What is ghosting? Experts, a victim and a ghoster give us the low down

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Ghosting is defined as the practice of ending a personal relationship by
suddenly withdrawing from all communication, without explanation. The term seems like just another one of those viral words from the urban dictionary, such as “sauce”, “flexing”, “adulting” and so many others that have crept into our vocabulary.

But ghosting has likely been around for centuries: before the internet, there just wasn’t a catchy term for it. Couples in the township have been known to resort to kushayisana ngomoya (also known as Kushayisana nge current) when the relationship is fraught with difficulties. Kushayisana ngomoya could mean anything from the silent treatment after an argument, to an unexplained breakup: either way, the practice has been around since long before the term became viral.

According to the Elite Daily website, as many as 78% of millennials have been ghosted at least once in their lives, and it appears that the practice thrives in the context of the digital world of snaps and chats. Technological developments in communication mean that these days we frame our understanding of ghosting within the context of behaviour on social-media, where people constantly block and delete each other.

“In psychology, ghosting equates to exclusion, isolation, ostracism, and being ignored,” says Karen Moross, a psychologist with the Family Life Centre (Famsa). “It leads to
misinterpretation. The victim will inevitably ask ‘Am I not good enough?’ and the
psychological effects are very damaging because ghosting is done with certain malice,” she says. “In most cases you can’t confront [the person doing the ghosting]. That’s the nature of online ghosting.”

Wisani Khosa, a social worker based in Heidelburg, agrees: “Ghosting definitely leads to misinterpretation, because you are simply not getting a response: you are cut off. This, in most cases, is more difficult to deal with than a usual breakup,” she says.
“Where kids are involved, you can come up with a fictitious story or reasons. Take the story and use it as a teaching moment for the child,” Khosa says. “Of course, it’s a bit difficult in cases where the kids are older. In such cases, the parent has to be frank. Honest communication is important.”

What with the advent of online dating, ghosting is bound to proliferate, Khosa says. “The advent of dating apps like Tinder and Bumble set the scene for online ghosting. So we are likely to have more case of ghosting,” she says. “It’s going to be a defining feature of modern dating. But the fact that we are talking about it helps, because people are made aware of it. It prepares one somehow.”

Masi Tlou*, 36, a media practitioner based in Sandton, Johannesburg had been seeing her boyfriend for three years when she was ghosted. The couple got along famously and Tlou, not unusually, harboured ambitions to settle down in a relationship that culminated in a marriage.

“There was no heads-up,” she says. “In early December 2015 we had spent a weekend
together — only, we had spent it with friends. So there was a bit of busyness, because we attended other people’s parties and braais. The next Monday, Tlou texted her boyfriend to ask him to hang out, mentioning that while they had spent time together, it hadn’t been alone time. She messaged: “Let me fix dinner later tonight, so that when the week gets busy at least we know we are not missing out on each other.”

That evening, she cooked a special supper for the two of them. Normally, if her boyfriend were coming round, he’d arrive at about 7.30pm, but by 8.30pm, there was no sign of him. So Tlou texted him again, to see if he were caught up at the office. “There was no response,” she says. “At that stage, I was not alarmed by anything. Then, later on, probably after 9pm, I phoned him, but he didn’t pick up the call. I then sent him a text asking if he was okay, and still there was no response.

“At that point I was getting annoyed but I wasn’t alarmed,” Tlou continues. “Eventually, I texted, ‘Hey, I’m going to bed and you’ll find your food where you normally find it.’
The next morning when Tlou woke up, her boyfriend was not next to her — and neither had he replied to her texts. “I started to panic,” she says. “I called him and he didn’t pick up. Needless to say I texted.”

But Tlou realised that she had been ghosted. “There was no call to confront him. At that stage it had become obvious that he was ignoring my efforts to reach out to him.”

Muvhango’s Senzo Radebe, a self-confessed serial ghoster, believes that ghosting has
become the norm for people who dread the admin of breaking up. “You don’t want to be mean,” he says. “You don’t want to tell the other girl you’ve found someone else. For ghosters, it’s about trying not to be mean more than anything else. So the best way to go about it is to ghost that person until they also get tired of you.”

Radebe was seven years into a relationship when he started to ghost his then-girlfriend. “Yes, I had dated a girl for seven years, and there was a time when I just ghosted her,” he says.

“She obviously deserved better, but the other girls were the reason I ghosted her. As a young person you get to meet someone who, at the time, seems more exciting and prettier. And you just ghost the other person, without you even knowing you are ghosting them. “It’s one of those things that just happen unconsciously. And four months down the line you regret it,” Radebe admits. “At that time you’ve already deleted pictures on Instagram because you are trying to make sure that the other girl doesn’t find out that you were dating this other girl.”

Radebe concedes that ghosting is not good manners although he believes some situations call for it. “The last time I ghosted someone, it wasn’t my fault,” he says. “On Valentine’s Day this year I had threatened to go out with this nameless girl. On the day, I had called her a few times to finalise details of our date. But for some reason she was not picking up. I decided to ghost her. “I didn’t know the whole story: I didn’t care,” he says. “I just jumped into conclusions and I decided to ghost her. Till this day, she’s still wondering what happened.”

Radebe is aware of the psychological effects of ghosting, and, in retrospect, regrets ghosting his girlfriend of seven years. He now cautions against the practice of random ghosting.

“I’m lucky because my ex girlfriend took it gracefully,” he says. “Things could have turned out differently. Somehow we reconnected and reconciled. But we are not dating anymore.”

Although Tlou never heard back from her man, she hasn’t let the incident hold her back. She admits, however, that she’ll be more cautious with future relationships. “Until today he has not responded to anything,” she says. “He surfaced two years later when he started liking my pictures on Instagram. “To the extent it affects me psychologically, I don’t wanna be in a relationship right now. I’m still doubtful how the next person will treat me. I can’t be disappointed again by a breakup.” The most difficult part of her experience, Tlou says, was breaking the news to her young daughter. “I had to find ways of telling my daughter what happened to this man. It was one of the trickiest things I’ve ever had to do. I didn’t know what to tell her, in case we bumped into him. 

“I had to think about the psychological effects it would have on her growing up as woman and what that would do to her when she gets to teenage years,” Tlou adds. “I had to think about how she’d perceive me after the incident. It was hard, my biggest nightmare in the whole situation.

“Fortunately, I remembered that when my daughter was in Grade 0, one of her friends moved to India. So I related the ghosting to that he has moved away,” Tlou says. “I also had to tell my daughter that we might see my ex one day, or it might take a while before we see him. We have not had a sight of him, and it’s absolutely fine — I know for sure that I will not tell her if he phones me.”

*not their real names

This article first appeared in the March 2018 print edition of Sowetan S Mag.

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