Ah, dating in the 21st century.
If disappointing websites, drug-resistant STIs and troublingly short attention spans weren’t enough to make us lose our minds (and possibly our libidos), we’re also now stuck grappling with another modern phenomenon: ghosting.
The New York Times defines ghosting as “ending a romantic relationship by cutting off all contact and ignoring the former partner’s attempts to reach out.” This has happened to me three times in the past year.
Granted, I don’t believe it necessarily needs to be a “relationship” in the traditional sense in order for one party to be ghosted. It could (or should) also include entanglements that involved meeting up or hanging out or hooking up with someone two or more times before the other person vanished without a trace. I haven’t been in a formal relationship in almost four years, but I frequently meet guys that I find worthy of getting to know better (both with and without my clothes on) and the exchanges that result from those interactions are meaningful to me in one way or another ― at least meaningful enough to want some closure if or when they end.
After investing some time and energy and possibly saliva or other body fluids in another person, it’s disconcerting when they suddenly disappear. Of course, if you’ve only been on one or two “dates” (however you want to define that term) with someone and at the end of your time together neither of you reaches out to the other, that’s not ghosting. That’s just life. And I understand that dating is hard and that finding someone who ticks ― or if we’re really lucky, tickles ― all of our boxes is virtually impossible but I still (perhaps naively) cling to the (perhaps now radical and totally outdated) idea that it’s a mature move to give someone a heads up if you’re going to stop talking or seeing or fucking them.
So, in light of my experiences over the past year, here are a few humble and totally unscientific thoughts on ghosting:
1. Just don’t do it. Be an adult and send a text that reads something like: “Hey. Glad we hung out but I’m just not feeling a connection. Stay awesome” or whatever other generic and possibly hurtful or patronizing or maybe just uncomfortable (but at least emotionally clear) and instructive language you want to use. I’ll respect you for it even if it bums me out and that way neither of us has to dread randomly running into the other at Whole Foods or at that bar with all those vintage pinball machines that I stupidly and regretfully introduced you to because I thought you were cool (or at least we won’t experience more than the usual basic human level of dread that accompanies those kinds of surprise social interactions).
2. If you do it, do not ― as two of the three guys who originally ghosted me have done ― start texting me again three to four weeks later and pretend like nothing happened as if you unexpectedly slipped into a coma and then suddenly woke up again or went on a hot air balloon trip around the world and didn’t have access to your phone and just forgot to tell me. The only thing worse than ghosting is re-materializing a month later ― and I mean worse for both of us because at that point, I’ve had all that time to think about how bad your taste in music actually is or question a million other questionable things you told me in our short time together and now that I’ve thought about it, I don’t want to see you again.
3. Being ghosted made me realize I’ve probably ghosted guys in the past (and now that I’m publishing this piece, I’m guessing one or two or 74 of you will come forward and say as much). If I ghosted you, I’m sorry. I was an asshole. I was immature. And I was probably scared of hurting your feelings or just didn’t know how to verbalize why I didn’t want to see you again. Chances are it was something innocuous and had nothing to do with your character. And I’m sure if you asked any of the guys who ghosted me, they’d say exactly the same things. But that doesn’t excuse it and going forward I’m vowing taking my own advice, no matter how awkward it might feel.
4. Human beings are finicky creatures and, what’s more, as our cultural ideas about and understanding of what dating and relationships and couples and families look like continues to shift and destabilize, linking up and breaking apart is probably only going to get trickier. These days many of us aren’t looking to get married or have kids (or at least aren’t looking to get married and have kids the way our parents or our grandparents did) and so, the way we think about how we enter and exit relationships is mutating and not always in ideal ways, which means we have to be even more mindful of our (in)actions.
5. Communicating is hard ― and getting harder. As much as I think the guys who ghosted me suck, I get it. And in many ways, aside from reminding me to treat others the way I’d like to be treated, being ghosted also has made me rethink who and what I’m looking for in a partner or a fuck buddy ― or just someone I want to go and have a donut with. What’s more, it’s made me rethink how I communicate with other human beings in general and reevaluate what the best way is to express myself and my needs and my desires to friends and family and colleagues, too. Email and texts make it easy to send a message but we have to stop to think about the quality of those messages. And are those forms of communication appropriate for what we need to say? What is the value of face to face contact and experiencing the world offline? What are the best ways to grow a relationship and how often do I rely on technology as a crutch to deal with ― or get out of ― something? These are all questions that have been pacing the hallways in my head lately and it feels good (or at least productive) to think about them.
6. Ghosting aside, there’s something kind of nice about dating as a 38-year-old because I know what I want better than I did when I was 25 or even 32 and I put up with less shit. And if, in the end, someone doesn’t text me back, the truth is I’m totally happy to spend Friday night watching “The Great British Bakeoff” all by myself (maybe, if I’m being totally honest, even happier).