The term "ghosting" may be relatively new, but the concept — someone suddenly and inexplicably disappearing from your life — is not. In the past, a total halt to communication with a friend might leave you feeling concerned that something bad happened to him/her. But in a time where our devices have made us more accessible than ever, it can leave the person who's been ghosted feeling rejected or unworthy.
This episode was originally published on March 16th, 2017.
Last year, I decided to date one of my good friends. We had been friends for years. I knew there was a chance that our relationship wouldn’t work out and then our friendship would never be the same. After months of courtship, we decided to give it a try. A couple of months into the relationship, he told me he loved me. Shortly after, he began to distance himself from me. In response, I became needy and constantly asked him for reassurance. He assured me that he was “all in” and that I made him happy. Then one day, without a warning (aside from my gut feeling), he disappeared from my life. We’d made plans to hang out with our friends that weekend, so at first, I thought something bad happened to him.
It didn’t take long for me to realize he was okay. He was more than okay; he was seeing someone else. A mutual friend finally broke the news to me, after days of agonizing. I was devastated.
He chose to end all communication with me and our mutual friends—as though I’d been so awful, he'd rather shut everyone out than spend one more day with me. This made me feel extremely insecure. It does to this day. I’ve moved on and forgiven him, but in the back of my mind, I’ve always wondered why things ended the way they did. Why couldn’t he tell me he wanted our relationship to end? Didn’t he owe that to me after all our years of friendship? Why did he tell me he loved me and then walk away?
Yesterday, more than a year later, I found a handwritten note from him on my front porch table. He wrote that he was sorry for the way things ended between us, that he thinks about me often and wants to meet with me to talk. I do want to hear what he has to say, but I’m worried that this will open a wound that I’ve worked so hard to heal. Also, I don’t think there is anything he could say that could make me feel better or less humiliated. And even though I have forgiven him, I’m not sure that we can restore our friendship. Lastly, I don’t understand his intent. Why now? Does he want to smooth out the situation so he won't feel awkward around our mutual friends? Is he doing this so he can sleep better at night? Or is he really, truly sorry that he hurt me?
I knew him to be a womanizer. He loves and idolizes women until they become too real for him. But he promised it would be different with me. He promised never to hurt me but he broke my heart and made me doubt myself in every way possible.
My question to you, Sugars, is: If I do meet with him to talk, what should I expect to get out of this conversation? Will it be helpful to me in any way to try to talk things over? Could we mend our friendship? Or should I leave things as they are?
Dealing with a Ghost
Cheryl: Dealing with a Ghost, you write about so many of the feelings that people who have been ghosted experience. The first one is that you, in some fashion, blame yourself. But it wasn’t you. The reason he shut you out is that he is so ashamed of his behavior that he can’t bear to see you. He also can’t bear to see your mutual friends, because he knows what he has done is wrong. It really has nothing to do with you, even though it feels personally painful and humiliating.
Steve: I see this as first-degree ghosting. People are destructive because something in them — some capacity for empathy or decency — is destroyed. This guy is a deeply manipulative and toxic person. I don’t think you talk to him at all.
Cheryl: When I decide to let a toxic person temporarily back into my life, my rule is that I have to go in feeling really clear about the reasons I’m doing it, and the reason has to be that I’m going to get something from it. Otherwise, I don’t think this conversation is worth having, Dealing with a Ghost. What more can he tell you? He’s already said he’s sorry for the way things ended. That’s something. But one way that he can make amends, to you and all the other women he’s hurt, is to stop behaving that way with the next woman. But you don’t have to be her.
Tim Kreider: Everybody behaves worse in romantic and sexual relationships than they do in other relationships. I think what Dealing with a Ghost might get out of talking with her ex-boyfriend is cognitive closure. She might find out what happened. I did reconnect with a friend who ghosted me, years later. And eventually we got down to the question of whatever happened to him, and he didn’t have a good answer. There is no good answer. But I was grateful to have him back in my life, even sporadically.
I am writing because I am having trouble feeling a sense of belonging, and I need you to spin this problem for me in a way that I can live with. My best friend from college, who I have known for 19 years, since we went to elementary school together, ghosted me.
