You just slip out the back, Jack; Make a new plan, Stan; Don’t need to be coy, Roy…
If Paul Simon were writing his song today, he might add a 51st way to leave a lover—ghosting. This term hit my radar in June when I read that celebrity Charlize Theron had “ghosted” Sean Penn. I was intrigued and after quickly ruling out murder as plausible definition, I turned to Urban Dictionary for assistance. Ghosting, as defined by urbandictionary.com, is “the act of suddenly ceasing all communication with someone the subject is dating, but no longer wishes to date”. Phone calls, emails, and texts are no longer returned and digital traces of the relationship are wiped clean without an explanation.
What do relationship researchers have to say about this? Relationship scientists not only study how people meet and maintain their relationships but also how relationships end.1 More recently, participants were asked to list their breakup strategies in the 21st century.2 The strategies were classified into seven categories:
Ways People End Relationships
- positive tone/self-blame (“It’s not you, it’s me”)
- open confrontation (“I want to break up”)
- cost escalation (picking an argument as an excuse for the breakup)
- distant/mediated communication (Facebook relationship status = single)
- de-escalation (waiting until after his birthday for the breakup)
- manipulation (hinting of desire to breakup to people the partner knows)
Although the term ghosting was not identified by study participants, the concept falls in the category of distant/mediated communication. Fortunately, this type of breakup strategy was listed infrequently. In terms of reactions to the breakup, the distant/mediated communication strategy was associated with the lowest perceived likelihood of remaining friends. Avoidance strategies were associated with the most recalled anger in reaction to the breakup; open confrontation was associated with the least. Finally, the positive tone strategy was associated with the highest perceived likelihood of getting back together and remaining friends.
Why Do People Ghost Their Partners?
According to the limited research on breakup strategies, there are several plausible answers. First, you might just be the type of person that wants to avoid emotional closeness and relational issues. Certain people, namely those with an avoidant attachment personality (i.e., fear closeness), are more likely to use the avoidant breakup strategies.2 Second, a person might feel less compassionate love (i.e., care and empathy) towards her or his soon to be ex-partner.3 Finally, there might be some situational factors that shape a person’s choice to ghost a partner. In one study, when participants were asked to imagine the reasons for the breakup and rate the likelihood of responses in those situations, avoidance was more common if the partner had committed infidelity than if the breakup was due to partners moving away or having different values.4
In sum, there are many good reasons to break up with someone and many strategies to do so. If your goal is to remain friends after the breakup, you might want to think twice before leaving like a ghos’, Carlos.
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1Baxter, L.A. (1982). Strategies for ending relationships: Two studies. The Western Journal of Speech Communication, 46, 223–241.
2Collins, T. J., & Gillath, O. (2012). Attachment, breakup strategies, and associated outcomes: The effects of security enhancement on the selection of breakup strategies. Journal of Research in Personality, 46, 210-222.
3Sprecher, S., Zimmerman, C., & Fehr, B. (2014). The influence of compassionate love on strategies used to end a relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 697-705.
4Sprecher, S., Zimmerman, C., & Abrahams, E. M. (2015). Choosing compassionate strategies to end a relationship. Social Psychology, 41, 66-75.
Dr. Harasymchuk’s research relates to excitement, fun, and novelty, including the factors that promote and hinder these qualities in long-term relationships. She also focuses on boredom in relationships and how it impacts relationship happiness. She is an assistant professor at Carleton University, Canada, and teaches courses on research methods, social psychology, and close relationships.