What is Ghosting and Why Do People Do It?

Have you been ghosted by a romantic partner? Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, explains why people resort to ghosting when things aren't working out, and how to cope with being ghosted if it happens to you.

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #26
The Quick And Dirty

While it doesn't feel good when a romantic partner ghosts you, it's an incredibly common experience. If you've been ghosted, know that it often has more to do with them, not you. 

Ghosting is an unfortunately common experience for people who are dating. What is ghosting? Ghosting refers to the experience of one person cutting off contact with a partner and ignoring their partner’s attempts to reach out, typically through texting or other forms of social media. Although ghosting itself may not be new (can anyone remember sitting by the phone waiting for someone special to call?), it seems to be a more common phenomenon in today’s dating world. Studies have found that 80% of single millennials have reported being ghosted by a romantic partner.

In today’s dating world, it seems like it's inevitable that you will be ghosted by someone.

Being ghosted can be a disappointing and confusing experience. You’re often left asking yourself: did I misinterpret the date? Was I the only one who had a good time? Did I do something to offend the other person? Did something come up at work and they’re busy so haven’t had time to respond to me? If you’ve had any of these thoughts or feelings, you are not alone! People report feeling sad, angry, ashamed, and lower self-esteem after being ghosted by a partner.

Why do people ghost?

Studies have found that although 75% of people have reported ghosting a romantic partner in the past, 74% of people agree that it is an inappropriate way to break up with someone. So, if people know ghosting makes others feel bad, and it’s not a particularly appropriate way to break up with someone, why do they do it? Researchers have found a number of explanations for ghosting instead of having an outright discussion with a partner about breaking up:

  1. They feel like they need to protect themselves. For example, they may fear some sort of retaliation from their partner, whether that is a physical or emotional response they didn’t want to deal with. Alternatively, people reported that they felt they weren’t ready for a relationship and potential emotional investment or hurt associated with that relationship. So, instead of getting too deep into a relationship, they left abruptly before they could catch serious feelings.

  2. They didn’t want to directly reject someone and hurt their feelings. Breaking up with someone isn’t a fun experience. There are a lot of really negative feelings when you know you are about to hurt someone, and coping with those feelings isn’t easy. Some people opt out because they aren’t prepared to face the consequences of breaking up with a partner. 

  3. They felt they didn’t owe their partner an explanation. For instance, some people may not feel obligated to officially “end” a relationship after only one date. If you aren’t exclusively dating, going through a breakup script may seem unnecessary to that person. People report ghosting most often when ending a short-term relationship, though it can happen for people in longer-term relationships, too.

  4. The qualities of the app they use lead them to forget to break up. It may seem silly, but a person may have too many conversations going on to remember to reply and kindly reject a person when it isn’t working out.

  5. Ghosting is convenient. Because, if we are being honest, breaking up with someone and having that conversation is an inconvenience. 

Ghosting is common and doesn’t make people feel good, but sometimes people have valid reasons to do it, such as feeling physically or emotionally unsafe to break up or trying to avoid really negative break-up feelings. 

What to do if you’ve been ghosted

In today’s dating world, it seems like it is inevitable that you will be ghosted by someone, and only a lucky 15% of people report never being ghosted or the ghoster. So, if it happens to you, how should you handle it?

Research on coping with breakups can help us understand how to approach coping with being ghosted. There are two types of coping techniques when it comes to breakups: goal-focused techniques and emotion-focused techniques.

Goal-focused techniques are those where you try to understand why the other person ghosted you by seeking out more information. You may try to reach out to the person who ghosted you, or maybe reach out to a mutual friend to understand why they decided to leave without talking to you first. When it comes to ghosting, this is likely not going to be a very fruitful path toward coping with the situation. If they couldn’t do you the courtesy of breaking up with you, they likely won’t respond to your questions after the fact.

Alternatively, emotion-focused coping strategies are things we do to try and manage the feelings we have after being ghosted. This looks different for everyone, but most of us go to self-care activities that help us feel better. This may be going to a fun workout class or the gym, binge-watching your favorite TV show, hanging out with your friends, or taking a long bath with a nice book. The goal with emotion-focused coping is to reduce the bad emotions and try to move on without dwelling on the what-ifs.

It can be really easy to hold on to feelings of being embarrassed, angry, confused, or disappointed when someone ghosts us, and it is totally valid to feel those things. Dwelling on what could have led someone to ghost you won’t help you easily move past those feelings. One thing is for sure, very few of the reasons people give for ghosting someone actually have to do with you and who you are. Often, people ghost in response to feeling the need to reduce the discomfort they might experience in going through a formal breakup experience. If there’s one thing to take away from this episode, it’s that when it comes to ghosting, it’s not you, it’s them.

Citations +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD

Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt is the host of the Relationship Doctor podcast. She is a relationship scientist whose research examines how we communicate in our romantic relationships. Specifically, she studies how we communicate in our romantic relationships as we age and our relationships mature, particularly during conflicts that are difficult to resolve. She believes that we can all benefit from evidence-based recommendations about how to have healthy and happy relationships.

Do you have a question for the Relationship Doctor podcast? You can leave a voice message for the show by calling (813) 397-8165 or send an email to relationshipdoctor@quickanddirtytips.com. You might hear your question on a future episode.