By Dan Williams – Integrative Psychotherapist
The origins of these reflections
This article offers advice on work with clients who ghost or are ghosted in online dating. To illustrate my views, I have used my own experience of being the ghost and of ghosting, reflected on through the lens of my psychotherapeutic training and professional experience. I used online dating intermittently between 2002 and 2016. Reflecting on various dates I can only speculate on why I was ghosted, probably with varying degrees of accuracy. What I am more certain of is why I ghosted and what I counsel my clients to do about ghosting now.
Online dating platforms, fertile ground for ghosting
I think ghosting and other frustrations associated with online dating arise from the easy anonymity it allows combined with fear of confrontation. While it is possible to expose oneself to a huge number of people, maximising ones chances of meeting a good match, the fact that online dating is usually a complete cold call means it is done against a backdrop of unconscious and conscious fear. Meeting through extended family or friends on the other hand, a bit more informal profiling and vouchsafing can occur in less exposing ways for example ‘oh, have you met my friend so-and-so, they like snowboarding like you…’
If one seeks an intimate relationship, being up front about it and engaging with a platform tailored for just that seems intuitively sensible and pragmatic. Practically though I think it makes people feel more vulnerable than in situations where meeting matches is incidental or at least plausibly incidental (e.g. attending a dinner party, visiting friends, joining a book club etc). I think this is because people are uncomfortable exposing their singleness and the very personal emotions surrounding it. I think it is this lukewarm backdrop of simmering unconscious discomfort in which ghosting and other behaviours arise.
Some insight from a ghost…
As mentioned, I have done a fair bit of online dating. For me, the most frustrating aspect of it was disingenuousness. In most cases, I believe this arose from fear rather than deliberate attempts to mislead. Nonetheless, many people I met had profiles that appealed to me on grounds of similar hobbies, pastimes, outlooks etc but on meeting, I found the actual agenda or identity vastly diverged from the stated (dating profile) one. Hidden agendas often poorly disguised as plausible small talk gave me the sense of being lied to. It was mostly this and hardly ever the actual content of the hidden agenda that sent me home from date after date frustrated and angry at having ‘been duped’ by ‘yet another fake profile’. It was those people I ghosted.
So what was going on inside me that made me ghost?
Firstly and most superficially I think the large number of people I was able to meet through online dating platforms made each one seem more disposable to me. Secondly, it was difficult to call the person on their disingenuousness because however ineptly disguised, it was still plausibly deniable. I therefore found myself in the frustrating situation of feeling duped but having nobody to reasonably accuse. Maybe if I had expressed my feelings I would have been pleasantly surprised but then again, perhaps an uncomfortable confrontation would have arisen. Remember online dating is already happening against a backdrop of creeping anxiety. This combined with the disposability of each person due to numbers, made it far easier to take the path of least resistance and simply not call back.
Why did people ghost me?
Discussed above was the main reason I ghosted people and I think the essence of it is the root of all purported reasons for ghosting, in other words, fear of some kind but particularly fear of confrontation. Maybe people who ghosted me didn’t like me but felt uncomfortable hurting my feelings (or more to the point afraid of guilt they would feel if they saw me hurt). Maybe people who ghosted me felt as if I had in some way been disingenuous and were afraid of the potential confrontation accusation may cause just as I was when I ghosted people. Maybe people who ghosted me were interested in me but were also meeting others online and got someone with whom they shared greater chemistry and were afraid to hurt my feelings by telling me (or again, were afraid of guilt they would feel if they saw me hurt). In any case, I think fear of confrontation – perhaps sometimes in the form of anger that often follows hard on the heels of such fear – is a key cause of ghosting.
No doubt, the catfish, players, users, sexual predators, scam artists and other malign online presences exist but I think while these unfortunately earn the biggest media coverage and command the greatest fear, they are likely to represent the minority of people in online dating. I think also, such archetypes act as containers for the far more common and innocuous fears in the online dating field serving to draw public fire and muddying the waters for addressing more genuine, common concerns such as ghosting and its causal fear.
So how do we counsel around this?
I think my policy on work with clients on both ends of ghosting may to some practitioners seem disappointingly vanilla. We cannot know why someone else has ghosted our client but we can learn why they ghost and how they might be contributing to their being ghosted. Certainly the therapeutic relationship takes place using in large part the client’s material as a medium of exploration so reflecting on electronic conversations the client has with their dates (and of course their recollection of verbal ones) leading up to their being ghosted or ghosting keeps therapy moving along. If we’re lucky it may even short cut us into revealing reflections on obvious repetitive patterns of relationship to which the client strongly contributes. But I think it is crucial for us to focus less on this surface material and mostly on the unconscious communication between our clients and us. Put differently, trying to reverse engineer what went on before a client (was) ghosted (by) someone is probably less productive than focusing on the client’s feelings around ghosting and their feelings around discussing it.
Therapeutic change will obviously not stop other people from ghosting our clients but it will give them less fear of being genuine. With greater confidence, our clients will feel less need to avoid (ghost) people because of increased confidence in initiating reasonable confrontations and also attracting more suitable matches to themselves by having and being able to identify the more genuine online profiles in the first place.
I think if someone is less afraid, their capacity to empathise grows. Less secure people function more in psychic equivalence and have a reduced mentalization capacity so cannot read intentions as well as more secure empathic people. With increased security on the other hand, come better reflexive functioning, empathy and mentalization. These afford us, among other things, greater ability to read intentions. I think a more empathic person will be more able to steer clear of hidden agendas with a minimum of engagement. In my personal experience, as I progressed through therapy and psychotherapy training during my online dating years, this extended even as far as a better ability to read between the lines of text in an online dating profile.
That’s right! It’s just a case of good old fashioned psychotherapy! Our clients’ increased self awareness and self acceptance will mean they can engage with the world including the fearful online dating world with less fear, more compassion, greater empathy and better judge of character. Ghosting won’t go away and is likely to be part of the online dating furniture forever but better equipped people will ghost and be ghosted less.
© Dan William 2019
Born in New Zealand and living in the UK for the last 20 years, Dan is an integratively trained psychotherapist and supervisor with a previous career in information technology. He works in full time private practice with a wide range of clients and his professional interests are gender and attachment differences across cultures, perceptions of disability, the evolution of marriage, questions of monogamy and polyamory and exploration of nature vs nurture in general. He also enjoys writing fiction and reflective pieces.