghosting to be a passive aggressive form emotional abuse and emotional cruelty. Indeed a movement is afoot in the Philippines to make ghosting an emotional offense with penalties including mandatory community service.

Certainly attempts to criminalize such behavior in the United States would face definitional problems (what kind of relationship is protected; how long must the people be in a relationship; what about fault?) as well as other societal objections. However, it is obvious that ghosting will be under further scrutiny from psychiatrists, psychologists, other mental health professionals and, of course, the mavens of social media.


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