Ghosting and Mental Health

On an infamous episode of Sex and the City, protagonist Carrie is abandoned by her boyfriend who leaves a post-it note stating that he is breaking up with her. Ghosting is a rupture or end of communication between individuals. In clinical psychology, ghosting is the act of terminating a relationship by abruptly ceasing all contact and communication with someone without offering any justification or explanation while also ignoring the ghostee’s attempts to reach out. Ghosting is not just about romantic relationships. Friendships, family interactions, and workplace relationships also experience the painful effects of ghosting.

Medical health:
Physical pain and emotional pain are actually on the same neural pathway and research shows that social rejection can cause the same level of pain that an injury to your body would cause, activated in the same region of the brain. Referring to somebody as having a broken heart is accurate, as large amounts of stress hormones such as cortisol are released into the bloodstream after a severe emotional loss. Notably, one study showed that taking painkillers such as Advil or Tylenol while experiencing emotional pain had some alleviating effects.

Being ghosted is literally painful.

Mental health:
In my couples therapy work, which includes romantic relationships, sibling relationships, and friendship ruptures, I refer to ghosting as the ‘living death’. You are grieving someone who is still physically alive somewhere in the world, perhaps even in your personal landscape, but they are essentially gone. It is bereavement. The health research clearly shows that feeling abandoned leads to lower self-esteem, anxiety, self-blame, and low self-worth. Ghosting can lead to increased feelings of mistrust in future relationships and increased concerns about the possibility of abandonment. Your friend/partner/family member/colleague leaves you behind without valid answers to your questions, and wondering what you did wrong, why it wasn’t enough, and what you could have done to prevent it.

The neuropsychology:
The fact that there was no reason, discussion, explanation; closure wasn’t provided for the ghosting hinders the healing process of the ghostee, not allowing their brain to ponder over the relationship and learn from experience. Our frontal lobes require explanation and meaning and struggle to deal with having no answers. This can lead to long-term mental distress and confusion.

Who ghosts?
Personality Disorders and Ghosting
Those with narcissistic tendencies may be more likely to unexpectedly end contact with a partner. Ghosting itself reflects some classic traits of a narcissist, including low self-esteem, the need to have the upper hand in a relationship, and a lack of empathy for the other person. Someone with this personality disorder forms relationships based on how it may benefit them. If that relationship challenges them or their ideas about their own character or flaws, they may not consider that relationship to be beneficial anymore and simply end it. Ghosting allows them to maintain their position of power by letting them end things on their own terms and preventing potential rejection.

Someone with a higher rating on the Dark Triad traits may be more apt to choose ghosting than other, more direct — and arguably more empathetic — ways to end a relationship. The Dark Triad includes narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy (please see Jones and Paulhus, 2014). Narcissism refers to an inflated sense of self, a grandiosity that tends to correspond with using others for one’s own social status or other benefits. Machiavellianism is a tendency towards manipulation, self-serving calculated social strategies, and game-playing. Psychopathy reflects a lack of impulse control, low frustration tolerance, and overall ‘meanness’ (low empathy or EQ).

Social Anxiety and Ghosting
Social anxiety disorder is characterized by fear and avoidance that interfere with healthy relationships. While the individual may have the drive to seek out connections with others, this disorder can sabotage their efforts by causing them to fear the process of building those connections.

Depression and Ghosting
Similarly, depressive disorders such as major depression and bipolar disorder can sabotage an individual’s efforts to build and maintain relationships. Depression can be a very isolating experience and make it difficult for the individual to motivate themselves to answer phone calls and texts. In some cases, it may simply be easier to cut someone off than communicate with them when struggling with highs and lows. While it may not be personal, it feels personal to the recipient of this behavior.

Overall, ghosting has significant mental health, physical health, and even neural results. We are wired to be connected, and when we feel rejected, it hurts physically and emotionally. Ghosting is not benign.

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