Better than ghosting. A respectful alternative to parting ways online

How to avoid being an emotional spook.

How to avoid being an emotional spook

(Credit: Getty Images)

I'll grant you, you can ghost a party with reasonable certainty that no one person is going to have their worth soundly shaken by you vaporizing. Not so with a romantic connection. Here's a practical example: someone invites you for coffee – after a few sips and quips they excuse themselves to go to the loo and never come back. Ever. Aside from wondering if a pack of timber wolves has carried them off while you watch their latte grow cold, the disappearing act leaves one a little rattled - and with reason. Rejection hurts, quite literally. Studies have shown that social slights activate the same neural pathways in the brain as physical pain.

No one decent would ever willingly do this to another person, right? Yet our online behaviour is rife with unapologetic evaporations, especially in the sphere of digital romance. Ghosting, now normalized by its sheer prevalence, is a pretty popular way to end a fledgling relationship. Nora Crotty at Elle  ran the stats and it turns out both men and women ghost in equal numbers, 50/50 in fact. Maybe we just aren't ready to communicate mostly by smartphone.

Radio silence doesn't just hurt, it boggles our brains. Psychologist and professor at Emory University's School of Medicine, Dr. Jennice Vilhauer explains that "staying connected to others is so important to our survival that our brain has evolved to have a social monitoring system (SMS) that monitors the environment for cues so that we know how to respond in social situations". We rely on those social cues to regulate our behavior according to whatever environment we're in. "Ghosting", says Vilhauer, "deprives you of these usual cues and can create a sense of emotional dysregulation where you feel out of control."   

You're going to have to disappoint people in life (most people we date will not become life partners – one of the more harrowing and exhausting parts of the process). Still, how you disappoint the people you cross paths is within your control. To some extent, you can mitigate "emotional dysregulation". If you've just been chatting in a dating app, I personally don't think a "this isn't really working for me" text is worthwhile. Frankly, it's a bit dramatic (and arrogant — who knows if it's "really working" for them either). People are often chatting with more than one person in any case and conversations can lose steam. But once you've met face to face, and shared a drink, the decent move is to broadcast your level of disinterest — especially if they seem keen for another date. Note: if you've met more than once or have been intimate, a face-to-face goodbye or phone chat is the preferred exit strategy.   

Surely we can do better with one another than relying on the conveniently prevalent practice of fading into the ether. In the hopes of elevating human interaction, please find a very practical tip to follow below: 

Send. A. Text.

That's it. One message explaining your intention to step out of a dating pattern with that person who isn't putting the wind in your sails so they aren't left obsessing on emotional stand by (or wondering if apex predators have ruined their chances at romance with you). As with most things in life, this situation is immediately improved with communication. No need to rack your brain about the minutiae of the text either. One digital dater even told Mic.com she's implemented a firm no ghosting policy with a boilerplate break up text.

(Source: mic.com)

Customize to suit your needs. Samantha Burns (aka The Millennial Love Expert) does you one better. Or rather 10 better. She gives us 10 easy phrases that are kinder than ghosting and work without being overly harsh or dramatic. Pick your pret-a-porter goodbye and use it when you have no intention of moving forward romantically.

It was great meeting you, but I didn't feel any chemistry.

I had a blast but I got more of a friend vibe.

We had a fun date, but I just did not feel a romantic connection.

You seem wonderful, but I didn't feel a spark between us.

I don't see this going in the direction of a serious relationship and that's what I'm looking for.

I really appreciate the opportunity to get to know you, but I should be honest that I don't see a future together.

I respect you so I want to be straightforward that despite having a nice time, I don't see this going anywhere.

You're a catch, unfortunately just not my catch.

You're awesome and deserve someone great, I just don't think I'm that guy/girl.

Thanks for making the time to get together. I wish there was something more between us, but I only had platonic feelings.

Why that one text matters

First and foremost, it's the right thing to do.

Even if it feels momentous and causes anxiety – in fact, because it feels momentous and causes anxiety - bite the bullet and free a person from emotional limbo. To steal a line from the Nicolas Cage movie The Weather Man, "the harder thing to do and the right thing to do are usually the same thing." Pro-tip: say it to yourself in the voice of Michael Caine, who delivers the line, to bolster your new resolve to be more solid than a ghost.   

Distant but relevant second, it'll make your life easier.

Should you ever bump into that person at the market you'll be able to offer a hello knowing that your status as decent human is intact. Just because ghosting is a norm doesn't mean it has to be your norm.   

An important caveat here is if you just aren't sure how you feel yet, make it clear. Wanting to keep testing the waters, or being interested in pursuing something more casual with someone is totally fine. Just express that so the person knows where they stand and isn't thrown for a loop if/when you want to part ways.

I'm almost obsessively honest about my intentions going into a dating situation. I once told someone 10 minutes into a first date that I really wasn't feeling a connection but I'd love to share a friendly meal - it went over better than you'd think. But I'm not going to completely absolve myself here. I've certainly ghosted dates – and at times, thankfully been called on it. It made me feel like a categorical sh*t and challenged my self-esteem (inner voice: you're better than this, dude). Apologies were made.

Sometimes we become disenchanted and assume others aren't that invested and so we make lazy, selfish, "normalized" choices. Ironically, one reason we phase out instead of formally bowing out is because we don't want to be accountable for having a conversation that's likely to hurt feelings. To be sure, it's also linked to shame and conflict-avoidance. I've been ghosted on plenty too, something many people say justifies their future ghosting choices. Cycle of afterlife.

Here I ask you to prick up your ears: you don't want to leave someone feeling like you're a ghastly turd or worse, like they are. You aren't a timber wolf or a phantom (if you are, contact me so I can write a post about you). That said, please enjoy the above "do as I say, not as I've occasionally and sheepishly done" post to help you part ways with decency and decorum.

Lastly, if I did disappear after some hangouts, "you're awesome and deserve someone great, I just don't think I'm that guy/girl."   

Marc Beaulieu is a Montreal writer, producer, performer, professional host and mental health advocate whose one true love is weird news.