Midway through this year, like many others before her, Twitter user @FUTANARIA ventured a take on ghosting. “Ghosting is abusive and can be potentially traumatic!” she tweeted. “If you ghost people you’re honestly a bitch, and making [a] habit of it just means you suck at communication.” She qualified her statement as being an “unpopular opinion,” but it proved quite the opposite: More than 14,000 people have liked the tweet and almost 4,000 retweeted it.
@FUTANARIA isn’t the first or only person to call ghosting abusive. Late last year, Swoon published an article entitled “Ghosting Is Emotional Abuse And Our Generation Needs To Stop Doing It.” After referencing the Urban Dictionary definition of ghosting as “the act of suddenly ceasing all communication with someone the subject is dating,” author Hannah Sundell takes direct aim at ghosters. “Like seriously, what happened to you,” she chides rhetorically. “Who hurt you or steered you so wrong in life that you think it’s an option to just not say anything?”
Over the past few years, there’s been a gradual creep in the use of the word “abusive” to describe rude and unkind — but usually not controlling or traumatic — dating behavior. Ghosting isn’t the only dating behavior being equated with abuse: an article on the Becky’s Fund website, a corporate-sponsored domestic violence fundraiser, suggests that “benching” — i.e., being left on the backburner by a date who is lukewarm about you — is on par with established tactics of abuse like gaslighting and love bombing.
It’s troubling that an act widely understood to occur in the early dating stages is increasingly being equated with serious maltreatment that takes place in the context of established relationships. Reasonable claims that ghosters and benchers are “bitches” (@FUTANARIA’s word) or “schmucks” (Sundell’s) are now intensified with claims that this behavior is “evil” and “inhumane.” It’s no longer enough to say that these dating faux pas are selfish and cowardly; now they’re “a major form of emotional abuse similar to “bullying” and “the shittiest thing you could do to someone.”
Of course, abuse can be emotional, and psychological abuse is common and underreported. Behavior similar to ghosting, called stonewalling, is a common tactic of control used by abusers, in which they cut off all communication with their victims and give them the silent treatment until they behave in accordance with their wishes. Abusers also deploy tactics like being emotionally withholding and hot-and-cold with affection to manipulate their victims into doing as they say. And while this isn’t what most people mean when they talk about ghosting, it’s harmful behavior that’s rightly classified as abusive.
L.A.-based psychotherapist Elise Franklin tells me that adults who were chronically neglected in childhood might perceive ghosting behavior as re-traumatizing. “It’s possible that people are traumatized from childhood neglect, which is abuse, and this trauma gets triggered when they get ghosted,” she says. “This doesn’t make ghosting abuse, but it makes these people feel abused and lets them recreate a pattern that’s as old as their lives.”
Isn’t it better, then, to err on the side of describing shitty behavior like ghosting as abusive and traumatic? Given the tendency of abuse victims to minimize the seriousness of their situations, and the fact that emotional abuse is already hard to detect and prove, isn’t quibbling about what constitutes abuse counterproductive — even dangerous?
These are good reasons to tread carefully, and a counterclaim that ghosting can never constitute abuse would be spectacularly unhelpful. “In and of itself, it can be too strong to call ghosting abusive,” Franklin says, “but taking the relationship into context really determines if it’s being used as abusive behavior or not.” However, using an overly broad definition of abuse doesn’t assist victims or help foster general understanding, and it can in fact risk trivializing the term.
Along those lines, Franklin says that ghosting is usually a tactic of the emotionally immature as opposed to the truly abusive. “In most cases, the biggest threat we experience with ghosting is a threat to our ego,” she continues, “and for many people, that’s unbearable.” Abuse is a sustained and deliberate attempt to control, intimidate, manipulate, threaten or harm another person over whom the abuser holds power — or, Franklin adds, sustained neglect throughout childhood. In other words, it’s not your Tinder match ignoring you after three days of lively flirting. “Ghosting can have long-term effects and can hurt really badly,” Franklin tells me. “But anyone who has experienced abuse would probably argue that they’re not one and the same.”
What’s more, statements like “ghosting is abuse” have the potential to magnify confusion and self-doubt in victims. For women and other vulnerable groups, ghosting an aggressive, manipulative or intimidating partner is often the safest way to escape the relationship or situation, and while internet users likely don’t have abuse victims in mind when they describe ghosting as traumatic, narcissistic and evil, these statements have the potential to make victims feel even more guilty and torn about leaving. Relatedly, claims that shitty dating behavior like ghosting and benching are abusive help fuel the myth of mutual abuse. It’s common for abusers to attempt to minimize their behavior and confuse and implicate their victims by saying things like, “You’re just as bad as I am” and “you hurt me, too!” Overly broad definitions of what constitutes abuse helps abusers to draw these false equivalencies.
This growing tendency to describe bad dating behavior in extreme terms is likely a symptom of the attention economy, in which the most clickable headlines and emotive claims are rewarded by the greatest number of eyeballs. Sweeping statements like “ghosting is abuse” thrive on social media sites like Twitter, where takes need to be piping hot to stand out and discourse quickly becomes polarized and inflammatory. The waning microblogging platform Tumblr has surely also played a role, known for breeding social justice rhetoric so laughably strained that it results in claims like “clean people are privileged” and “animals can’t communicate their preferred pronouns.”
Often, the boldest and least thoughtful of these claims come from well-meaning teens who are figuring out their politics, values and allegiances for the first time, and that’s sympathetic and understandable — but the dynamic results in galaxy-brained “insights” about interpersonal relationships, some of which end up being shared tens of thousands of times and taken up in earnest. “Ghosting is abuse” is now one of them.
And so, once-useful social-justice concepts invariably get run into the ground in this way. “Mansplaining,” for example, a term that used to connote the level of condescension required for a man to explain a woman’s own book to her, has been overused to the point that it’s come to mean no more than “men saying things to, or about, women,” as Benjamin Hart notes in Salon. “Gaslighting” initially meant a sustained, deliberate attempt to make a partner doubt their perception of reality to the point that it drove them crazy; now it’s a rough synonym for “lying” or “being an ass.” Somewhere along the line, everything became “toxic.” It’s no surprise, then, that “abuse” is next in line to have its meaning diluted by frenzied internet discourse.
Ghosting is hurtful and should be discouraged. Anyone who benches other human beings is acting like an asshole and deserves to be challenged. But characterizing shitty dating behavior like ghosting and benching as axiomatically abusive is glib and reductive. Being ignored after a first date isn’t the same thing as being manipulatively iced by a partner you’re afraid of, and precision in the language journalists and commentators use to allege bad behavior is crucial, especially now that we have entered an era of #MeToo backlash and fatigue.
Charged online proclamations like “ghosting is abuse” are clicky and retweetable, but they’re a poor substitute for the kind of nuance a topic this fraught and important requires.