How To Be Ghosted
Updated: Oct 9, 2018
Like many children with an overactive imagination, I fixated on the unknown. At the age of 5, I would stay awake long into the night, convinced that ghosts would break into my room at any moment. Ghosts and ghouls and monsters were far scarier than burglars or criminals because they were bodiless, unfazed by alarms or chains or double locks. If I ever needed to leave my bedroom at the dead of night, I would race to the kitchen or bathroom and race back, my heart pounding in response to some imagined threat. I had one rule. I was only okay once my back was against the bed.
As I moved into my twenties, ‘ghosting’ became a verb and somehow scarier. You chat to someone on the phone or in real life. You might have a great time. A few laughs. A connection. Then you push the boat out. You 'just go for it' like your friend tells you and people do in films. You send the text. But then: nothing. No closure, no explanation, no justification. Just silence.
As millennials, we’re used to getting what we want in an instant. Our smartphones are a means to achieve goods and services with a few touches of our thumb. A cab to Shoreditch? 3 minutes. A beef pad thai? 15. A well-adjusted 26-year-old man with long eyelashes, a sense of humour, a healthy relationship with his mother and a natural dose of ambition? Error 404: Page not Found.
We’ve been told all our lives that the harder you work for something, the quicker it will come. But dating doesn’t fit that model. You could spend hours every day trying to find a mate. You could organise your dates into a colour-coded spreadsheet. You could spend thousands on the right kind of hair and clothes and teeth and exercise until you have the perfect gap between your thighs. But no amount of effort ensures success.
Friends of mine who have been in long-term relationships since the dawn of Tinder humble brag about not understanding it. “I just wouldn’t know what to do on it!” They whine, their eyes glinting. “I mean, which way do I swipe? Is that even the right word?”
From the outside, I can see that dating apps might seem like a fun novelty. They’re flirtatious. They’re compulsive. They’re an infinite wheel of spinning potential.
But, for me, they aren’t really any of these things.
Conversations on Tinder, Bumble, Happn, Coffee and a Bagel and so on are a double-edged sword. On one level - as you have barely any common ground with the people you’re talking to - you chat about the most mundane subjects imaginable. On another, the stakes are high. This strange dichotomy can turn us into a person we don’t even recognise. I find myself, a self-respecting human woman In Real Life, saying things like “going for a cocktail, naughty....haha!”
We are seeing and interacting with real people, with real emotions, through a medium that is fashioned like a game. In a game, we put our empathy to one side because we know the figures we are interacting with (the exploding fruit, the bird in a catapult) aren’t real. Dating apps can feel similar, with the same compulsive rush on gaining a ‘match’ as going up a level or getting onto the leader board.
And, within this game, any genuine display of emotion or need feels a bit like losing. Conversations on dating apps are like an on-going game about who cares the least. But unlike a game, everything does not start afresh when you lose. The emotional ramifications can be sticky and thick.
Of course, romantic rejection is nothing new. What is new is the numbers involved. We have so many options that fixing our flag-post to one person seems absurd. Currently, I have 1020 Tinder Matches. 23 are called Alex. 12 are called Tom. Some have brown hair, some have dirty blonde. Some appear to own a boat. Pretty much all have been to Maccu Piccu. How could I possibly choose between them? What separates one Alex or Tom from the next?
These ‘ghosts’ still exist on my phone, ghosts of people who accosted me in the street or kissed me in clubs or chatted with me briefly on Bumble. I know they must all have hopes and fears and jobs and parents and neuroses and favourite episodes of Friends. One day they will be father and grandfathers and uncles. But seeing them as I do, in this one-dimensional way, it is so hard for me to imagine. And, in turn, it’s probably hard for them to see me as a full human person too.
I’ve been guilty of ghosting people, too, countless times, as have most of my friends. Boys have been ignored or dismissed after being taken for a ride on the ‘what do you do/where are you from’ merry-go-round. I’ve had dates with people and never texted them again. In the minefield of dating, ghosting is tempting. There's a sadistic kind of ego boost to leaving someone hanging. It is the opposite of love: clean, simple, and requires no effort.
According to the common wisdom of romantic comedies and home insurance adverts, we love people in spite of what’s ‘wrong’ with them. But in order to get there, we must go through this strange pre-relationship purgatory, in which we can dump someone as soon as they become boring, or different to what was promised on the tin. This new kind of dating has opened up a liminal state between someone being a stranger and being your person, which causes a whole new realm of anxiety for both sides.
I don’t think I’ve changed all that much between the age of 5 and 24. The same part of my brain that invented the ghosts and ghouls and monsters now creates scenarios for men who drop briefly into my romantic life before leaving again without a trace. I, like so many others, torture myself over how I could have played it better. And, if I do choose a Tom or an Alex out of all the Toms and all the Alexes, I tell myself I should have gone for another one.
What it comes down to, then, is the impossibility of choice. We can’t quite hitch ourselves to any one individual because we are haunted by the myriad of possible alternatives.
Written by Matilda Curtis
Illustrated by Madeleine Sava