Online dating and social media have ushered us into an era of unprecedented availability. We can swipe for dates, we can slide into DMs at all hours, and we can flirt via text whenever it’s convenient. At first, we feel giddy with possibility. This is not accidental: Many social platforms, including dating apps, were developed for us to get high off abundance by injecting into us a continuous stream of tiny dopamine doses (matches! super likes!).
But dating apps have more or less normalized the act of ghosting the strangers we chat with or meet on the internet. (Everyone knows what it’s like to shout “hello” into the abyss.) And while we all know that ghosting has become a kind of modus operandi for those who mediate much of their human interaction through technology, we have yet to truly grapple with the void that ghosting leaves unfilled.
I can only speak from my own experience — that of an Asian woman who mostly dates men — but if you’re anything like me, your approach to online dating is divided into two realms: the theoretical and the practical. In theory, I hope that people are out there looking for a real connection. But in practice, I have stopped expecting responses to my messages, and I know that at any point the people I am talking to may flake on a scheduled date. I’ve also come to expect that even after a few dates, and even if I end up going home with someone, they could simply disappear afterward — especially early on.
A lot of us have come to see ghosting as more of a norm than an exception in our day-to-day dating lives. You ghost, they ghost, we seemingly all ghost now.
While people have abandoned one another since the dawn of time, “ghosting” is a kind of crummy dating behavior that has been exacerbated by technology. A 2018 academic study on ghosting pegs the percentage of people who’ve been ghosted at 25% and those who have ghosted at 20%. An unscientific survey that BuzzFeed News conducted showed that of the most memorable times that respondents had been ghosted, a little more than half of them said they’d originally met that person online. You can read more of the results from this survey here.
Ghosting has become so ubiquitous in recent years that apps like Hinge have rolled out anti-ghosting features to try to stop the bad behavior. It’s even transcended into the realm of professional conduct, as some people have started ghosting their employers.
To understand my own ghosting experiences, I read through all 43 message threads from the last three months. I found that I had ghosted 29 of 43 people I talked to on the app. Below is a chart that breaks down my ghosting activity:
“Current forms of technology are making ghosting a more prominent relationship dissolution strategy,” wrote researchers who coauthored the report Ghosting and destiny: Implicit theories of relationships predict beliefs about ghosting. “The ease with which ghosting can occur in social media (a click of a button or the lack of clicking a button) increases the chances with which this strategy might be employed, without consideration of the possible downstream consequences.”
If we care about a person, even just a little, do we owe it to them to be considerate of their feelings even if things don’t work out? I set out to determine whether we can reframe ghosting through the lens of emotional debt to help us find an antidote to cynicism and fear, and, perhaps more importantly, become a little more accountable to others along the way.
A few years ago, I went on a date with L, who had invited me to a public lecture by a prominent activist not too far from my house. Afterward, we went out for sushi with one of his best friends, laughing aloud through dinner. Once his friend had left, L ended up walking me home alone. By a lake near my house, he turned toward me, mumbled something about how cute I was, and pulled me in for the kiss.
We went out two more times: Once, he came over to a gathering at my house with my friends. Another time, we went to see a movie. As he dropped me off at home, he kissed me goodbye. And that was the last I heard from him.
Being a pragmatist, I tried not to dwell on it and instead focused on making a swift recovery. But my friends insisted that L owed me something. I had met his close friend. He had come to my house and met my friends!
But what exactly did he owe me?
In some ways, when we speak about emotional debt in the context of ghosting — which some scholars have argued is emotional cruelty — we speak of the sum of actions not taken. Uncomfortable conversations that never take place. Confrontations that are never had. Questions that go unanswered. This absence leaves the ghostees to “manage the uncertainty of ghosting alone without the ability to obtain closure,” wrote Leah LeFebvre, an academic who wrote a paper about ghosting called Phantom Lovers: Ghosting as a Relationship Dissolution Strategy in the Technological Age. According to LeFebvre, the ambiguity that people feel after being ghosted “freezes the grief process.” This can become particularly painful because social media channels allow us to continue to passively watch, or orbit, each other, even if we’ve ceased to communicate entirely.
Some endings may just solicit a simple text à la “Sorry, I don’t feel an emotional connection.” In other scenarios, we may deserve an actual face-to-face sit-down. Maybe L just needs to say, “Hey, this was nice, but I don’t think I’m into it.”
Regardless, people do believe they are owed some degree of emotional labor. It’s not unreasonable to expect an explanation for why things ended — some may even say it’s basic human decency.
But this is where technology comes in and ruins everything.
First, there’s the abundance of people we encounter.
On Labor Day of last year, in a half-hearted attempt to “put myself out there” again, I redownloaded Tinder for the nth time. Even though this was an abnormal day — not only was it after a monthslong hiatus from dating apps, but I also let my friends take over my phone to swipe — I somehow managed to swipe through 466 potential boyfriends, girlfriends, lovers, partners, and whatnots. That’s the equivalent of roughly 42 soccer teams’ worth of potential mates.