For those of us left behind by our most trusted friends without explanation, this process is on par with losing someone through untimely death, but with the added caveat that your rejection is so complete that you are not even worthy of an explanation.
My life has not been easy since I graduated from college three and a half years ago, and I know I have asked for help from my friend and leaned on her for support. My boyfriend died six weeks after graduation in an accident, and I was wrecked. I didn't live near my friend at the time, but we spent many hours on the phone together in the months that followed. She offered a lot of support to me, and I took it. I know being friends with a grieving person is not easy, but at the time, I didn't feel any reluctance or resentment from her.
Then last spring, I could feel her pulling away. We live about an hour and a half apart, and I wanted to bring her a birthday present. For three weekends in a row, she cancelled on me right when I was getting in the car to drive to her. I'm not stupid, and I knew what she was doing, so I didn't push it. One day when I was in the town for a different reason, I left the gift on her doorstep. She called later to thank me, but I gave up on making an effort.
A few weeks later, my younger sister died. She struggled with addiction and borderline personality disorder, and she killed herself.
I didn't call my friend. She found out a bit later when it came out on Facebook. She called me, and we talked about everything. She said she was sorry about constantly canceling on me and that she was better at texting than calling for staying in touch. She drove up and came to my sister's memorial, for which I was very grateful.
We resolved to see each other more, and I was happy when she called to invite me to a demolition derby at the county state fair. The two of us are bookish, knitting, young-old-people — the last ones you would think to see at a demolition derby, but we had a great time. I spent the night, we went to the farmers' market the next morning, and I left. I keep combing over that last meeting, and I can't find anything.
When I called a few weeks later, no response. I waited two weeks and called again. Nothing. Two weeks after that, I called once more, said I was sorry and that I wouldn't call anymore. That was five months ago.
She hasn't unfriended me or unfollowed me on any social media, but doesn't interact. Her mom will communicate, though, like nothing happened. I recently asked her mom not to because it was too painful for me, and she agreed.
It's blatantly clear my friend is done with me and doesn't care about my feelings at all. We had a loving, affectionate relationship, so this is very hard for me to understand and integrate into the story of our friendship. I don't want to just feel bitter about all those years - we've been friends since we were 7, and we're only 25, so that's most of my life.
My question is, how do I let go? How do I understand all those years of my life and our friendship? I can't help feeling like her leaving in this way is a statement of my unworthiness. I fear that if anyone really gets to know me, they will do this.
I have many loving friends, a wonderful boyfriend and a supportive family, but I miss her. I wish she would tell me what I did.
Cheryl: Bewildered Ex-Bestie, I think the jury’s out on this friend. Maybe she wants to be your friend, but to only see you once a year. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think the nature of this relationship is changing. She did say to you that she communicates best via text, but in trying to get in touch with her, you called. Maybe send her a text and say, “How are you doing? What are you up to?” I think maybe she feels a little hunted. She knows that she has let you down. Maybe you want more from her than she is willing and able to give.
Tim: I have had a couple occasions where I have explicitly renegotiated the terms of a friendship — how often we will get together and stay in touch. There are times when one person’s life changes. For example, I used to go over to a friend’s house once a week and talk to her after her kids were in bed. Then I got a teaching job, and I was just too exhausted to do it anymore, and I kept standing her up. She felt like I didn’t like her anymore, which was not the case. We finally had a talk about it and renegotiated how we would maintain the friendship. It can be done. It’s just hard to force yourself to have the explicit conversation.
Steve: But the painful dynamic with ghosting is that it takes two people to have that discussion. And it’s an uncomfortable discussion, because there’s an imbalance of desire to spend time with each other, and you have to address that and manage disappointment and guilt. That’s a big ask for people whose pattern is just to retreat.
Tim: It’s worth bearing in mind that, even though it seems passive, ghosting is extremely cruel. Everyone who has ever had a sibling knows that the meanest thing you can do to them is ignore them.
Steve: Saying nothing is worse than saying, “I can’t be your friend in this way that you need,” or “I can’t be your lover.” With ghosting, you think you are getting away with it, but that’s not the case. It lingers in the heart and conscience of the ghoster.
Cheryl: But I think it’s never too late to turn it around. You’re not going to necessarily be able to go back and have that same relationship again in the way you had it before, but you can certainly say you’re sorry.