Reflections on Ghosting

Dr. Émile P. Torres
9 min readDec 22, 2023


“Ghosting” doesn’t have an agreed-upon definition. Most often, it means terminating a relationship with little or no prior warning, often without a satisfying explanation, or any explanation at all. Described by one ghostee — or victim of ghosting — as among “the cruelest forms of torture dating can serve up,” psychologists are virtually unanimous in classifying it as a form of “emotional abuse” or “emotional cruelty” that’s among the least empathetic of the least empathetic ways that one can end a relationship. Ghosting can be traumatic for the ghostee, devastate their self-esteem, and severely impair their ability to trust others, with long-term consequences that negatively impact future connections with people. Some ghostees report lingering effects of having been ghosted years after the incident.

Given the profound psychological harms that ghosting causes, one might hope that it’s a rare occurrence. Sadly, that’s not the case: one survey found that “a staggering 76% of respondents have either ghosted or been ghosted in the context of dating — nearly 60% of people claim to have been ghosted before, while 45% say they have ghosted another person.” Another study reports that 34% of ghosting episodes happen before the first date; 26% after the first date; 22% after several dates; and a stunning 10% happen after a couple months into the relationship. In some cases, ghosting can happen in long-term relationships, between people who have known each other for years, thus greatly amplifying the pain caused by someone vanishing overnight. Ghosting is shockingly common, and it’s on the rise thanks in part to dating apps, which turn dating into a “game” in which potential partners are easily selected, discarded, and replaced with the flick of a finger.

How did we get here? Where did ghosting come from? Why is it becoming so prevalent? A survey of the English language shows that references to ghosts are quite common. We talk about ghost towns, ghost writers, and ghost labor — i.e., “the human labor powering many mobile phone apps, websites, and artificial intelligence systems can be hard to see,” because “it’s often intentionally hidden.” Some use the term “ghost guns” to denote “unregulated firearms that anyone … can buy and build without a background check,” while “ghost kitchens” are commercial kitchens that only make food for delivery. We have phrases like “ghost of their former self” to describe someone whose personality is changed by a life experience, “ghost of a chance” to say that something is unlikely, and “give up the ghost” to mean that someone has died. Philosophers, meanwhile, sometimes talk about the “ghost in the machine,” a pejorative reference to the idea that people possess an immaterial soul — the “ghost” in the “machine” of our bodies. And of course there’s the “Holy Ghost,” one of the three persons that comprise the triune God of Christianity, along with the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ.

The English word “ghost” comes from the Old English word “gast,” meaning “spirit” or “soul.” Our word “aghast” stems from a variant of gast — namely, “gastan,” which means “to terrify.” The first time that “ghost” was used as a verb to mean “leav[ing] suddenly and without saying goodbye” only goes back to 2004, according to Merriam-Webster. Not long after, in 2006, “ghosting” was added to the Urban Dictionary, which now defines it as “when a person cuts off all communication with their friends or the person they’re dating, with zero warning or notice before hand.” This fits with claims that ghosting is a new phenomenon — “a defining millennial act,” as one reporter put it in The Guardian. However, while technology has made ghosting far easier than it used to be, people have no doubt been ghosting each other for ages. More than a decade ago, I knew an older man who told his family that he was invited to participate in a work-related event held in another city. So he hopped on plane, checked into his hotel, and then promptly vanished. Police found all of his personal belongings in the hotel, and while friends initially suspected that he may have been the victim of a crime, investigators announced a week later that they’d found evidence that he’d traveled, on his own volition, from the US to Canada (though he hadn’t been seen since then). This person, in other words, ghosted his family, and I suspect that one can find examples like this dating back centuries.

Technology does play a role in the rise of ghosting, though. It’s never been easier to delete someone from one’s life — and it’s never been easier for the ghostee to confirm that the ghoster is still alive and well, despite having suddenly disappeared without much explanation or warning. What kind of person would do this? Who decides to ghost? As I’ve noted before, studies suggest that people “with narcissistic tendencies may be more likely to unexpectedly end contact with a partner.” Another links ghosting with “Dark Triad” trait like psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. The authors of this study conclude that because ghosting is “an emotionally cold, if not abusive, way of terminating relationships, … those who are characterized by dispositional callousness, like those high in psychopathy, may engage in ghosting.” The decision to ghost may also be the result of emotional immaturity — a failure, or inability, to consider how one’s actions might affect others. Emotionally immature people tend to focus only on themselves and, as noted above, psychologists overwhelmingly describe ghosting as one of the least empathetic and compassionate ways of ending a relationship with someone.

Why does ghosting hurt so badly? There are many reasons. First, it’s deeply disrespectful. Every person, by virtue of being a person, has an inherent dignity that demands a certain degree of respect. Ghosting denies this dignity: it sends a deeply dehumanizing message that you don’t deserve to be treated the way humans are supposed to be treated. The pain caused by receiving this message may increase as a function of how long the relationship lasted. In longer-term relationships, the ghostee can’t console themselves with the thought that the ghoster “didn’t know me well enough to understand how ghosting would hurt me.” To the contrary, months or years is more than enough time for the ghoster to know the ghostee intimately. Despite knowing the ghostee well, the ghoster still decided to vanish, thus adding an extra layer of insult to the injury of having been ghosted.

