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Ghosting: How A Generation Stopped Breaking Up

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Welcome to the Ex Games: a content series about love lost. Whether it's the realization things need to end, the act of rejection, the reality of being single, or the resurrection that is moving on, the Ex Games has every stage of a breakup covered.

And to really bring these stories to life, we've launched the Ex Games podcast, where we delve into the two sides of a break-up story with a new couple each week, and aim to end up somewhere near the truth. Because when it comes to affairs of the heart, everyone plays, but does anyone win? Let's find out. 

It was 8 p.m. on a Friday and my plans were developing in the text chain before me.

Never mind that I was already out with friends, never mind that I was a couple of drinks in, never mind that anything else in the world was going on. He was texting me, and, as far as I was concerned, he was the only plans I had.

I watched as his gray ellipses transformed into bubble after bubble of fully-formed thoughts. It had been days of silence, days of anticipation, as my blue blocks of text sat unanswered, hopeful, and wilting. But here he was, on the other side, dedicated to our conversation, responding in real time.

He did this sometimes: flew into my life, lighting it up in a whirlwind of color; a tornado of raw, unchecked emotion. And he disappeared sometimes, leaving it gray and drained, deliberately making his demand ruthlessly higher than his supply.

Talking to him always felt tenuous. Like he was ready to fly in a million directions and I was just one tiny, infinitesimal possibility he could take or leave.

He careened his way into my life sporadically and when it suited him. But when he was present, when he focused the whole of his full-blown crazy on me, it felt like he was mine. Like I really had him.

Until I didn't anymore.

So there I was, hunched over the fuzzy block of light, rudely ignoring the real world. He had plans to meet me, and everything else became blindingly unimportant. I was giddy, triumphant, at the idea of seeing him.

“I'll text you when I'm out of the shower” he said. Those were the last words we ever exchanged.

Kaitlyn's phone

Sure, I had heard of "ghosting" before – when someone in your life abruptly cuts off all communication without a word – but I didn't really know what it was.

You never really know what it is until you obsessively pull your phone out every few minutes for days on end, willing it to yield texts that won't be sent.

I waited for another text that night. If I'm being honest, I waited the next couple of weeks for a text loaded with the excuses I had already drummed up for him in my head.

But I refused to text him.

At first, it was because I was incredulous. I couldn't believe he would leave it like that. I expected more; I deserved more. Then, as more time passed, it became a matter of pride. I didn't want him to know he meant enough to hurt me.

It wasn't the first time he disappeared, but it was the last time. I never got that pruny, apologetic text, and I never found out why.

It leaves a wide-open wound that scabs but doesn't heal because, as both ghosters and ghostees know, it can be made fresh with a careless drunk text or a sporadic Instagram "like."

As relationship psychologist Dr. Gregory Kushnick explains, "If you're currently messaging with three potential dates, swiping daily 20 times for even more mates, meeting one or more new dates while struggling with being ghosted last week by someone you liked, how much effort are you going to invest in offering closure... You've already moved on in 10 different directions, which squashes your empathy toward someone you decided isn't worthy of your 'commitment.'"

This overstimulation of choice, combined with a lack of consequences, breeds a dating culture bereft of emotional compassion.

Our digital worlds are shielding us from the emotional consequences of our actions. We'd rather meet online than face to face; we'd rather break up over text than in person – if we decide to break up at all. We've forgotten what “closure” is and what “accountability” means.

In the absence of information, of answers, our brains work tirelessly to find out why; we aren't satisfied with senselessness.

That's why closure is so important: It “enables you to file away positive and negative memories in a way that reduces bitterness, resentment, and blame,” Dr. Kushnick explains, “it closes a mental and emotional loop, helping you take responsibility and come to terms with things that cannot be changed.”

With a breakup, you know it's over. With ghosting, that tiny, stupid, please-shut-up part of you holds out hope there's a Hail-Mary excuse for everything.

Whether ghosters actively or passively choose not to engage, the fact remains: They don't believe you deserve a response. And, understandably, that rejection has lasting effects.

