'Ghosting:' The 21st-Century Dating Problem Everyone Talks About, But No One Knows How To Deal With

10/30/2014 03:47 pm ET | Updated Oct 31, 2014

girl texting

Illustrations by Jason St. Angelo

After three months of dating, 23-year-old Michael was optimistic about his relationship with Linda*. They were together often, and he'd even met her parents. One night at dinner, the "where is this going?" conversation came up. Michael and Linda mutually agreed that they wanted to move forward in the relationship. He dropped her off at home, kissed her goodnight ... and never heard from her again.

After his attempts to reach her went unanswered, Michael put on his cute-guy hat and delivered Linda's favorite cupcakes to her office -- only to find out his name had been removed from the guest list at the gate.

Ghosted.

The term "ghosting" (sometimes known as the "slow fade") refers to the anecdotally pervasive act where one dater ends a relationship by simply disappearing. The ghost does not give an explanation of any sort, leaving the ghosted wondering where he or she went wrong.

This phenomenon isn't new, of course -- prehistoric daters sat by their curly-corded phones waiting for their ghosts to call, and assumed that call must have come when he or she was out of the house. (The Discovery Channel has yet to confirm the anecdote, but current 20-somethings speculate as much.)

But in an era of Tinder, OKCupid, JSwipe and Hinge, matchmaking often happens by swiping right and left, making potential daters literally disposable. The ease of app and online dating has allowed ghosting to take new form. Chelsea, a 25-year-old Manhattanite who has been both a ghost and a ghostee says the fast-paced, onto-the-next mentality of online dating makes the need for an "it's not me, it's you," conversation irrelevant. "Even after one or two dates they are still just a profile to you, not a person. I don't feel the normal empathy I would for someone I met organically," she said.

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Logan Levkoff, sexologist and expert on "Married At First Sight," explained that online dating and apps take the humanity out of the process a bit, which could make users prone to being ghosted. "[Because] all it takes is a swipe," she said. "The quantity [of how many people experience ghosting] is more because it's so easy to do and it requires very little human engagement in order to do it."

In fact, in a poll conducted by YouGov and The Huffington Post, respondents ages 18-29 were more likely to admit they've experienced ghosting on either end than any other age group.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Dating is, in some ways, a metaphor for Halloween. ('Tis the season, go with me here.) Trick-or-treaters go from house to house, tasting all different types of "candy" (aka men or women) until they're completely exhausted. They go home, put on comfier clothes, consume literal candy until they can't even breathe declaring to their friends, "I'M NEVER DOING THIS AGAIN." That is, until a cute guy or gal ... er, Hershey bar ... messages them.

In a 2012 study, researchers identified seven types of breakup strategies. Trick-or-treaters polled considered confrontation the best way to breakup, while they classified ghosting (avoiding/withdrawing from contact with your partner) the least ideal method to end a relationship. The YouGov/Huffington Post Poll confirmed these sentiments. Only 13 percent of 1,000 adults polled consider breaking up electronically very appropriate or somewhat appropriate.

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But while most don't condone ghosting, that doesn't seem to influence whether they'll do it to someone else.

Chelsea admits that's the case for her and a bunch of her friends. "I'm a total hypocrite in that respect. I'll ghost someone without a second thought but when it happens to me I'm the first to run to my girlfriends in disbelief saying, 'The least he could do is let me down easy,'" she said, adding, "It's probably karma."

So, Is Ghosting Morally Wrong?

New York-based location scout Victoria Carter protested the slow-fade in a 2013 blog post on XOJane. "When you disappear into the ether without any indication why, all I can do is come up with a million and a half reasons why you’re not into me," she wrote. Ghost victims have certainly been there and done that too, wondering... He could be out of the country without cellphone service, maybe she really is busy at work, Miranda's date actually died in one SATC episode... it could happen.

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To members of Ghosters Anonymous, Carter continued, "Until you close the door and close it completely, I can hold on to that tiny unrealistic shred of hope that you DO still want to hang out, and that maybe you’ll call (text, who am I kidding, nobody calls anymore and I hate it) and it’ll all be great."

But Greg Behrendt, author of the best-selling book turned movie, He's Just Not That Into You, firmly believes that silence speaks louder than any words could. "What I find weird is that there has to be an explanation after two dates. If someone doesn’t call you after a couple days, that should be enough to say, he's just not that... oh God, I don’t want to quote myself," he said (quoting himself anyway).

It's simple, and there's no need to contemplate the many "reasons" a date is unresponsive, he explained. "When someone's not texting you and you see they've read your text, then you should really get it," said Behrendt, who recently co-authored a book with his wife, appropriately called, It's Just A Fucking Date.

