"There's a term for when a guy stops calling," my hairdresser tells me as he curls my tresses into a Joan Crawford wave à la Mildred Pierce. "It's called dating."
Has dating really devolved into something so cynical? And why is it the man who's always pulling the disappearing act? I don't know whether it was the noir-inspired hair, or the fact that I read too many Agatha Christie books as a kid, but suddenly, I became obsessed with figuring out the key to this mystery. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I had to look no further than my own friends, and my own dating dalliances for cases that would give me some insight into what I call The Casper Effect.
There are varying degrees of Casperian behavior, I've found. Exhibit A: My friend Jane (all names have been changed) calling to tell me that the guy she'd gone home with the night before had vanished. "I wake up in the morning and he's gone! No note, nothing. Who does that?" As many of us know from experience, lots of people to that -- I'm guessing lots of women, too. It's not okay, but it's not unusual -- though this didn't seem like the appropriate moment to tell Jane that.
Then there's the more shameless Casper. Searching the annals of my dating past, I realized that I've been ghosted a couple times by men. When I was 17, I dated a hot skateboarder who would literally say, "I'll be ghost," before he took off. (It was the 90s, and I think this was a line from a rap song.) After dating me for about three or four months and getting close to my mom, this boyfriend told me he had to "visit family in Virginia." After waiting about 2 months without a word, I realized he was never coming back. He never did. I found out later that he'd moved in with his ex-girlfriend somewhere down south.
And then there's the adult Casper, who's playing a more serious game.
"I thought I'd found the perfect guy; what the hell happened?" My friend Angie called me crying after her boyfriend disappeared off the face of the earth, or the island of Manhattan, anyway.
Angie's news was unsettling. I'd been out with her and this guy several times, and each time he was kind, generous, doting to my friend and gracious to me. I'm loathe to use the word "perfect" when it comes to romantic escapades, but by all accounts, it had seemed like Angie had met her match. She'd met and liked his friends. She hadn't slept with him immediately so she could make sure there was more to the relationship than sex - but the sex, when they had it, was good. After several weeks of dating, they'd made the decision to be exclusive. He'd even met her parents. Angie thought she'd done everything you're supposed to do when you meet a guy you can see yourself being with for a while.
Which is why too many unreturned calls and emails later, Angie couldn't believe that he had vanished into thin air. There had been a couple of red flags, but the excuses he gave seemed to make "perfect" sense: In the two months they'd been dating, she never went to his place -- he said his condo in a trendy Manhattan neighborhood was being renovated. They hadn't friended each other on Facebook -- he wanted to build intimacy through real life interactions. He didn't want to talk about his family -- he said a rough childhood left him estranged from them, and besides, they lived across the country.
And then nothing. She was not only distraught; she was pissed. Not only was it like he had ceased to exist, his disappearing act negated all of the time they spent together -- time she now felt was a complete waste.
I didn't know what to tell her. It's one thing to be "ghosted" by a hot skateboarder when you're 17, but now ? It's 2012. We're grown women, with degrees we've earned, homes we own, and jobs we love. We're smart, funny, attractive, and have learned some things about life and the world. We're worth it. So why are men still pulling this, and why are women left playing detective?
Here are a few of my theories:
1. More than ever, men are feeling disenfranchised and insecure. Even if they're employed and earning as much or more than they used to (although many of them aren't), the masculine ideal of the "breadwinner" has taken a severe hit since the 1970s, and even more so in the past ten years, as Hanna Rosin pointed out in her wildly popular Atlantic article "The End of Men." Because he has less of a chance than ever of fulfilling that ideal, he's . more likely to look to a woman for validation. If he feels that her world doesn't revolve around him, that she's not going to offer the level of validation he's seeking, he'll disappear and find someone who does.
2. Similarly, women need men less than ever. Women no longer require a man to have a child or support that child, which if I were a man, I think would leave me feeling a little irrelevant. I think I'd probably feel like the chances of a woman keeping me around were pretty slim - unless I was amazing in every way. And having to be totally amazing all the time is a lot of pressure for anyone. Maybe men can't take that heat. And maybe the fact that you don't need him also makes it easier for him to justify not telling you he's leaving. You'll hardly notice -- you'll be fine, he tells himself.
3. Technology makes it easy for poor communicators to bail. We all have a friend who's learned her relationship is over because her ex suddenly changed his relationship status on Facebook. Sadly, these types of stories don't shock me any more. And while there are plenty of wonderfully expressive men out there, many of us assume that men are worse communicators than women. In fact, a recent study indicated that women can "out talk men" because women have more dexterity with words. Whether or not this is true, our hi-tech culture makes life easier on bad communicators. Men who ghost have obvious issues with communication skills, but we also live in a world where it's easy to defriend our partners, not respond to a text message, send a call to voicemail or ignore an admirer on an online dating site. Unfortunately, these advances in technology have an impact on how we socialize, and I'm assuming make it easier for a man to justify an unexplained exit. Therefore, savvy women will make an effort to date through offline networks - through mutual friends, work, or community effort. This will help secure an investment, because a man won't be able to unexpectedly disappear without ruffling feathers of your shared social group.
4. You're so worried about not choosing the wrong guy that you scare off the right guy. Maybe you're protecting yourself after experiencing heartbreak; maybe you're eager to "know where things stand" in the tenuous early stages of a relationship. Either way, explains Evan Marc Katz, dating coach and author of Why He Disappeared, you could undermining the relationship before it even gets started. "You become vigilant. You look for the signs. You ask him probing questions on the first date... You ask where your relationship is going after the third date. Men are not heartbreakers looking for our next victim. It is never our goal to hurt you at any point in time. Like you, we're not sure what will make us happy. All we know is that we'll know it when we see it. But you've gotta give us the chance to reveal ourselves over time." In other words, don't jump the gun with a man -- not just because as Katz points out, it's a turn off for him, but because you deserve to put yourself first. You should be asking yourself those questions: is this guy really someone I can see myself with? Has he proven himself to me?
5. He's just a jerk. If none of the above resonates with your situation, you could always chalk the guy's ghosting habit up to his being a bad person. In that case, exorcise his number, email, and fake name from your phone. Try not to waste another thought on his immature antics, and focus instead on finding yourself a flesh and bone man who knows you're worth sticking around for.