In a way, ghosting turns the victim into a ghost. We cannot — usually — see ghosts. We cannot interact with them. There’s a sense in which they are not here in our world. They are otherworldly apparitions that flicker in and out of our field of vision. We can sometimes feel them, but we cannot touch them and they cannot touch us. To be ghosted is thus to feel like a ghost — invisible, unseen, ignored, as if one does not really exist. And to feel this way is to feel as if one does not matter. Being ghosted is a profoundly disempowering experience, because the ghoster unilaterally terminates all communication between themself and the ghostee. The ghostee is rendered helpless, unable to restore a connection or signal with the ghostee to understand what has happened, or to gain any semblance of closure. The ghostee, in other words, is stripped of their causal powers, just as ghosts are mostly helpless and causally powerless to bring about change in the physical world. They may slam the occasional door, but they are unable to speak to us, which is precisely the situation of the ghostee.

At the same time, the ghoster becomes a ghost to the ghostee. The ghoster existed, in the flesh, at one moment, and then with little or no warning they suddenly vanished, like a ghost passing through the wall of a building. The ghostee may be left disoriented, anxious, and unnerved by the experience, wondering whether they hallucinated the whole affair: “Was this person really in my life? Did I see things — a good moral character, a caring disposition, maybe even a loving and kind individual — that were never actually there? Was any of this real?” Even more, the ghostee might fear: “Am I delusional for having thought that I was with someone who never actually existed?”

Many ghostees who I’ve spoken with tell me that they couldn’t have imagined their partner or love interest ever ghosting them — they didn’t think that it was possible, which made them question their judgment and sanity after the ghosting event happened. If, for example, someone had asked me two weeks before my own ghosting experience whether my partner was capable of ghosting me, I would have said, “No, that is completely impossible. There is absolutely no chance that it could happen. The probability is zero.” Upon being ghosted, I was utterly staggered: “Who was this apparition that I was with for so long?,” I kept asking myself. “They are now gone forever, but were they ever in my life to begin with? Was this all some hallucinatory experience? How could I have been so deluded?” The act of ghosting reveals something new about the ghoster — something the ghostee didn’t know before. It’s this revelation that can shake the ghostee to their core, because it calls into question fundamental beliefs they had prior to the ghosting.

These are some of the cognitive aspects of being ghosted. With respect to its phenomenology, being ghosted can feel almost exactly like one’s partner has suddenly and unexpectedly died — especially in longer-term relationships. This was certainly my own experience, and indeed what helped me the most, in the months and years after being ghosted, was reading the psychology literature on how to deal with the sudden death of a loved one. The grieving process is very similar, which might have important clinical implications for how mental health professionals treat the victims of ghosting — as I’ve noted elsewhere.

Using some of the phrases mentioned at the beginning of this article, one might experience the unexpected disappearance of a partner as if the partner has suddenly “given up the ghost” (i.e., died), and the lingering trauma of this experience can leave one a “ghost of one’s former self,” since there’s no easy way to bounce back from someone you cared about or loved vanishing with little warning or explanation. As one ghostee told me, “I don’t think you can ever go back to that world before you knew someone you trust could be capable of something like that.” This is what leaves you a ghost of your former self: life, the world that is yours, can never be the same again. Ghosting casts a dark shadow from which ghostees may never escape.

This leads to one of the great ironies of ghosting: it’s a powerful way of immortalizing oneself within someone else’s life. Though the ghoster may be gone forever, the trauma of being ghosted makes the victim unlikely to ever forget the ghoster. The ghoster, as a phantasm in one’s memory, an apparition of one’s mind, will always be present. When a relationship ends in a mature, respectful, and healthy manner, one may eventually “move on” and “forget” the person they were with. When a relationship ends in ghosting, this becomes extremely difficult or even impossible. Rather than fading into the peaceful night of what used to be, the ghoster refuses to leave. Instead, they do what ghosts do best: haunt the haunted — leaping out of the darkness, uninvited, to appear in the ghostee’s thoughts during the day and dreams at night. While the ghostee may be quickly forgotten by the ghoster, the ghoster makes themselves unforgettable to the ghostee.

Although ghosting might seem straightforward at first glance, it’s a complex phenomenon. And despite being among the very worst, and most unethical, ways to terminate a relationship, recent surveys report that more than half of people have experienced ghosting — sometimes in relationships lasting months or years. This is a sad indictment of our society, and there’s no reason to believe that ghosting will decline in the future. What that means is that people should take steps to protect themselves from being ghosted, and to make a commitment not to ghost anyone (except in circumstances where safety is an issue, of course). A more humane world is possible, but not without trying.



Dr. Émile P. Torres

I study all things human extinction: its nature and causes, its ethical implications, & the history of the idea. Philosopher, but MS in Neuroscience.