Ending a relationship by disappearing without explanation, known as “ghosting”, seems to be a distinct form of social rejection – and psychologists are discovering why it is so painful
20 April 2022
IT WAS 2015 when Jennice Vilhauer’s clients started telling her ghost stories. The Los Angeles-based psychotherapist had more than 10 years of experience helping people with their depression, anxiety and relationship issues – but suddenly, clients began telling her about a new problem, one that left them extremely distressed.
They were victims of ghosting, where one person ends all communication with another, disappearing like a phantom. Messages are ignored and just like that, the person you had a connection with – typically a romantic partner, but sometimes a friend or colleague – chooses to disengage with no explanation. But when Vilhauer searched for more information, she found little research on this phenomenon. So she started publishing her own observations online and was soon inundated with emails from people who had been ghosted. “There’s been an enormous explosion of interest in this because it’s happening so frequently,” she says.
Which begs the question, what is uniquely painful about ghosting? After all, it nearly always hurts when a relationship ends. Is being ghosted any more distressing in the information age than, say, in the Wild West, when your lover hopped on their horse and left you in a trail of dust without so much as a forwarding address? We are now beginning to find out, as well as building a picture of why people ghost, how quirks of the brain can make it feel worse than it ought to and how, counter-intuitively, ghosting may be getting less painful.
Back in 2015, ghosting hurt so badly because it was completely unexpected, says Vilhauer – it wasn’t something people mentally prepared for when entering a …