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ghosting: what is it and how can I cope with it?

Suddenly the partner disappears; he or she no longer answers the phone, does not read messages, trashes e-mails and refuses all contact, delegating to total silence the news of his or her final separation.

Ghosting does not only affect romantic relationships, but more generally can occur in relationships of all kinds: even a friend can disappear overnight, leaving no trace of themself.


The silent game.

Ghosting is the child of social networking, dating apps and messaging: nowadays, many relationships are opened and closed online, so disappearing into thin air has become much easier than it used to be. But why is this punishment of silence so painful? According to psychotherapist Jennice Vilhauer, ghosting is a form of social rejection, which activates the same regions in the brain that are stimulated when experiencing physical pain. Studies on the subject, however, do not agree: some claim that those who have been victims of ghosting have reached higher levels of anxiety than those who have not experienced it; others, on the other hand, have found no significant differences between the reactions of those who were left with a 'classic method' and those who were ghosted instead.


In limbo.

Whether it is stronger or weaker than a normal break-up, the pain associated with ghosting has above all one explanation: leaving things unresolved does not allow us to put a stop to a situation and move on. It is better to receive a harsh but clear 'I don't like you, let's call it quits' than to think that everything is fine and never hear from a friend or partner again from one moment to the next. The lack of closure is what makes ghosting such a difficult practice to accept, and the uncertainty raises many doubts: what if you had had an accident? What if you said something that hurt him/her? "When someone ignores you, it means that you don't even deserve a response: it's a blow to our sense of social worth," explains social psychologist Arie Kruglanski.



What it is and how it manifests itself


Although it may seem an uncommon phenomenon, it is estimated that around 50% of people have used this strategy at least once in their lives to end an uncomfortable relationship.


What does ghosting actually consist of? It will have happened to some people that they have been seeing a partner or friend more or less continuously and have established a good bond full of happy moments of sharing when suddenly, without confrontation or any motivation, the other person simply disappears from circulation by not showing up at the usual meeting places, not answering phone calls and even dissolving into virtual reality. This relational style can be enacted on several levels: it matters little whether one is in a friendship relationship, one is dating sporadically as a couple, or one is involved in a serious and lasting bond.


The ghoster, in order to avoid that annoying face-to-face confrontation that would force him/her to take responsibility induced by the choice to end the affair, usually opts for avoidance behaviour. The purpose of such avoidance is to avoid confrontation and not make the other party share in his decision. The ghoster leaves behind a thick cloud of smoke that blinds the victim, who is abandoned in a sea of doubts and obsessive thoughts often related to guilt that inevitably lead him or her to brood over acts that he or she did not actually perform.


Currently, many speak of ghosting as a growing phenomenon, however it is not easy to discern how much more active the phenomenon is compared to the ease with which it is recorded through the use of WhatsApp, Facebook and other daily channels of communication. Whereas in the past, the break-up of the relationship was gradually internalised with the passage of time, today the ghoster is often identified more quickly, through the sudden non-response to messages and calls or, in the worst cases, through the timely removal of the contact on social media.


Ghosting: causes and effects in the relationship


The first to wonder about the reason for the disappearance is the person left behind, who, deeply disturbed by the event and sceptical to the point of even doubting herself and her own actions, torments herself in a continuous loop of unanswered questions. "Who is really the person I've been with?", "why did he do that?" or "did I do something wrong?" are just some of the most common questions that the other person tends to ask frequently, associated with negative emotions that, in some cases, can lead to depressive episodes.


Often those who decide to engage in ghosting justify themselves by claiming that their gesture responds to a desire not to hurt the other person. In fact, however, it is precisely the sudden disappearance in the absence of opportunities for confrontation that can cause, at best, a sense of loss in the other person.


Ending a story may not be easy, which is why, just as children are wont to do when they are playing and cover their eyes and think they will not be seen by others, the ghoster does not show up any more, believing that he/she is erasing the problem for him/herself and others.


Beyond mere misbehaviour, ghosting can be traced back to personality traits of a narcissistic type in which the one who ghosts, in addition to confirming his pathological egocentrism, feeds his ego with the presumption of controlling the other. To give an example from everyday life, you will probably have shared amazement and disbelief at a Facebook message or like received from that person who suddenly disappeared a long time ago. The ghoster is aware that he is leveraging his victim, which is why, as is often the case on social networking sites or in real life, he enjoys sending distant and very sporadic smoke signals just to 'control' the other person and to have the confirmation in his heart that, if he came back, there would always be someone willing to welcome him with open arms.


