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The Psychology Behind Ghosting in a Romantic Relationship

The Psychology Behind Ghosting in a Romantic Relationship “Ghosting,” or the unilateral disappearing from a commitment or relationship, has become normalized in our society as a result of technology, online dating apps, and social media that make it easy to disappear from a person’s life. Most of us probably think of ghosting as synonymous with romantic relationships. However, in recent years, ghosting has become more widespread with no-shows at family reunions or holidays, arbitrarily leaving a job, or abandoning friendships. Yet, ghosting typically has the most negative impact on the “ghostee” (or, the person being ghosted) when the ghosting happens within the context of a romantic relationship.

Current research suggests that approximately 30% of adults in the United States have experienced ghosting at one time or another within the last 10 years, with most ghosting occurring from online dating apps. Ghosting statistics nearly double to 58.5% with those displaying Dark Triad personality traits, specifically those with vulnerable narcissism (or, “covert” narcissism). Vulnerable narcissism is more formally identified as having traits of both narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.

The reasons that a person ghosts another can be complex. When in the context of casual online dating and online dating apps, ghosting is common after a few brief conversations where one person decides the other does not pique or maintain their interest enough to continue talking. Or, after meeting in person, they may decide that there is no connection and they may choose to stop further communication. While this behavior may appear socially inept, in dating circles it is often acceptable if there was no longer-term commitment or the two people barely knew each other.

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Then, there is ghosting that happens within a long-term commitment that can leave the “ghostee” confused, depressed, or even traumatized. These feelings of betrayal can be magnified if the person doing the ghosting immediately moves on to another relationship.

Here are four underlying reasons for ghosting a long-term relationship outside of the socially “accepted” norm:

1. Feelings of Inadequacy

Low self-worth and feelings of inadequacy are positively correlated with ghosting a relationship, meaning that the more a person struggles with feeling inadequate, the greater the probability of “ghosting” their partner. If a person does not feel confident within themselves, believes their partner deserves much better, or struggles with deep attachment wounding, they may ghost a relationship. Underneath this pattern, some ghosters believe they are doing the other person a favor by erasing themselves out of that person’s life, instead of working through their pain with a supportive partner.

2. Vulnerable (Covert) Narcissism

Research supports that those with Dark Triad traits are more likely to use ghosting as a way of ending a romantic relationship because of a lack of emotional empathy. More specifically, those scoring highest in vulnerable narcissism are at the greatest risk for using ghosting to end a romantic relationship. An interesting finding is that vulnerable narcissists also have the highest proportions of showing inauthentic displays of confidence, exhibitionism, charm, and extraversion in order to secure the prospective partner.

3. Poor Communication

A hard truth is that some will ghost a romantic relationship when it comes down to the brass tacks of having a tough conversation with their partner. They may have fallen out of love with the other person, may be feeling vulnerable from having their own abandonment wounds surface, or they simply do not know how to approach a difficult conversation because of lack of experience or their own fears of disappointing the person. As a result, they may resort to ghosting the relationship as a way of making a statement without saying a word.

4. Coercive Control

For some displaying high levels of Dark Triad traits, ghosting a person, especially when in a longer-term romantic relationship, may be a red flag of coercive control. In these situations, the “ghoster” may be trying to win the upper hand by leaving first without a goodbye, trying to get the other person to take “chase” after them. If the partner who was ghosted reaches out, it creates a bigger power imbalance and further reduces their personal power, should that relationship continue.

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Ghosting vs. No Contact

Is there ever a good reason to ghost someone? The short answer is yes. If you have gotten involved with a narcissistic friend, family member, or partner who has smeared you or caused you harm, and you are wanting to make a clean break from the situation, then going no contact (as opposed to “ghosting”) is strongly recommenced. By going no contact, you are starting to take back your life, on your terms, through a process of blocking the person and any mutual friends. It is also strongly recommended to speak to a trauma therapist who can help you regain your sense of personal safety and autonomy while helping you heal from narcissistic abuse.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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