Defending ghost tendencies in an Oct. 2013 post on Slate, writer Amanda Hess echoed that sentiment:

The idea that a direct message is necessary to cement a relationship’s end is yet another obfuscation. When it comes to modern digital relationships, the rhythm of the exchange tells us as much as its literal content, and it doesn’t take any specialized skill to read between the lines. If you’re initiating all the texts in the relationship, the recipient just isn’t that into you; if you’re not getting any texts back, the recipient isn’t into you at all.

Yes, lack of response from someone you're digging feels crappy. But is it morally wrong? Behrendt doesn't think so -- and he can't understand why humans can't apply the same understanding about changed feelings to relationship as they do to virtually everything else.

"Feelings change about a lot of things... about a band, about a food, about certain things you thought were fun that you don’t think are fun anymore. But it becomes so profound in relationships like, 'that's never happened in the history of relationships and why would he just walk away?' Well haven’t you just walked away from a million different things in your life because you weren’t into it? It's the universe taking care of you saying, '"I'm sorry but that particular thing is over, go this way,'" he said.

But... What About R-E-S-P-E-C-T?

On the flip side, Levkoff feels offering an explanation -- even if it's a short one -- is just part of being a standup woman or man. "It's nice to be able to say to someone, 'Listen I've enjoyed getting to know you, but I don't think this is going to move forward in a romantic way,'" she said.

The likelihood is that you're not going to feel great if a relationship ends, be it one minute or a year. So a statement like that might hurt feelings, "but it means they respect you if they care enough to be upfront with what's going on," she said.

Plus, without a conversation, you run the risk of a ghost coming back to life. "When nothing else is going on those people tend to show up again, and then you're like what happened for all that other time?," Levkoff said.

Writing about the subject on The Date Report in May, reporter Sara Ashley O'Brien explained that ghosting just prolongs the time it takes to move on:

A simple acknowledgment of an appreciation for the time we did spend together, “Hey, I had a fun few dates with you but I don’t think we’re right for each other beyond that,” would provide so much more closure. It’s always a blow, but you can get over it in a few days. When the ghost disappears, you spend the first few days wondering when you’re going to get a text back and then weeks trying to figure out what went wrong.

At the end of the day, Levkoff explained, it's each ghost for himself. "We have to take ownership and hold ourselves accountable," she said.

It's not them, it's you?

In the days post-ghosting, the unanswered often retrace the ghost's steps, looking for possible clues as to why he or she disappeared. "I don't get it, we had such a great time on our date," or "He promised he would call! There were no signs!" are frequent quotes that friends of ghosting victims hear.

But Behrendt believes that's never the case -- there are always signs. "Part of it is the way you set the relationship up, and what you allow to happen so that somebody is going to be able to escape," he said. That's the big problem with #kidsthesedays and relationships via text or Tinder or Hinge. If the majority of your "relationship" takes place on one of these platforms, there's a surefire sign that the receiver of your iMessages might disappear. Rule of thumb, Behrendt warns: "If it's not in person, it's not real."

But given that not-in-person early courtships aren't going anywhere -- what's a woman or man who wants to avoid being ghosted to do?

Ghosts don't necessarily have personality patterns, and so, the onus is on you to be clear and upfront. Echoing Behrendt's take, Levkoff said, "If we don't acknowledge what we want right from the start, if the beginning of your relationship is about texting back and forth and the conversation is fairly benign and short, it lends itself to easy in, easy out she said."

That's one place where dating sites and apps might actually lend themselves, she explained. It's very easy to start a Tinder conversation with, "Hey, so why are you on here?" for example.

Levkoff advises throwing the idea that that type of conversation is "off-limits" out the window. "I don't believe there are any rules when it comes to love and sex and relationships. I think if there’s something you want, you should be upfront about it. I don't think game playing makes sense at all, and if someone doesn't respond well to directness, then they weren't the right person anyway," she said.

And if your potentials keep disappearing, take a step back and look in the mirror (unless of course, you are the ghost, in which case, owning a mirror would be quite silly). Ask yourself these questions: "Is there something with the people you're meeting? What do they have in common? What are you looking for that's causing the same outcome over and over again?," Levkoff said.

Behrendt adds a few more warning signs to watch out for: "Look at where he wanted to meet you, look at what his plans were, look at how difficult he was to get in touch with."

And if you're unhappy with the answers to those prompts, rest easy knowing that even the most notorious ghosts will change their stripes when the right person comes along. Right, Casper?

*Name has been changed

The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted Oct. 23-26 among 1,000 U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here.

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