A few years back, while my father was in hospital being treated for terminal cancer, I briefly dated someone. It turned out the guy had zero interest in asking me how I was feeling (I was spending upwards of 8 hours a day in hospital with my dad at the time), but was nonetheless interested in coming over to sleep with me. After three such dates, I stopped answering his calls and never called him back. My father nearly died that time. I was a mess emotionally and physically. I simply could not bring myself to deal with anything else, especially not a selfish person who didn’t even once ask me how I was and whether I needed anything. What I did is called “ghosting”.
Ghosting, the act of disappearing out of someone’s life without explanation, is also pretty common in online dating, and there are heaps of articles online telling you how horrible it is and what a horrible person you are for doing it (such as this article in Psychology today). Such articles are often written by men, although I have seen some by women who claimed to be “gender blind” when it comes to dating etiquette.
Ghosting does feel horrible. I’ve been ghosted in the past by both men I’ve been on one date with and men I’ve known for a long time. I was as disappointed as confused as you’d imagine. Whether you’re a man or a woman, the longer you’ve known someone, the more emotionally invested you are and the more interaction you’ve had with them, the more disappointed and sad you’ll be when they turn out to seemingly not care about your feelings enough to tell you they’re not interested to your face. This is especially true if you’ve had sex with them, because it can make you feel really used. Am I sorry for having ghosted the guy in the story above? Sure, and later on I apologised to him for it (and his response was as self-absorbed as you can imagine).
But we can’t really pretend that there is no difference between men and women’s experience of dating and social interaction, no more than we can ignore the fact that while men do get raped, it’s far far less common than women getting raped.
Women live in a world where complete strangers tell you to smile on the street and hurl abuse to you if you don’t. Where guys are “just being friendly, what’s your problem, bitch?” until you’re friendly back and then they ask you for your phone number and accuse you of having lead them on if you refuse to give it. We live in a world where self-proclaimed “nice guys” feel so entitled to women’s affections by virtue of simply not being openly horrible to them that they write articles whining about being in the “friend zone” (and cut you out of their lives in a huff, of course, once the potential for future sex is out the window). Guys feel entitled to our attention and affection simply because they happen to be interested in us. If we think we might be interested and then learn that we are not, all hell breaks loose.
Women have to deal with this shit ALL THE TIME, yet we are constantly judged for trying to minimise unpleasantness we never asked for. I’ve even seen articles criticising women for rejecting men by saying they have a boyfriend even when they don’t, in spite of the fact that this is often the fastest, safest way to get a man to walk away without hurling abuse at you or even attacking you. For many women, ghosting is not “being a coward” and “putting yourself first”. It’s dealing with real fears and real survival issues in the safest way possible.
Yes, ideally, any person you date who does not want to continue seeing you would take the time to let you know so that you’re not left hanging. Personally, I think that’s the most respectable thing to do. However, this also assumes that the person on the receiving end of rejection will be respectful enough to accept it without demanding an explanation, being rude or abusive or offloading their negative emotional state on the other person. This almost never happens. Women can be as guilty as men of not taking rejection well and using emotional blackmail to try and get the other person to change their mind, but the chances of a woman putting a man in actual danger as a result of rejection are far slimmer than the opposite. That’s why I can understand women who ghost men more than I understand men who do it.
Let’s leave ghosting after actual relationships (a few months+) out of this discussion, because when you’re involved with someone you do owe them some sort of explanation if you decide to bail (unless they’re actually abusive). A person you’ve messaged online or been on a date with once or seen on the street and fancied does not owe you an explanation as to why they are not interested in you. Yes, it would be nice to get one for your own peace of mind, closure and ego, but that’s on you, not on them. Just because a person replied to an online message you sent or agreed to date you and then decided for whatever reasons that you weren’t a good fit, doesn’t buy you the right to what could turn out to be an awkward, unpleasant experience for the other person.
We’re all used to seeing ourselves in the centre of the universe, but sometimes we have to accept the fact that, well, not everyone we happen to meet is going to share this view. Even the most heteronormative people often start off as poly on dating sites, going on a few dates with a few different people before they settle on one. Once a person has decided you’re not the one, they are not likely to want to make any sacrifices for you.
How many people would actually accept a simple rejection message without trying to make a conversation of it? Probably not as many as you think. Most normal people would figure out a person is ghosting them after a few days of trying and failing to get in touch. It may be bad manners, but it’s not a mortal sin. It’s just a few days of wondering, followed by the unpleasant dawning realisation. So an outright rejection message would be cleaner and give you those couple of days back, but the trade off is either a direct rejection with no explanation (again, you’re not owed one) or direct negative criticism. Most people don’t react well to negative criticism.
The truth is, most people are secretly angry at the other person for rejecting them, but won’t admit it to themselves. Instead they’ll be overly angry at the person for “leaving them hanging” (ghosting), or, if they do get a rejection message, breaking up with them on the wrong medium (You’re breaking up with me on Facebook/WhatsApp/text message???), not giving a reason, or ghosting them after they insist on not taking no for an answer. Yes, you might be the person who’s going to be happy with a clear “no”, but if you are, you’re pretty uncommon.
Until people, especially men, learn to accept rejection at face value without feeling entitled to an explanation, a conversation or a second chance, I refuse to judge women in particular for taking the safe, easy way out. Sometimes it’s better to let the man on the other side come to a slow realisation away from us, rather than confronting him with potentially dangerous rejection (dangerous for us, obviously).
In the meantime, whether you are a man or a woman, if you think you are being ghosted, you can either stop trying to make contact and see if the other person reappears on their own after a while or you could simply send a polite message saying that you think you are being ignored and if so, good luck, otherwise “feel free to contact me when you are less busy”. Sometimes just being honest and disarming can bring out the honesty in another person. Sometimes it doesn’t, but then at least you’ll have a reason to write the other person off.