Why Ghosting Is Not Always a Form of ‘Emotional Abuse’
The extent to which ghosting is justified might depend on the dynamic between the ghoster and the ghostee prior to the act of ghosting.
In the modern dating world, ghosting is often a one-word horror story. People know it to be that emotionally scarring act of disappearing on someone — especially a potential romantic interest — without so much as an explanation. Is it ethical, or is it just an instrument of emotional abuse? Or, could ghosting be a covert tactic of manipulation? These questions have plagued cultural discourse for a long time now. And, recently, they were revived when a Philippine lawmaker introduced a bill seeking to literally outlaw ghosting.
Arnolfo Teves Jr., who believes ghosting should be punishable, argued that “it can be likened to a form of emotional cruelty and should be punished as an emotional offense because of the trauma it causes to the ‘ghosted’ party,” leading them to “develop feelings of rejection and neglect.” Teves isn’t entirely wrong — at least, not in articulating the idea that ghosting can negatively impact the mental health of the ghostee. It can cause them to feel worthless and unlovable — perhaps, even causing long-term damage to their self-esteem. However, deeming it emotional abuse, as a blanket statement — or equating it with “the silent treatment” — might be an overreach.
The criticism of ghosting is often based entirely on the experiences of ghostees — the “jilted” lover in the popular imagination. Yes, it is unkind to abruptly stop speaking to someone; maybe it really is better to “rip off the band-aid” instead of condemning someone to a cycle of waiting and longing. But forgetting that different circumstances present different challenges is a fatal flaw in the arguments of people who want to crucify ghosters. In a world of non-homogenous dating experiences, perspectives like the one Teves has put forth, miss out on the nuance of boundaries and consent. Rarely, if ever, do they seek to understand whether the ghoster was simply acting in pursuance of self-preservation, rather than attempting to abuse the ghostee.
This has gendered implications too. “So many people are quick to write ghosting off as being cowardly behavior, but it can also be that the decision to ghost is informed by larger gender norms,” Lea Rose Emery wrote in an article on Bustle. “Women often find it more difficult to be confrontational than men — not because we’re cowards, but because, basically, society tells us to keep our mouth shut and not to upset anyone.” Indeed, as a survey from 2019 found, women were overwhelmingly more likely to ghost than men.
For decades, if not centuries, the idea of submitting to the desire of one’s partner has formed an integral part of sexual liaisons between men and women. “Women have definitely been socialized to be pleasing and deferential to men… This has resulted in them having a much harder time asking for what they want sexually as well as even just saying ‘no’ when they mean no. So, it definitely stands to reason that some wom[e]n will be drawn to take the easy way out and ghost the dates that they no longer want to see. If you have trouble telling people what they don’t want to hear then it’s going to be pretty tough to tell them you no longer want to date them!” explains Aimee Hartstein, a psychotherapist.
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But it’s not just the impulse to please people — which is actually a very common human instinct — that prompts people to ghost. A study on monogamous, heterosexual relationships found that many women refrain from being vocal about their own sexual needs, too, because they’re worried it’ll hurt their partner’s fragile egos. Telling a man, “I don’t think it’ll work out between us,” or “I don’t have room for you in my life at the moment,” rather than simply ghosting them, is fraught with the same risk — of hurting someone’s ego.
One may argue, though, that the motivation to protect the ego of a person one is dating may stem from a place of love and care; since one doesn’t seemingly care about the feelings of someone they’ve decided to ghost after just a couple of dates, why should they be afforded the same defense? The answer to that is simple: survival instinct. The internet is replete with instances of men reacting to rejection with aggression. “[T]he response is [almost] always a form of violence…Sometimes this violence is outwardly expressed through physical dominance or aggression,” Britt East, author of A Gay Man’s Guide to Life, had said.
Mental harassment, too, can follow rejection. “During our date, he was insistent on drinking to excess and I eventually just told him I wasn’t interested in pursuing anything romantic with him. He flipped out and started telling me that he had never wanted anything romantic or even sexual (after sending me more than 20 nudes before we even met). Then, he continued to ask me out even when I told him I didn’t want to see him again. He comments on all my Insta Stories and will text me every two or three days still to this day,” Melissa C., then 26, had told The Cosmopolitan three years ago of a man she had met through an online dating portal.
Granted, not all men might respond to rejection with aggression. But very often, it’s difficult to know how one is likely to react, after having met them just a handful of times. Naturally, then, it seems more prudent to opt for ghosting instead.
Arguably, people’s gripe with ghosting might also stem from a sense of entitlement. “Ghosting, like friend-zoning, is a verb used by someone who wants contact, applied as an accusation to the object of their interest,” wrote Reese Witherly in An Injustice! “A mountain of think pieces have been written criticizing the entitlement behind anyone whining about being friend-zoned. They say, ‘you aren’t entitled to me because we talked, you aren’t entitled to me because you were nice to me, you aren’t entitled to closure to your satisfaction about why I don’t want to date you.’ But these same writers will villainize anyone who has supposedly ‘ghosted’ anybody.” It is disconcerting that the exact arguments can be used to defend ghosting, too; yet, as a society, we’re largely unwilling to accept that.
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Complaining about being ghosted, at times, can simply be a blatant refusal to take silence as a clear hint of disinterest. Hounding one for a response, then becomes a violation of the person’s boundaries. As a former “ghoster,” Andy, argued, “If you text someone once, twice, and they don’t respond — I mean, that is a response. That speaks very loudly. You just don’t want to hear it.”
The extent to which ghosting is justified, though, might also depend on the dynamic between the two people prior to the act of ghosting. If two people were in constant communication for months, met several times, and even made plans for the recent future, then it’s almost a no-brainer that abruptly disappearing without an explanation, would be not only unethical but also arguably cruel.
But if one has just been on just a couple of dates with an individual they met at a bar — or, say, five dates over a period of nine months — does distancing oneself from them truly warrant a full-blown conversation that may or may not end well? “It’s almost polite if the relationship was casual enough… There is something humiliating and patronizingin a dude I’ve gone out with twice ‘breaking up’ with me,” Aubrey, who has been a ghoster and a ghostee, both, in the past, told Repeller in 2018.
Basically, the spectrum of individuals one might cross paths with in the modern dating world is rather large. So, there’s no one who can say with absolute authority whether or not ghosting is ethical; it’s a gray area, at the end of the day. As such, before conclusively terming dating trends as “mental health abuse” — or worse, making them punishable — it’s important to also lace our our own expectations from potential matches with a more layered understanding of boundaries and consent.
This isn’t to say that the feelings of abandonment, angst, disrespect, or shame that one might experience upon being ghosted are invalid. But as Witherly had noted, “[A] valid feeling is not the same as a valid cause for public outcry.”
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.