While economists have argued that apps like Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge allowed people to step outside of their general milieus and cut down the “search cost” of finding a potential mate, this approach to dating can also lead to the adoption of a consumer-driven outlook. Even if we set out to really connect with an individual, it can be difficult to keep someone’s humanity in mind when we’re presented with SO. MANY. CHOICES. (It certainly doesn’t help that dating profiles are designed to look like product shots and descriptions from a SkyMall magazine and that, until not too long ago, Tinder used to encourage people to “keep playing.”)
How could I — or really anyone — truly dedicate what limited capacity we have to be emotionally accountable to this vast number of people?
The second issue online daters (and daters in general) face is the mismatch of supply and demand. People come to online dating with various different demands. There’s the person who’s looking to find a life partner. There’s the person who is seeking their next casual dalliance. There’s the couple looking for a third person. There’s the person in the “ethically nonmonogamous” relationship. There are the thousands of people who just got out of a relationship and are simply looking for a rebound.
All these factors have turned dating into a game of “What can this person do for me?” rather than an exploration of who they are and whether we might connect. It conditions us to expect a lot from the other person while also instilling in us the idea that we are not indebted to anyone we meet online. Not only is it easier to stop responding, it’s also easier to forget that we owe them anything at all.
And that leads to even more disappointment: Dating apps have started to become one of the last places we want to spend what little emotional capacity we have left after spending it elsewhere. Most people already feel fatigued by the news, not to mention all the IRL issues everyone generally has to deal with. On bad days, it’s hard to imagine oneself carving out additional space to be vulnerable. In other words, whether I ghost someone on a dating app depends heavily on just how emotionally depleted I already am that day.
Think of emotional capacity as a kind of account each person maintains — though its balance may fluctuate in greater measure than your run-of-the-mill bank account.
On some days, flirting online comes easy. On days we’re flush with funds, we may be more willing to send a message to someone after Tinder proclaims in all caps that IT’S A MATCH!
And then there are other times when our accounts are emptied. Coming up with witty replies takes energy, and receiving a dick pic in return may cost us what little wherewithal we have. Suddenly, on a day when we’ve already struggled to come up with the emotional capital to be playful, we end up having nothing left to give, especially to strangers on the internet.
So where does this leave us?
A knee-jerk reaction to this problem might be the rejection of all dating apps, perhaps even of the technologically based kindling of any type of relationship. There certainly seems to be a lot of writing suggesting just that. But is the Luddite’s path to love really the only way to find true connection?
It’d be easy to say yes. But I do believe that we’re at a pivotal point when we’re starting to question just how much we are going to allow technology to mediate our lives. From controlling how much time we spend on social media to buying actual printed books, in many ways we’re in a correction period during which, drunk off an overdose of screentime, we’re reckoning with the fact that too much technology may actually change our behavior in harmful ways.
So how do we resist the urge to give in to the self-centered ways that technology trains us to think about the world? Perhaps it’s by paying off some of the emotional debt we owe to the people we meet online.
Technology has not just made the joy of likes and shares ubiquitous. It has also made daily rejection a kind of death by a million papercuts. When someone cannot pay us the respect we are owed, we have two options: We can spend our time wondering what the reasons are, or we can accept that what we want and need is not what they can provide us with right now, and move on without resentment. Maybe they’re emotionally depleted too. Maybe they aren’t all that emotionally savvy and are spending their time and energy on short-lived connections. Maybe they are just running amok, ghosting people left and right and amassing emotional debt like they’re on a narcissistic spending spree. Whatever the case, it’s a matter of how you choose to protect yourself from getting hurt.
Then, and perhaps more importantly, there’s how we treat one another. That is still very much within the realm of things we can control.
As with how we use other apps, maybe our oversaturated selves will function as better humans when we limit how much we swipe and interact with people online. When we date honestly and with (clearly stated) intent that allows everyone involved to know where they’re at. When we actually think of the actions not taken as an unpaid debt.
In the process of writing this article, I realized that I was potentially stringing someone along, someone I thought was kind and attractive, someone I could imagine really hitting it off with…just not now. The holidays, while restful, can be tough on a single divorcé, and I have just not had the space to engage the way I’d like to.
After a great first date and a lot of initial enthusiasm with A, I quickly began to feel emotionally overwhelmed by the task of putting myself out there. I let more and more time pass between texts. I felt almost relieved when I fell ill and had to postpone a date. I saw myself trying to slowly withdraw from the situation. But that really wasn’t fair.
And so, instead of dragging us both through a long-winded and slow end, I texted A that I just wasn’t in the right mental state to date. I told him to try me again this summer, and A texted me that he really appreciated my honesty and would do just that.
Not every relationship may necessitate a drawn-out breakup, but what’s the harm of letting someone know you’re not interested before cutting them off? Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves?●