How to Break Up Like an Adult and Avoid The Despicable Art of Ghosting

Many of you might be familiar with a fairly recent term, "Ghosting" that we often overhear when people speak of the dating world.  This notion of "ghosting" refers to someone suddenly and virtually "vanishing" from the life and radar of the person whom they're dating.  As I sit in the therapist chair, I hear of this phenomenon almost daily--the idea of someone, with whom you were in some type of a romantic relationship--even if merely a fledgling one--becoming no longer reachable or in contact with you, with little to zero warning. Thus, the "ghoster" becomes someone whom you just never see, again, unless by accident.  A relationship ends before you may have even known it might end, at all, and you never get to hear any sort of reason or explanation as to why this person no longer wishes to see you or be in your life.  Sounds callous, doesn't it?  It sounds callous because it is.  Not only is it callous, but I argue it telegraphs a clear message of disrespect and a lack of empathy.  Let me clarify, that if someone has only had 1-3 dates with you, and you never hear from them, again, I'm willing to let that slide as acceptable behavior--provided you had no other friends in common or connection to each other aside from those few encounters. As a therapist, I receive news of ghosting from both ends.  I empathize with those patients who have been ghosted on.  I also basically am asked for feedback and validation on if ghosting someone is acceptable.  While my job as a clinician, I believe, is more to hold up a mirror rather than to advise, I always make it quite clear that I never advocate for ghosting.  I would tell that patient that that behavior is downright cowardly and nothing short of despicable.  Why?  Because it lacks in any sort of consideration or empathy for the other person--particularly when this person is being broken up with. While I always would want to question the motivation of a person through a non-judgmental lens,  I would still have to argue that in life there are right and wrong ways to handle things according to our moral compasses.  Ghosting seems to lack any sort of care for another person's feelings.  People may ghost for different reasons, but if you ghost on someone purely to avoid the discomfort that might come about with having to sit someone down and have a break-up talk, then that is clearly a selfish act.  Also, think of the person whom you're breaking up with--that person might not even realize a breakup is even imminent.  That person is doomed to have their feelings hurt, just by virtue of being the more interested party.  Do not get me wrong, if you feel the need to cut someone out of your life due to safety issues or anything like that, that is a different story.  If you choose to ghost purely because you don't feel like having the "break-up talk", that is something else--and we can call that the ultimate act of selfishness.  

The larger point is if you choose to date, mate, and relate, at all, there always lies some element of risk that you'll either hurt, get hurt, or experience uncomfortable feelings.  And, yes, you'll be inconvenienced.  You'll get to have adult relationships in return, though.  By choosing to put yourself out there, into the adult arena, however, the expectation is you'll try your best to act like an adult.  The deal is, however, that many of us never got the memo on how to break up, maturely.  Ghosters are their own entity; but I also meet a huge amount of extremely well-meaning people who never learned how to break-up with someone in a mature fashion, and I'm constantly asked to help coach them through this.  I relish in the task, because I want the world to start breaking up like civilized people, once and for all.  Here are a few guidelines I give to patients who take on the task of ending a relationship:

Be Clear:

False hope is simply not fair.  If you maintain with absolute certainty that you want to end a relationship with someone, the most considerate thing to do is make it clear that you're doing exactly that.  Vague statements such as 'maybe we should slow it down' might lead the person you're breaking up with to feel extremely befuddled and confused on what to do next.  Be sure to put into words that you want to end this relationship at this point in time and that there is no confusion about that.  It might seem harsh, but giving someone the gift of clarity can actually be a gentle and kind gesture since it leaves no room for speculating or agonizing.  

Be Truthful:

I have found that very little insults people more than being told a line that sounds like an excuse, rather than the real reason for the breakup.  Telling someone you don't feel the connection is strong enough can have a less hurtful impact than a bullshit statement such as 'I have a lot going on right now, at work'.  People do break up due to hectic schedules, all the time, but often if you want things to work out with someone, you'll try to work around your schedule.  If you really want to end things with someone and use some insincere excuse, it, too, will lead to false hope--which may hurt your partner more, in the long term.  For instance, breaking up due to a hectic schedule at work might leave someone hanging on that in hope that things lighten up at work, you'll be more available and open to dating.  Additionally, if someone detects an insincere reason for the breakup, it might drive him/her crazy trying to imagine what the real reason was that you simply could not say.  In most cases, the truth shall set you free.  Just work on sending the message thoughtfully and delicately, and you should be fine.  

I can give dozens more pointers on the logistics of these talks, but, like anything, they're best handled on a case-by-case basis, as each situation is its own animal and deserves individualized guidelines.  


I'll happily self-disclose and draw on my own life experience to illustrate the point, here.  A few years ago, I briefly dated my very good friend's brother for a very short period of time.  Dating your friend's brother is always a risk, so I was determined to handle the situation with care.  Upon realizing the connection wasn't strong enough for me, I immediately had a conversation with him--and he actually responded to my decision to break it off with both maturity and decency.  I'll never forget that when I shared this experience with another friend, her response was "did you do all that just because he was your friend's brother?"

"Absolutely not", I replied.  "I didn't have the talk with him because he was my friend's brother.  I did it because he is a human being."  

At the end of the day, a  break-up talk is rarely something we feel up to doing.  But, we have to do it.  We have to sit through the discomfort, the awkward silences, the general feelings of ickiness that come up for us when we tell someone we don't want them, anymore.  We really have to do it, and we have to do it because it is simply the right thing to do.

Denise Limongello, LMSW