Beeeep. The same message as always. “Hey, where have you been? I’ve been trying to get ahold of you.”
I slammed the receiver down. It had happened to me before. I knew the signs were there, if I would just allow myself to see them. But I wouldn’t.
Instead, I told myself that there were other explanations. A new job, unpaid phone bills, getting stranded somewhere with no service, mourning the passing of some never-before-mentioned relative. Maybe they were in trouble and nobody knew? What if they’d been arrested? I mean, seriously, I entertained every possible option except for what was absolutely happening.
I was being ghosted. It took me three months to accept it. After two or three more attempts of, “Hey, are you upset with me? Can we at least talk about it?” I gave up. I blocked their number. They could see what it felt like if they ever decided to call back.
The first time I was ghosted, I had just turned 18. It was 2005. Cell phones existed then, but I didn’t have one. What I did have was a silent landline and the ability to read and reread the same permanent “away” message on their AIM profile two or three times a day. I had spent nearly every day with this person for the past seven years. Two days after graduation and it was like they had never happened at all. They were a memory. They were a name. They had shifted form into a smirking orb that only appeared in a handful of old photographs. It destroyed me.
Maybe I wouldn’t have taken it so hard if it happened now. To read about ghosting online, you would think it’s not such a big deal. It’s generally written about as something that disproportionately affects the lives of millennials. We’re told that we spend our time flipping through our multiple dating and social media apps, ready to use or discard anyone who meets the criteria. We’ll bounce back, of course. We’re generalized as self-obsessed and emotionally numb. We have no concept of permanence. We don’t actually make friends, we just acquire spheres of “influence.” We gather likes but we have no desire to love or be loved. We’ve all been ghosted and we’ve all been ghosts, or at least most of us have. No big deal.
My first experience with ghosting was, at least, instructive in laying out a process for this particular kind of grieving. Each time, I would say, “Well, it’s not like losing ___.” Each time I would cry a little less. I would reach out with less frequency. I stopped bargaining. Though I am unconvinced that it is a skill unique to my generation, I gradually taught myself not to care.
I learned how to ghost, too. I ghosted to avoid abuse, to extricate myself from dangerous or codependent relationships. I ghosted suitors who wanted too much physical intimacy too quickly. I ghosted people I loved deeply, but whose states of deep depression were dragging me down, I was convinced. I ghosted dates that I really didn’t like very much but was too “polite” to tell. I ghosted acquaintances from work that I had nothing in common with once we could no longer share small talk about the job. I ghosted old friends who had nothing to say when we talked about our lives anymore.
At first I felt bad about it, but it became easier to do over time. Still, something inside would persistently ask, “Is disappearing really as bad as just telling ____ that you hate it when they make Holocaust jokes?” Or, “I dunno, you really enjoy ____’s company. Maybe you should have just told them they hurt your feelings.” So, sometimes I would try that instead. Usually, the Holocaust Joker would return to making the same stupid, offensive jokes. Almost without fail, the ____s of the world would continue to hurt my feelings on a regular basis. So I kept ghosting and started keeping a “goodbye list” instead.
I love you so much, but you hurt me all the time.
You have nothing encouraging to say, ever, and seem pleased when I fail.
You turn every femme in your life into your caretaker and I don’t want to take care of you anymore.
You triggered my PTSD and I didn’t know how to tell you.
I eventually did see my friend again, my first ghost. Her name appeared out of the blue on a messenger screen, asking simply, “What’s up?” What’s up, indeed.
We spent a few awkward days together in lukewarm reunion. We even took a cross-country trip, the endless passing miles punctuated by moments of genuine connection, but the writing was on the wall: we had almost nothing in common anymore. Our conversations were short and turned mostly on reliving the past. When the topic would turn towards the future, we’d fall silent or give stunted, ambiguous answers.
It was clear our futures did not include each other: it was not a reunion at all, but a softer goodbye. Terribly, maybe we never did have much in common — at least, not in the ways that really mattered. Free of the small town that had incubated our friendship, we now had both grown into the people that perhaps we always were but had never been given the room to be. Maybe we had only needed each other to survive those years. Maybe, as adults, we would have held each other back. Maybe she had always known this. I bristled at the thought that I had just been a port in the storm, but I had loved her so much then that I probably wouldn’t have listened to the truth if she told me. Had she always been so selfish? Had I?
You’re too selfish. That was probably marked down somewhere on her own list of reasons for ghosting me. Probably lists exist made by all the others who ever ghosted me. As much as other people can suck, I can suck just as much. We all can. The lists, in many cases, are probably mutual. And the desire not to harm each other by reading them aloud is likely also mutual.
It’s not that we’re all replaceable and we don’t care — we do. When things get ugly, uncomfortable, mean, scary or traumatic, who doesn’t try to figure out an exit strategy that does the least amount of damage? When things get messy, hurtful, complicated or dangerous with people that you love and that you know love you, figuring out how to create boundaries for yourself without causing harm can feel even more impossible.
When I was researching this piece, I was told that I give people too much credit for the empathy that they possess — that people simply don’t care that much. But probing deeper, the answer was almost always the same — sometimes ghosting seems like the most, or the only, humane option.
At the end of a long day of being mistreated at work, talked over at school, catcalled on the bus, navigating micro-aggressions, or worse, when you really sit down with your thoughts, what happens when you realize you don’t have the energy for that problematic boy who keeps texting you? Your Facebook friend who keeps posting body shaming bullshit? Your ex who was totally horrible but still “checks in” every few months? Do you really owe these people your energy? Do you owe them the labor of explaining every single reason that it’s not working out? Of course not.
But what about your close friend who is becoming increasingly unfriendly? What about your partner who takes you for granted? What would hurt them more — being left to figure things out for themselves, or being given a detailed list of failures? And which option would actually bring about the changes you need? There are, of course, many situations in which ghosting would be an extreme and unnecessarily harsh way to break things off. But chances are, if ghosting is on your radar of options, you probably have valid reasons for considering it.
There is no nice way to end any relationship, no matter how casual or mutually stressful. I’ve had it both ways — been read lists and been ghosted. I honestly don’t know which was worse. Both options were devastating. (And choosing the lists did not save any of those relationships.) But does it really even matter? No one, not even the people we love most, has a fundamental right to our time, our emotional labor or our presence in their lives. Sometimes there are things you’ve tried to say that you just can’t say again. Or, maybe you just can’t say them, period, because you know you wouldn’t be heard. So you don’t say them. You ghost. And honestly, sometimes, that’s OK.