The ghoster may have experienced a childhood in which the reference figure(s) enacted the same mechanisms of (pseudo) abandonment or disregard, which the adult individual now emulates in interpersonal relationships. Repeated occurrences of forgetting to pick one's child up from school or freeing oneself from obligations by simply disappearing, making promises without then keeping them or being absent from requests, may underlie the memories of a potential ghoster.


This passive-aggressive behaviour can be caused by an inadequate childhood role model or even by a simple inept person who does not feel comfortable in his or her emotional situation and prefers to avoid difficulties rather than face them.


What are the three main causes of ghosting?


FEAR OF CONFRONTATION 


Not taking responsibility and disappearing is a behaviour that the ghoster engages in in order not to explain himself and listen to any objections, questions or complaints from the other person, thus protecting himself from probable arguments in which he might feel judged.


FEAR OF CONFLICT  


Disappearing and avoiding confrontation reveals a strong psychological immaturity, and a deep sense of inferiority expressed by the ghoster. The most obvious sign is precisely the obstinate recourse to these avoidance strategies: for example, the avoidance of expressing one's own opinion, or of solving problems or situations that in all likelihood could be dealt with, in the long run only exacerbates pre-existing fears and insecurities, which lead the ghoster to live his entire emotional life in a conflictual manner. A vicious circle that, if left undetected, can cause far more complex disorders.


FEAR OF ABANDONMENT


It often happens that the ghoster chooses to leave the scene just when the relationship was beginning to be more intense and engaging and perceives that he is experiencing something that could threaten his emotional independence and stability. So, for fear of being abandoned, he decides to leave first with the idea of preventing his own and his partner's suffering. Unfortunately, he gets the opposite result: with the abandonment, the bond woven between him and his victim becomes much more entangled.


How to react in the face of ghosting?


Non-contact


The victim of ghosting tends to feel guilty or somehow responsible. It is not a case of brooding to find a fault that caused the escape and disappearance.


It is important not to blame oneself and to avoid contacting the absconder. The more one resists the attempt to contact him/her, the more one can avoid the pain of seeing that there is a response displayed but no feedback. The more time elapses in the ability to resist writing and calling the fugitive, the stronger one becomes and the more one is able to distance oneself.


Processing the story as a problem


Taking distance and understanding that if the other person does not realise the pain he or she causes with the disappearance, he or she is a problematic person who is unable to tune into the feelings of the one being abandoned.


Acknowledge that it hurts


Being understanding with oneself that one is experiencing a normal and healthy human emotion however painful. Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)


Psychotherapy to overcome the effects of ghosting


Being left without explanation and without giving a chance to confront each other can trigger a series of negative moods. Often these chase one another, finding maximum expression in anger at having 'wasted' one's time with someone who has proved to be the exact opposite of one's former self, in frustration and a sense of powerlessness, - at not being able to express all that one broods within. 


Emerging emotions in the face of the other's disappearance also include the sadness that is triggered in response to the sudden sense of abandonment, the anguish, the great sense of upset and scepticism that pervades not only the other's identity, but also one's own, supported by thoughts such as 'I should have realised this sooner', which often results in a lowering of self-esteem. Although such an event may leave a deep mark on the ghoster's partner, the first thing to think about is that, unless one is the perpetrator of an even more punishable act that caused the estrangement, the person who is unable to establish a mutual and functional relationship is not us, but the other. Being unable to give oneself completely hides an insecurity and more generally a form of discomfort.


Science suggests psychological pain involves the same neural pathway as physical pain. Being a victim or an active protagonist of this relational dynamic can turn into a starting point from which to begin a pathway to re-elaborate one's beliefs and modes of interaction. 


In particular, if one is a victim of the other's disappearance, psychotherapy can represent a tool with great potential to better understand how to deal with and channel the pain. The process can take a longer or shorter time span with respect to the severity of the problem and is undoubtedly exhausting, but with time it can prove to be an excellent companion to unravel all those painful contents, starting with the ghosting event, that one has not had a chance to deal with and resolve.






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