I’ve done psychology work at universities, in various capacities, for four years now, and I’m beginning to pick up on general themes that are common to many university-age students. There’s nothing that makes me feel like an out-of-touch old man, yelling at clouds, like descriptions of modern dating.
When I was playing “the game” of dating, mostly in the mid ’00s, I thought of courtship in a pretty old-fashioned, traditional way: I’d meet someone, take an interest in them, get their phone number, call them up, invite them to a date at a predetermined time and place, pick them up, have fun, take them home, etc. Online dating was definitely something people did not go around bragging about. Now it seems to be the standard way to meet, and it may be shaping how we perceive each other.
Over and over again, my clients tell me that the most hurtful aspect of the revolving-door nature of modern dating is “ghosting.” This is when one partner of a dating relationship ceases all contact with the other, signaling a loss of interest. While I understand why ghosting exists, there’s something profoundly cruel about it, and I think that it ties back not just to social rejection but also existential injury.
First of all, I get it. There are some problems that simply “go away” if you ignore them. My standard example is Laundry Mountain, the name I give to all the clean laundry on my bed that I know I should put away, but never find the time to. Every day I take a few items off the pile to wear, and tell myself “when I get home from work, I’m putting this all away.” And every day after work, I’m too tired to put them away and I go to bed. The crazy thing is that this strategy eventually works: Laundry Mountain erodes and goes away as I slowly wear all the clothes. I never actually have to put the clothes away.
Telling a person, “I’m just not that into you, because of X, Y, Z” really, really sucks. It feels bad. It makes you feel like a bad person. But there’s an alternative: just ignore their texts, calls, and social media messages until they eventually stop and you don’t have to address them anymore. It’s a strategy that “works!” Problem solved!
However, there’s a sad reality about ghosting: the “object” of your strategy is not an object at all, nor are they an annoying problem like a pile of laundry. They are, in fact, a human being. And the experience of being ghosted isn’t just horrible, it strikes at a core human need: belongingness and connection with others.
We’re social animals. Social rejection causes pain that is so similar to physical pain that it can actually be reduced by taking acetaminophen. I think that viewing ghosting through the lens of social rejection yields a lot of interesting insights, but I think that social rejection taps into something even more fundamental for people, and that is their existential reality.
According to the psychological schools influenced by existential philosophy, we are fundamentally lonely beings. We came into this world alone, and we will go out of this world alone. Our awareness of our mortality provokes a heightened awareness of just how lonely we are, and how much our choices matter to our own existence. On this theory, social belongingness isn’t just an evolutionary adaptation to help our species survive. It’s also an avenue to build a life of meaning and repair the
I think that “ghosting” may inflict an injury to a person’s sense of existential meaning, especially at a very sensitive time in their development. Even an outright rejection from someone means that a person matters – at least enough to deserve an explanation for abandonment. Indifference, in this way, is worse. It is a signal that a person is not even worth an explanation. It is a reminder of our ultimate mortality and disconnection from other beings.
Stack up enough of these injuries, and I can see why dating can seem like a harsh, painful, anxiety-provoking world for many young people who value warm, meaningful human connections. This is especially true for my clients who did not form strong attachments to parents or family growing up, either through abuse or neglect. Many of them don’t know how to “fix” maladaptive social behaviors because no one even bothers to tell them what they’re doing or why they are being rejected.
So, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I think that people are entitled to an explanation. It is hard to communicate to someone that you’re not interested in them, but I would venture to say that it is a better strategy, and less emotionally harmful to others, in the long run.