Love at last sight: The illegitimate, illicit, narcissistic and irrational crime of ghosting

·15 min read
The term is used to describe someone abruptly cutting off contact without giving that person any warning (The Independent/Getty)
The term is used to describe someone abruptly cutting off contact without giving that person any warning (The Independent/Getty)

Tara* happened to be coming out of a particularly sticky divorce at the time. Her ex had not only run off with another woman but robbed her blind to boot. So you could say she was already in a vulnerable state. In fact, it’s a wonder she hadn’t given up on relationships altogether. But she was giving a conference talk in Bristol and was introduced to Will, “a guy who seemed charming”. Sometimes, let’s face it, the charmers are the worst.

Anyway, Tara was invited to a group pub meal and Will happened to be sitting opposite her. At the end of the evening, he gave her his card and told her if she was ever in Bristol again perhaps they could meet for a drink? Why not? she thought. What harm could it do? In due course they met again, went for coffee, got on well, turned out to share a lot of the same interests, liked a lot of the same books. So far so good. Maybe the old relationship horizon was not so bleak after all.

During Tara’s next phone conversation with Will, she mentioned going away for a month, and he said he’d like to come and take her out for dinner before she left. He asked her to find a local restaurant, but when she got back to him with a recommendation, he texted her back to say that he’d looked it up and it was just a restaurant, whereas he’d been hoping for somewhere that also had rooms.

“Ah. O–kay…” she texted back, asking if this was because it was about a 90-mile return drive and he wanted to have a drink with dinner, or if he had other “expectations”? He replied: “Expectations.” She said she wasn’t quite ready (what with one thing and another), but she was looking forward to his company. And… nothing. That was that. Tara never heard from Will again. The big freeze, total nada. That was her punishment for not being in the mood for a major next step. Tara says: “It would have been nice if he’d said, look, this is not for me, but he just disappeared.”

No crime had been committed. There was no assault on her person. She was not going to report Will to the police – for what exactly? Failure to call? Not taking her calls? He had done absolutely nothing, that was the point. And yet: Tara felt sufficiently betrayed and stomped on to remember the whole sequence in agonising detail. He had become a ghost – she had been “ghosted”. This, on the face of it, would appear to be the least mysterious of any case I’ve come across: a guy on the prowl who can’t cope with deferral and goes off in a huff (of complete silence). Tara’s succinct and forthright analysis was this: “Unable to f*** me he went ahead and f***** me anyway.”

Vicky told me about a comparably clearcut experience. She was engaged to be married. One day she comes home unexpectedly and catches him in the act – no, not having it off with her best friend, but – as she learns from a phone call from the bank manager – siphoning off all the money from their joint account and in fact, running it into debt. She calls him to demand an explanation. “Don’t worry, I’ll pay you back!” he says. Need I say, she never hears from him again. He does a runner. It is, in essence, a romance scam. The only people knocking on her door after that were debt collectors, in pursuit of her fugitive ex-fiancé. But it’s not always about lust or lucre (or some combination thereof). It’s more generally an exercise in pure power.

One thing I should stress: it’s not always men who are to blame. As per the all-male band, The Feeling: “I love it when you call, but you never call at all woo-oo. He loves it when you call…” And, speaking personally, I know the feeling. The sudden descent into degree zero. Whatever happened to Jette Opstrup Petersen, for example? Where is she? I will come back to her later (which is part of the problem – I will always come back to her).

When I started asking around, it turned out nearly everyone has a story of being ghosted or ghosting. We are looking at an epidemic – perhaps pandemic – of ghosting, a pervasive phenomenon which is made up of singular but nonetheless brutal acts of dissociation, one-sided conscious uncoupling, unrequited ice. Jaimie Seaton, a writer now based in Dartmouth on the American east coast, says she has been ghosted multiple times and reckons it’s getting worse.

Being ghosted is like that: the brain can get obsessed, fixated on an absence, filling the void with unverifiable hypotheses, a lost soul floating through space for all eternity

She has been ghosted by her best friend, a woman, who could be described as a compulsive ghoster. “I really loved her, as a friend,” says Jaimie. Amy and Jamie bonded when they were living in Singapore. Then Amy had to move back to the US when her family fell on hard times. She ghosted Jaimie out of pure shame. We know this because years later, out of the blue, she got in touch to apologise. The two old friends were reunited, both physically and online. They carried on just where they left on, talking together every day on the phone. “Never ghost me again!” says Jaimie. “Never!” says Amy. It was about a year later that she ghosted Jaimie all over again, for reasons unknown. So Jaimie got two barrels. She was double-ghosted. “I brought it up in therapy just last week,” she says.

