Health & Family

Exes explain ‘ghosting,’ the ultimate silent treatment

It was not long ago that Sean Penn and Charlize Theron were a happy couple: appearing together at film festivals, hugging on the beach. Recently, though, it was reported that Theron had stopped responding to Penn’s calls and text messages. She was “ghosting” him.
It was not long ago that Sean Penn and Charlize Theron were a happy couple: appearing together at film festivals, hugging on the beach. Recently, though, it was reported that Theron had stopped responding to Penn’s calls and text messages. She was “ghosting” him. AFP/Getty Images

It was not long ago that Sean Penn and Charlize Theron were a happy couple: appearing together at film festivals, hugging on the beach. Recently, though, it was reported that Theron had stopped responding to Penn’s calls and text messages. She was “ghosting” him.

What’s ghosting? Ghost has come to be used as a verb that refers to ending a romantic relationship by cutting off all contact and ignoring the former partner’s attempts to reach out.

Who’s doing it? The term has already entered the polling lexicon: In October 2014, a YouGov/Huffington Post poll of 1,000 adults showed that 11 percent of Americans had “ghosted” someone.

Victims of ghosting speak: Justine Bylo, 26, an independent account manager in publishing, has felt what this is like firsthand. She once invited a man she had been dating casually for about eight months to a wedding. As the day approached, he stopped responding to Bylo’s text messages, and she attended the wedding alone. She later found out that he had been dating another woman at the time.

“It happens to me so often that I’ve come to expect it,” Bylo said. “People don’t hold themselves accountable anymore because they can hide behind their phones.”

Aaron Leth, 29, a fashion editor, found his texts unanswered when a man he had been dating for a month disappeared after he and Leth had bought the ingredients for a dinner they planned to cook later that evening. “He went home to take a nap and said, ‘I’ll call you,’” Leth said. “I’m still waiting, two years later.”

The ghosts explain: Many of those who have ghosted are contrite, citing their own fear and immaturity. Jenny Mollen, 36, an actress and the author of “I Like You Just the Way I Am,” a collection of essays, had been dating a man for three months, then froze him out of her life. “I didn’t know how else to extricate from relationships. It was me being young and not knowing how to disappoint. ... If you disappear completely, you never have to deal with knowing someone is mad at you and being the bad guy,” she said.

Brian Allen, 24, an associate analyst for a consulting firm, who has gone silent a few times but never after more than a couple of dates, also praised the crisp simplicity of ghosting. “They’ve all been quite effective in their purpose,” he said of his endings.

Has technology made all this worse? Whether this behavior has become more predominant with the advent of technology is debatable, but perhaps now it stings more, since there are so many ways to see your beloved interacting with other people while ignoring you. The rise of apps like Tinder and Grindr, and the impression they give that there is always someone else – literally – around the corner, is certainly empowering to ghosts.

Anna Sale, 34, managing editor of the WNYC podcast “Death, Sex & Money,” believes that social media enables avoidance of difficult conversations. “As people have gotten less and less comfortable talking face to face about hard things, it’s become easier to move on, let time pass and forget to tell the person you’re breaking up with them,” she said.

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