Esther Darko matched with a guy on Tinder.
After texting each other for a time, the pair decided that the gentleman would travel to Roanoke College, where Darko is a sophomore, to meet face-to-face.
On the day they set for that first visit, though, Darko couldn’t shake the feeling that she was going to be stood up.
Darko’s gut feeling proved to be right. He didn’t show up and didn’t respond to her texts. Darko had been ghosted.
For those fortunate enough not to already be well acquainted with the phenomenon, ghosting refers to a person ending a relationship by cutting off all communication. The ghoster doesn’t text the ghostee. He doesn’t call. He doesn’t respond to attempts by the ghostee to get in touch. He floats away into the ether. Like a ghost.
Darcey Powell, interim chair of the psychology department at Roanoke College in Salem and an associate professor whose research focuses on personal relationships, family dynamics and developmental psychology, began hearing about ghosting several years ago.
Powell queried her students about whether they had experienced the behavior. “People were like, ‘Yeah, this is a thing,’” Powell says.
Ghosting, she decided, merited further study.
In 2016, Powell and Gili Freedman, who at the time was a visiting psychology professor at Roanoke College, decided to research the phenomenon. Later, Benjamin Le, a professor of psychology at Haverford College who researches romantic relationship processes, and Kipling Williams, a professor at Purdue University known for his work on ostracism, signed on as part of the team studying the behavior.
In 2019, the group published a paper on their research, “Ghosting and destiny: Implicit theories of relationships predict beliefs about ghosting,” in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
For the studies undertaken as part of that paper, participants completed a scale which indicated how closely they endorsed the concept of romantic destiny (the idea that individuals have soul mates and that a relationship will either work or it won’t) and how strongly they endorsed the notion of relationship growth (the idea that relationships can deepen over time).
The researchers found that people who held stronger beliefs in destiny were associated with “feeling more positively toward ghosting, having stronger ghosting intentions, and having previously used ghosting to terminate relationships.”
The New York Times, PsyPost, Seventeen magazine and others wrote about the research. “The popular press was really interested in the topic,” Powell says.
The team decided to keep collaborating.
In 2021, the original band of researchers, along with Hayley Green of Purdue University, published another paper, “A multi-study examination of attachment and implicit theories of relationships in ghosting experiences,” in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. They found that participants who had been ghosted reported higher attachment anxiety (people with higher attachment anxiety may be preoccupied with being rejected) than individuals who had not been ghosted.
“All of this is correlational,” Powell stresses.
In other words, the study didn’t show that being ghosted causes people to have higher attachment anxiety or that having higher attachment anxiety causes a person to be more likely to be ghosted.
Last year, the team published three additional studies. In “Exploring individuals descriptive and injunctive norms of ghosting,” published in Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, the researchers found that participants with prior ghosting experience thought ghosting of romantic partners was more common than those with no prior ghosting experience. For another paper – “Emotional experiences of ghosting,” published in the Journal of Social Psychology – participants who had been ghosted and those who had been ghosters provided narratives of their experiences. The researchers reported that ghostees were more likely to express hurt feelings while ghosters were more likely to express guilt and relief.
In the third paper, “The role of gender and safety concerns in romantic rejection decisions,” published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the research team, along with Andrew Hales, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mississippi, found that safety concerns may make individuals more likely to ghost.
Some ghosters may ghost because they’re worried that the person they’re rejecting might respond with physical violence, Powell explains, but some might also be concerned about the person who is rejected damaging their reputation.
“There are other forms of safety, right?” she asks. “Particularly, if you’ve shared things with them via texting or pictures or words, right? They could share that more broadly than you had anticipated or wanted it to be shared.”
Recently, Powell and the other researchers submitted questions about ghosting for a large multinational survey that queried participants about matters of the heart during the pandemic.
“We’re really excited to get that data,” Powell says. “We want to use it as a preliminary jump-off point for some cross-cultural type of stuff.”
Powell continues to find broad interest in ghosting research. In 2021, she was interviewed for the podcast “Coping with Ghosting.” More recently, Powell took part in a docuseries by Radio Télévision Suisse, a Swiss public broadcast organization, titled “La science des coeurs brises” – or “The science of broken hearts.”
“There’s a lot of experiences individuals have in dating, some of them good, some of them not so much,” Powell says to explain the popularity of her research. “Early research on relationships tended to focus on committed relationships and marriage and it was a while later that they started exploring dating. And so we know more about dating relationships now, but there’s still a good bit left to explore and it’s something that is inherently interesting to a lot of people, right? It’s an experience that a lot of people have, most people have.”
Powell stresses that while ghosting is often spoken of as a modern development, individuals have long pulled disappearing acts to ease their way out of relationships.
“People have been doing a version of this since letters were carried on horseback,” Powell says. “But it’s much more common now because so much of relationships take place, or unfolds, through technology.”
A ‘common thing’ — but it still hurts
Darko, a psychology major from South Carolina, remembers feeling anxiety when her Tinder match failed to show up for their planned outing at Roanoke College.
“I thought he died or something else, like he was trying to come down here and had gotten in a car crash or something like that,” says Darko, who is a research assistant in Powell’s lab.
While she had hurt feelings at the time, Darko realizes that ghosting is part of dating.
“Especially in college, it’s a common thing,” she says. “You meet someone out maybe at a party, and you guys exchange social media, you guys talk for a while and then it gets to a point where they stop talking. And you go on social media and realize that they had a boyfriend or girlfriend.”
Darko also points out that sometimes people have good reasons for ghosting. Sometimes, for instance, a woman might give a man her phone number when he asks for it in public because she’s worried about how he’ll respond if she refuses her digits.
Deanna Grossi, a junior sociology major at Roanoke College from Bluefield, Virginia, has also talked about ghosting in her classes.
Grossi tried to break up with a long-term boyfriend after she came to Roanoke College as a first-year student. She told him she was done with the relationship repeatedly, but he refused to admit it was over.
“It became a very stressful situation,” she says, “because I was actually wanting to go out and do different things and meet different people and I didn’t want to do that while still being in contact with [him]. … So I ended up just ghosting.”
Grossi says she’s glad psychologists are researching ghosting because scholars need to understand why it’s happening and how the modern dating scene is changing.
Powell has found that her students are interested to hear about her ghosting research.
“What I love about the topic is that it’s one that gets them animated, right?” she says. “It gets them talking, because they have opinions on it. And so to me, it’s really fun to bring it up in class or bring it up in lab because it’s a topic that’s interesting to them, and they can relate to it. And then they can see the fact that there are professors who are also doing research that kind of relates to their lives in many ways.”
When students talk about being ghosted, Powell will often remind them that they’re not alone.
“This is something that happens often in the modern dating world,” she says. “And it’s also very understandable to be upset about the experience, right? Rejection hurts, regardless.”
She also tells her students that if they find themselves having difficulty processing being ghosted, they should talk with a therapist. “There are really great resources for both in person and online … to talk to a relationship therapist, and I encourage that,” she says.