Her most recent experience was to do with a guy in Dartmouth. And here is a fact – she didn’t even like him that much. He was not the love of her life, not by a long chalk. But they were seeing one another. She didn’t even notice that he had ghosted her to begin with. But when realisation eventually dawned she got in touch to say, “Are you ghosting me?” Answer came there none. QED. “It’s like you get up in the middle of the meal and walk out with no explanation.” It wasn’t a big deal, but then it became a big deal. She wasn’t hurt, but then she was hurt. It was, as she says, “meaningless”, which is why it became so meaningful.

Which leads me to the fundamental paradox of ghosting: it inflates the standing of the ghoster in the eyes of the ghosted. The ghoster, by virtue of ceasing communication, thereby increases the mental bandwidth, the amount of attention, that they are receiving from the ghosted. Thus the ghost installs itself in the mind and begins its corrosive campaign of haunting. And so the relationship only begins in earnest, mentally speaking, at the very point at which it ends.

The rise of ghosting is symmetrical with the rise of social media. We are having to cope with TMI and TLI (too little information) simultaneously. The more communication, the more that ghosting becomes significant. If we didn’t talk to one another to begin with (and that is a kind of solution), then no one could ghost anybody. But in the world as we know it, in the realm of compulsive hyper-communication, the act of ghosting becomes supremely powerful.

Ghosting inflates the standing of the ghoster in the eyes of the ghosted (Getty)
Ghosting inflates the standing of the ghoster in the eyes of the ghosted (Getty)

The specific semantics of “ghosting” – to mean abruptly severing all communication with someone – dates only from the early years of this century. It’s a post-millennium vocabulary. But the word itself has power too. It’s not just a neutral registration of a sad state of affairs. Rather the existence of the word has now so virally infiltrated the collective consciousness as to reinforce or even instigate the deed itself. “Ghosting” makes us ghost, or at least provides encouragement or a form of legitimisation. “Shall I keep talking to X or shall I ghost him?” It’s only one word: it’s easy to do because you do nothing. But sometimes omission is more ruthless than commission. It may not kill, but it can induce a kind of madness, or cognitive dysfunction.

There is a story about a starship floating through space in a galaxy far far away. Bored, the crew feed the computer a paradox to mull over. What is the sound of one hand clapping exactly? By the end of the story they are all dead, because the computer has given up on life support to devote all its energies to the solution of an unanswerable question. Being ghosted is like that – the brain can get obsessed, fixated on an absence, filling the void with unverifiable hypotheses, a lost soul floating through space for all eternity. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. Human nature no less.

Sarah Calvert is a psychosexual and relationship therapist, based in London. She treats the “ghosted”, the casualties of ghosting. She has become, whether she likes it or not, a ghost-buster. The existentialists used to argue that we rely on other people to confirm our own sense of existence. But what happens when someone declines to offer that confirmation? When you’re treated as if you don’t exist any more? You are haunted, yes, but at the same time you feel as if you are the ghost.

Calvert’s task is to exorcise the ghost and restore normal service (in the terms of the allegory I offered above) to get the starship flying again. “People who have been ghosted question themselves because they can’t get answers,” Calvert explains. “They ask themselves what they might have done rather than cast doubt on the other person. Our minds scramble to understand. We crave certainty, and that’s what you can’t have. It’s easy to tie yourself up in knots.”

Calvert calls it “ruminating”: endlessly repeating those questions: did I love too much? Not enough? Did I say the wrong thing? What did I (or didn’t I) do? They know; you don’t know. You keep replaying the movie in your head but it always ends the same way. It’s the definition of futility and yet this is what you find yourself doing. Like a hamster going round and round in your head.

Professional ghosting

Two out of three applicants have been ghosted during a job search

•It’s bad for reputation: 94% said it left them with a negative perception of the company

•Mental health impact: 17% were left depressed, and 86% said it made them feel down

• 43% of ghosted applicants said it took weeks, or even months, to recover from being ignored

•Younger people are disproportionately affected: more than three quarters (77.6%) of 18-24 years old say they’ve been ghosted compared with just over a third of those aged 65+ (37.3%)

•Ghosting affects more men than women with almost three quarters of men (72%) being ghosted compared with 58% of women

•It’s more likely to happen to Londoners: three-quarters (74%) of potential staff have been ignored in the capital compared to counterparts in the least ghosted cities – Glasgow (56%), Edinburgh (56%) and Cardiff (57%)

All of which explains why Tribepad has started the End Ghosting Campaign.

