British Columbia

To ghost or not ghost: Why we leave modern lovers in heartbreak purgatory

We've all ghosted, and been ghosted by others. So why do we disappear when it hurts so much?

Communicating is easier than ever — so why end a relationship by disappearing into the digital ether?

"Ghosting," if you're lucky enough to never have heard of it, refers to the practice of ending a relationship — often a romantic one — by suddenly ending all communication, without explanation. (The Better Business Bureau)

Liz Marie Wolferstan was ghosted two weeks ago by a man she met on public transit.

The pair went on a date that she felt went really well.

"I was definitely getting the vibes," said Wolferstan, 35, who lives in Vancouver.

They met later in the week for lunch and exchanged a few texts over the following days, making plans to meet up again for dinner and drinks.

But the day of the planned date, the man texted saying he had a work emergency and wouldn't be able to make it.

She texted that night saying not to worry, then again the next day to ask if everything turned out okay.

"I just had this sinking feeling that I wasn't going to hear from him again, but my friends were like no, that's crazy," she said.

Her friends were wrong. Wolferstan never heard from him again.

"Ghosting," if you're lucky enough to never have heard of it, refers to the practice of ending a relationship — often a romantic one — by suddenly ending all communication, without explanation.

Marina Adshade, a professor of economics at the University of British Columbia, said people ghost because they know breakups are painful, and want to minimize the pain inflicted when you tell someone you don't want to see them again.

They argue to themselves that the vanishing act is a kinder alternative to a break-up conversation, which may explain why many people ghost, even when they've been hurt by a ghoster in the past.

'The worst thing in the world'

One such person, who has ghosted and been ghosted, is Nick Williams of Vancouver.

Williams, 26, said he'd prefer not to break someone's heart to their face.

"In the times I've been ghosted, I think that it's the worst thing in the world, versus when I'm ghosting someone, sometimes I feel like I'm doing them a favour by not being mean," he said.

I just had this sinking feeling that I wasn't going to hear from him again, but my friends were like no, that's crazy

While those who ghost may tell themselves they're letting someone off easy, Adshade said the spurned party will often expend added emotional energy trying to understand what went wrong — a kind of heartbreak purgatory that Wolferstan understands well.

"Hearing absolutely nothing, my thinking was like, Oh my god, did I totally misinterpret every single thing that had happened?" she said.

"When you do that, you leave the person with no option than for their mind to just go to all the terrible places."

Ghostbusting

Adshade theorized there might be an inverse relationship between the probability of being ghosted, and the likelihood you'll bump into that person again.

Williams said people seem less likely to ghost if they worry "word is going to get out."

"If it's a complete stranger outside your social circles, outside your usual realm in the city, people don't feel like there are going to be any repercussions," he said.

Adshade said abandonment is nothing new — people have been walking away from relationships since long before dating apps.

But the dawn of online dating appears to have increased the number of dates that people go on, and a higher number of personal connections increases the likelihood that a romantic prospect may simply disappear.

Oh my god, did I totally misinterpret every single thing that had happened?

Dashed hopes

Social media can also provide reams of information about a romantic interest, creating a false sense of intimacy.

On photo sharing apps like Instagram, snaps of a date's penchant for late night tacos, their cat named Wiggles, and their recent trip to South America may all be on display.  

Adshade said knowing these details might make some people feel they know more about an individual than they actually do, and invest emotionally in a relationship "before they've even begun." That can exacerbate the pain of being ghosted.

Seeing a person's life as it plays out on Instagram can create a false sense of intimacy between people who barely know each other. (CBC)

"You might think you know everything about them because you've seen their Instagram, you see what they write on Twitter," she said.

"You start investing in a future with them, and then it's taken away — and it's taken away from you by a person that you really ostensibly know nothing about."

Wolferstan said that while she was initially disappointed to be ghosted by the man she met on a bus, she's now sufficiently over it.

"We're all our own worst critics and have negative thoughts about ourselves, and when somebody does that it feels like it can be a confirmation of those things when probably, it has more to do with them than it does with you," she said.

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.

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