“Sometimes these 'not yet' relationships can carry great pain. Your hopes are up; you haven't found a good match in a long while; it seemed like it was going to work,” as clinical psychotherapist Dr. LeslieBeth Wish contends, “The emotions of loss are greater than the length of time together.”

That feeling of loss compounds itself with all the frayed ends of an unfinished relationship: not knowing if it was something you did, not thinking you're worthy of commitment.

As Dr. Kushnick adds, "It's fertile ground for getting lost in your painful idealizations of what relationships could have been or how wonderful you thought someone was before they ghosted you. Your insecurities become triggered when you are rejected, which increases your chances of seeing other people as better than you or yourself as not good enough."

Of course, the sting of loss in any broken relationship has a romanticizing effect: when all you can remember is what you miss; when all the bad is eclipsed in the bruised, pained, and nostalgic warmth of heartbreak. These "almost relationships" have a way of seeming ideal in retrospect.

"When someone you consider to be 'perfect' for you breaks up with you, your sense of self-worth plummets regardless of the actual amount of data you have on their greatness," Dr. Kushnick asserts.

I'm pretty sure my ghoster wasn't "the one." Unfortunately, it's still a guessing game. You just don't know – and that eats at you. How can a relationship flourish if it's never given the chance?

As dating coach and School of Love founder Monica Parikh rightly opines, we're “treating other humans as fungible — to be discarded like an iPhone 5 once a newer, more shiny toy enters the market.”

We kissed there, I thought remorsefully, staring at the tight two-seater next to the conductor car. Instead of us, cloistered, enveloped, and lost in each other, there was a half-asleep construction worker (man)spread across the seat.

We drank hot chocolate there, open and steaming, slathered with whipped cream I used to decorate his face whenever he looked away. He was always a canvas, blank and yielding, and I had preoccupied myself with painting him in the broad strokes of my own ideal image.

I shook my head free of the memory; distance had made me capable of that. It stung less when I thought of it now: the way things always do with time, when wounds become scars and sharp pains are replaced with dull aches.

I saw him more clearly – who he was and who I made him. I knew it wasn't real.

As Dr. Kushnick confirms, "Human nature is to idealize people when we lose them. If someone was bad to you, you might cycle through devaluing them, but there's a good chance you'll also put them on a pedestal when something about the relationship reminds you of your insecurities."

But he didn't.

"There's a fundamental lack of empathy in ghosting," Parikh maintains. “An aggrieved person can spend months (or even years) trying to make sense of the illogical. Everyone deserves insight, compassion, and an ending that makes sense.”

I had a million things I was still clamoring to say, a million questions still firing through my head: synapses of insecurity, belittling and dismantling everything we had, everything we built, and the nothing that came from it.

I never got the conclusion I thought I deserved.

I was playing a zero-sum game with my heart. I denied what I felt, and all the things I never said festered in me; they ate me alive.

I was done pretending I didn't care.

There's something beautiful about being vulnerable, about opening yourself up and giving new love a chance, even when there could be a million other people out there "better suited" to you.

And there's something even more beautiful, if in a sad way, about caring enough for a person to break things off when your feelings have changed.

We've become so obsessed with this "on to the next one" mentality that we're not giving ourselves a chance to feel. Because, if we really cared, we wouldn't leave someone toiling in their own pain, second-guessing every text they've ever sent.

Somewhere along the way, the "hook-up culture" took root and, with it, the no-strings-attached belief that whoever cares more loses. But no one's winning.

He taught me that — even if he'll never learn the lesson himself.

I'm over him now; I've given myself my own closure. He's not "the one." How could he be? He was content to slash and burn his way through my life and he couldn't be bothered to look back at the ashes he left behind.

He just didn't care.

Never mind how many hearts he left shattered in his wake, never mind someone he "loved" stewing on the other end of the phone, never mind anything at all.

He was doing right by him, and, as far as he was concerned, he was the only person who mattered.