Calvert thinks that the increase in technology has made relationships more impersonal. It’s easier to discard someone without a second thought. So ghosting has become more prevalent and its effects harsher. “It seems to be everywhere now.” The ghoster ultimately takes control of the ghosted person’s life. Calvert’s mission is to enable the ghosted to claw back some measure of control and recover a sense of self-worth. She suggests that the real question one should be asking is none of the above but only this: do I really want to have a relationship with someone who doesn’t speak to me? Someone who is devoid of empathy?

Weirdly enough, the answer to that is, sometimes, yes. Take my old friend Dan, for example (and it is not way off the mark to call him “Desperate Dan”). He didn’t quite join the Foreign Legion, but he really has gone off to live in the wilderness, all alone, where he hunts anything that moves – less, I can’t help thinking, as a form of self-sufficiency than of surrogate revenge. He is an American who went to college over here, fell in love, and then ran. Now it’s just him and the bears and the wolves. But you could say that he is accompanied wherever he goes by the ghost of “the Don”. He also calls her “the love of my life” (or “LOML”), but I prefer the Don because it suggests some kind of mafioso capo, even if it derives from her stint at Oxford.

She was married with kids. But he only loved her all the more. He loved the kids too. She talked of ditching her husband and teaming up with Dan. But they were both worried about what would happen to the kids. Maybe it was perfect just the way things were? They had what would turn out to be a final meeting in a classy café in a city he would prefer to forget where they looked into each other’s eyes a lot. After that he never heard from her again. Or rather, one email which told him nothing.

He wrote to her often, but it was like a soliloquy in Hamlet. He had so many questions and precisely zero answers. “It was love at last sight,” as he neatly puts it. He loved her before but now he really really loved her, when it had become pointless and self-defeating. Even now, years later, when he is living in another part of the world in the woods halfway up a mountain and is the most off-the-grid guy I know (he won’t, for example, on a point of principle, come within 20 yards of a Starbucks), he still half-expects her to turn up and knock on his door one fine day. Crazy or what?

She stopped writing. Rejection and abandonment didn’t begin with Apple or Facebook (Getty/iStock)
She stopped writing. Rejection and abandonment didn’t begin with Apple or Facebook (Getty/iStock)

“It’s like the five stages of grief,” he says. ‘I’m still stuck on denial.” He allows he has had moments of anger and depression, possibly even bargaining: acceptance never. He also has the biggest collection of guns I’ve ever come across. I just mention this. It doesn’t automatically follow ghosting.

Maybe it’s just another form of rejection, but to me getting ghosted is more like being excommunicated. You’re part of this great religion called love and then you’re banished, excluded, virtually annihilated. Which is what brings me to Jette Opstrup Petersen. This is a historic act of ghosting that preceded the very term ghosting, back in the day when you wrote letters, you didn’t text. A text was a weighty tome, probably sacred, like an illuminated manuscript, not a piffling bunch of pixels on a screen. It was definitely not digital. Rejection and abandonment didn’t begin with Apple or Facebook.

I remember her mother was a singer at the Copenhagen Opera. We met in Tours, in France (a romantic city beloved of Balzac, studded with châteaux). Somewhere in the deep background there was an American guy. I just don’t know how deep. She taught me a few phrases in Danish, and I still remember them, especially “Jeg elsker dig” (I love you). She would write to me regularly from somewhere in Denmark. If I still had her letters I would probably go to her address. But in an incendiary act of reasserting control, I burned them all. She had of course stopped writing by then. But this is the thing: she had been ill. Quite seriously ill (something to do with kidney malfunction). Had she died? I wrote and inquired, of course. No answer, of course. Maybe she ran off with the American guy, I don’t know. But it’s as if somebody has died anyway. Love at last sight – yes, I know how that feels.

Every now and then you have to cease communication. I get it. I want to be alone and all that. There are reasons. It’s reasonable. But if it’s reasonable it isn’t ghosting. Ghosting is by definition illegitimate, illicit, narcissistic, irrational, out of order, absurd, verging on a crime. Perhaps worse than a crime. I reckon we need the End Ghosting Campaign that has come out of professional recruitment to extend into relationships generally.

I’ve heard it said that ghosting is like murder. I suspect the ghosted would sometimes prefer to be murdered: it’s cleaner that way, it really does end the relationship instead of simply transposing it to the twilight zone. But you could more realistically say ghosting is a form of partial, highly selective suicide, as if that person is now dead, but to you only, only you. One of the exquisite torments of contemporary ghosting is that (as one ghosted told me): “I can still see her online, saying to others exactly the same things she used to say to me.”

* Some of the names have been changed

** No one was ghosted in the preparation of this article

Andy Martin is the author of ‘Surf, Sweat and Tears: the Epic Life and Mysterious Death of Edward George William Omar Deerhurst’ (OR Books)

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