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The 5 stages of ghosting

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OCTOBER 05, 2018

“What’re you up to tonight?”

I said nothing.

The next day, my phone illuminated with another text: “How’s it going?” He was brief and unassuming, but again, I said nothing.

A couple of hours later, “How about a drink tonight?” I quickly dismiss the notification as if doing so made the person on the other end disappear.

By the third, unanswered message, you should have already read the subtext, but certain men have an unfaltering knack for optimism.

The final, fourth text didn’t arrive until the next weekend: “What’s up?” And, you guessed it, nothing in response. I was ghosting — creating a sudden, unexplained break in communication.

His name was Callaghan, if memory serves me. And I hope it does, because he wasn’t saved in my contacts and the only thing left of him is a New York area code and a couple of despondent text messages. I saw him only once on purpose, twice by accident. He had the sort of sad-puppy face that I find contemptible.

And really, the poor sucker should’ve seen it coming. Ghosting usually has a build-up, a predictable pattern. First, response times lag — a couple of hours, then half-days, then full days followed by fake excuses. You know, the “Sorry, I totally didn’t see this text” or the “Sorry, I was um, at my grandmother’s funeral.” Then come the delays: “Not this weekend. I have to do something, anything other than see you, but hit me up next time.” And then finally, the complete, echoing silence.

I know because this wasn’t the first time I had ghosted someone, or the second or even the third — I was a veteran. I tend to transform into an apparition with the kind of reckless abandon of an immature teenager and the remorseless attitude of a sociopath.


The problem is that I have been on the other side. I’ve been that poor sucker left wondering where someone went and what exactly went wrong. I know what it feels like. Ghosting is rejection without the conclusiveness — it has a particular way of getting under your skin.

The stages of ghosting generally follow the five stages of grief, the Kübler-Ross model. Would the Swiss-American psychologist be proud of this analogy, this misappropriation of her research into the terminally ill? Who knows?

The first stage: denial. You try your best to keep from overanalyzing things. You watch TV as a numbing distraction but can’t help checking your phone every 20 minutes despite hearing no buzzing, no ringing, no indication that they’ve responded. They’re just busy, you tell yourself — they’re probably not on their phone. This is the fatally optimistic phase because, let’s be real, our phones are our constant companions. We hold onto them like a talisman that will unlock the meaning of our existence.

A couple of days later, the second stage sets in — anger. I am the type of person who always carries around an arsenal of insults just in case the opportunity presents itself. It’s a defense mechanism. So, this stage comes easily. The insults fire off in my head like a barrage of cannons. How could this stupid bastard ghost me? Me? Inevitably, you make comparisons in which you end up on top. I should be the one ghosting, not him.

Bargaining. Hi, God, it’s me again. Please let there be an explanation a shipwreck, a car accident, a feral pack of wolves. I would rather something horrible have happened than deal with the humiliation of having been ghosted.

Depression. You know the only explanation is the obvious one, and you’re forced to abandon all of your embarrassing daydreams. It’s especially bad when your ghost haunts your real life. When you walk out of the library and see them milling around and they see you and you pretend otherwise and you both do nothing.

Knowing all this, knowing what could be happening on the other side of those ignored texts, you’d think I’d be more sympathetic. But you would be wrong.

Why do I ghost? Simple. Because it is easy. The easiest option is always to do nothing. Honesty is uncomfortable, and in a world of modern comforts and convenience, there is nothing worse. Ghosting is the paralyzing moment between being honest and being a liar. The first is a sharp but temporary blow to the ego — it requires grit and candor: “I just don’t like you.” The second is too often transparent: “I am not looking for anything serious.” Both require effort, so I often go for the silent option.

Why do others? The alarmists among us will decry social media. They’ll say it’s created a generation of selfish egotists who would rather ghost than face real emotion. They’ll write long, drawn-out think pieces about the horrors of millennials. Some of them will be millennials themselves. I am not among them. I think technology only aids people in doing what they’re naturally prone to do anyway. It’s far easier to be cruel to disembodied words on an LED screen, but I’m not sure ghosting is an entirely new phenomenon. We’re all a bit selfish, we think our feelings are more important than others’, we believe we’re owed explanations that we don’t afford to other people. I can admit to that. I can admit to selfishness and give other people the same leeway.

Which brings me to the final stage acceptance. Our ghosts aren’t leaving us anytime soon.

Josh Perkins writes the Friday column on the absurd realities of modern communication. Contact him at [email protected] .

OCTOBER 04, 2018