Love in 2023: Ghosting ‘new normal’ for ending relationships, research shows

ATHENS, Ga. — They say old relationships can haunt us for a long time, and that may be the case now more than ever before. Researchers from the University of Georgia say two in three people have “ghosted” someone they were dating, and have also been ghosted themselves at some point, providing a fascinating (and somewhat antisocial) peek into the dynamics of modern dating.

Ghosting is the tactic of simply ignoring someone in order to end a relationship without having to endure an awkward conversation or offer any kind of explanation. It has become remarkably commonplace in recent years. This uniquely modern practice, likely the result of the boom in dating apps and smartphones, may be convenient for the one doing the ghosting, but the person on the other end of the conversation is usually left searching for answers that will never come.

Still, up until now, researchers have conducted little formal research focusing on both why people ghost or the psychological effects of this social phenomenon.

“Ghosting is becoming a common strategy, and it creates an ambiguous situation where one party doesn’t really know what’s going on,” says corresponding study author Christina Leckfor, a doctoral student in the UGA Department of Psychology, in a university release. “We were interested in what individual differences or personal characteristics might influence a person’s intentions to use ghosting. We also wanted to know if people with a high need for closure were less likely to use ghosting, or if they would hurt more after being ghosted.”

For those being ghosted, the breakup was a negative experience for almost all participants in the team’s study. Notably, among people “who yearn for closure,” the negative effects of ghosting appeared much worse.

People who need closure actually do more ghosting

To analyze the impact of a given breakup, the participants had to reflect on a past relationship — either a time they were ghosted or directly rejected. Next, they answered questions about their psychological needs satisfaction, feelings of belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence. Ghosted participants displayed some of the lowest needs satisfaction, in other words, they were hit hardest by the rejection. Meanwhile, those who wanted closure reported even lower needs satisfaction levels.

“For recipients, desire for closure has this magnifying effect. When someone with a high need for closure recalled a time where they were ghosted or directly rejected, it hurt more than if they had a low need for closure,” Leckfor explains. “But they also felt more positive after recalling times when they were acknowledged by their partner.”

On the other hand, when a person thought about initiating a breakup, the connection between closure and ghosting varied.

“We actually found that people who had a higher need for closure were slightly more likely to intend to use ghosting to end a relationship,” Leckfor notes. “Even though things may be ambiguous on the recipient side, the person who is ghosting sees it as a distinct end to the relationship. Those results weren’t definitive in our study, but they pose an interesting avenue for future research.”

Even friends can ghost each other

To be clear, study authors note that ghosting doesn’t just take place on dating apps. Over half of the study participants reported a time when they were also ghosted by a friend, as opposed to a romantic interest.

“The individuals who were ghosted by a friend reported feeling just as bad about the relationship as those who wrote about a time when they were ghosted by a romantic partner,” Leckfor comments. “In psychology in general, a lot of literature regarding adult relationships focuses on romantic relationships. This [research] shows that friendships are really important to study as well.”

In summation, researchers add that this work points to the larger role technology now plays in human relationships. There have been numerous prior studies showing how people initiate, maintain, and end relationships without technology. However, as human connectivity increasingly moves toward social media, dating apps, texting, or video chats, those relationships can and likely will change. Individual traits, such as need for closure, will also have to be factored into how we use these technologies.

“Now, almost everybody uses these technologies to communicate and maintain these different types of relationships,” Leckfor concludes. “Knowing when these technologies can be helpful to build social connections or maintain your personal well-being, versus knowing when they might be harmful, is the end goal of what I hope my work in this area conveys to the public.”

The study is published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

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