Is There a Ghost in Your Relationship?

Have you ever been ghosted? Or perhaps you’ve been the ghost? I’m not talking about tricks and treats here. “Ghosting” is a term used by many young people to describe the sudden and complete abandonment of a relationship. All interactions, communications, and plans come to a sudden halt. There’s no explanation offered, no compromise reached, no confrontation or attempt to work through the issues that led the “ghost” to the decision to leave the relationship. There’s also no closure or growth for either person in the dyad, and that’s why ghosting a (non-abusive) relationship is a bad idea for everyone involved.

Notice my caveat above. For the record, I could support the sudden and unexplained, sometimes secretive cut off from an abusive relationship. But that’s not really what I’m addressing here. What I’m talking about is the sudden disappearance of friends and friendships, business relationships, and yes, even therapeutic relationships! And while we all have people in our lives whom we don’t particularly like but need to get along, I’m really speaking of the sudden and complete withdrawal of a previous close or consistent connection with another human being.   It’s a damaging way to treat others or to be treated.

It’s fairly easy to see how painful being ghosted would be. Not only have I experienced this, I’ve supported others as they’ve gone through it. There’s the beginning stage of denial: “Maybe they’re just busy. Maybe they didn’t get my message.” Eventually this gives way to questioning whether the silence and avoidance might be intentional. The next stage, after messages asking to get together or to discuss what’s going on go unanswered, there’s the realization that the non-communication is, indeed, intentional. Then, of course, there are the questions that go unanswered: “Why? What did I do? What did I say? What did someone else say?” The sense of being blindsided, abandoned, and cut off leaves most people feeling confused, uncomfortable, unsettled, misunderstood, and in a lot of self-doubt. There’s no closure in this scenario and so the ghosted is left to speculation, trying to make sense of the situation and find peace with it on their own without the benefit of honest feedback.

The reasons why someone chooses to suddenly and inexplicably stop communicating in a relationship are myriad and unique to each situation. While the person who chooses to do this must have their justifications for doing so, I believe it’s not in their best interest. While, on the outside, it might seem the easiest course of action, it robs the ghost of the chance to empower themselves by being honest with the ghosted.  This needn’t be a shouting match; a simple list of grievances might suffice to improve the dynamics in the relationship. But someone who chooses to completely withdraw cuts off from experiencing that possibility and fails to discover their own potency and agency in influencing positive change with others close to them. In essence, they simply give up.

When working with clients, it seems that sometimes they choose to just let go of a relationship rather than improve it because they fear hearing criticisms of their behavior that might come out of a conversation. This is a case where both the ghost and ghosted lose because honest and compassionate feedback can help us all improve and become better people. None of us is perfect and no relationship is, either. But without a discussion, both parties lose the opportunity to grow.

The therapeutic relationship is no different. Over the years I’ve worked with clients who suddenly and without explanation left previous therapists. I always encourage them to at least call their prior therapist, if it’s appropriate, to air their grievances, even if they don’t intend to continue working with that person. I have been left in the midst of working with clients as well. Misunderstandings in therapy happen just as they do in other relationships but they are usually complicated by other factors such as criticism or pressure from family members, loyalty issues when clients feel they or the therapist have been critical of someone they love, financial issues, ambivalence about the therapy or practitioner, or just an off day for the client or therapist. When clients have had the courage to confront me with their disappointments or conflict, it has usually resulted in a deepened connection, often leading to some valuable insights for our work together, regardless of whether the client chooses to continue to work with me. Those who leave without discussion lose the opportunity for better understanding or sense of themselves, their importance, and power. I lose the opportunity to get valuable feedback, clarify my intentions, and repair the relationship ~ all hallmarks of therapy and of relationships in general.

Confronting and solving problems with others are skills one needs throughout life. Doing so builds character, confidence, self-esteem, trust, respect, and closeness.   Few of us are comfortable with conflict, especially conflict in close relationships. It’s rarely modeled well but it is an excellent skill to develop. Many people think conflict has to be loud, violent, possibly disastrous or threatening. But it doesn’t.   Conflict is a normal part of relationships and a signal to talk and work it out, or at least attempt to. It gives us the chance to practice resilience and repair in relationships, which are necessary parts of living with connection in our social world as well as helpful in developing a strong sense of self. Collaborative addressing of our issues with others allows us to flex our problem-solving muscle and conflict resolution skills.  More and more, however, I see people choosing to simply withdraw from relationships in order to avoid the conflict they so fear.

If you are struggling with the pain of being ghosted or trying to figure out a way to present and work through conflicts with others with compassion and integrity, please give me a call. I’d love to work through these issues with you.