My friend Rebecca dictates the eleventh commandment as follows: “thou shalt not ghost”. I’ve never asked whether she thinks it’s on the same level as adultery or theft, but the principle is straightforward enough.

If you have ever been on a dating app, you’ll be familiar with “ghosting”. The person you’ve been talking to for weeks, perhaps met up with and forged a bond, suddenly disappears. There is no explanation; the line just gets cut off.

Often it’s not even from the apps. Someone you’ve met in real life, in a bar or at a party, tells you they want you in their life, and as soon as you’ve believed it, they vanish without trace.

Sometimes the betrayal is worse. Relationships of many months simply go dead. Perhaps something terrible happened. Perhaps they found someone else. Perhaps they changed their mind.

Other times it’s not even a romantic connection. A good friend can be a constant presence and then suddenly not return your calls or messages; get gradually distant and short; then, finally, become someone you used to know.

These are all manifestations of the same phenomenon: ghosting. Its close neighbours are “orbiting” (when the friend or partner continues to follow you on social media, perhaps occasionally viewing or liking your content), “breadcrumbing” (where they will, on occasion, contact you or reply to a message, stringing you along for more erratic behaviour), or “haunting” (where, no doubt knowing both what they did and what power they hold over you, they emerge out of the blue, either to apologise for past transgressions or to pretend that nothing happened).

This is not about the most casual acquaintances in our lives. The people we don’t reply to on dating sites. Someone you exchanged numbers with at a party and agreed to meet for coffee, but for whatever reason didn’t respond to the initial text.

This also isn’t about relationships and friendships that mutually wither or fade, or the situations where a huge row, or gross act of betrayal, incites someone to break off contact. This is about the connections that seem to vanish for no reason. The things that were (or promised to be) great and then turned bad.

This is a game with consequences – and which only one person has chosen to play.

The game’s first element is cruelty. Ghosting not only ambushes you, but makes you doubt yourself. Part of that depends on the way it is done. Blocking, its most direct form, allows someone to demonstrate with shocking clarity that they no longer wish to pursue a connection. Conversely, with sudden disappearance, the cruelty comes from the lack of certainty. Maybe they’re busy? Maybe they’re going through emotional problems? Maybe they’ll come back? Perhaps the bridge has been deliberately burnt, perhaps carelessly forgotten; it’s hard to say which is better.

The cruelty is not, of course, abuse – but, like abuse, it destroys people’s confidence and forces them into intricate or unending introspection. All the ghostee has are clues and guesswork. Ironically that imposes a kind of masochistic narcissism – it must be about me, and in the absence of concrete information, I’ll have to figure out what. The self-absorption of the ghost inevitably spreads to their prey.
The loss often feels un-grievable. It is difficult to rake over it with friends, for the simple fact that you don’t actually know yourself what has happened – and anyway, it probably wasn’t such a serious relationship, was it?

Because you had no agency or even knowledge of the act, you have been fundamentally disempowered. You don’t even have the licence to fight back: ghosting’s social code casts the victim as wet, needy or unhinged if they challenge the person who harmed them. There is nothing less cool than someone who can’t take a hint or shows that they’ve been affected.

The game is political too. There is a relentless consumer capitalism to ghosting. It lays bare the extent and speed with which we commodify and abandon human connections. Other people become disposable items briefly masquerading as must-have accessories. Ghosting is not unique to modern life, but app culture facilitates its dehumanisation: with the block or delete button, a person already reduced to a screen thumbnail can be erased altogether.

The problem with ghosting is its long-term damage. Like a hairline fracture, the consequences are borne through slow repetition. One ghosting incident won’t knock you out, but what about the next time? If this person you cared about and trusted can suddenly disappear, why not anyone? The fact that we have no access to people’s inner minds or motivation – that, in effect, it may really be about them rather than us – offers no consolation. If anything, it reinforces a profound human fear: that we cannot influence the people on whom we emotionally depend. If someone we like wants to hurt us, we are powerless to stop them.

The fear is, in fact, even more profound: that we never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life and can never guarantee they will continue to care about us. People may promise to stay with us, as friends or lovers, but they may not. Nothing is unconditional. We can’t fully know anyone.

Ghosting of course has its defenders – or at least people prepared to accept it. It’s not the worst thing in the world. And maybe there isn’t actually a way to end a relationship that doesn’t cause hurt.

And yet there has to be a better way than this. It’s the simple courtesy of telling someone things have changed, sparing them the brutality of wordless severance – a small bit of courage to offset pain.

It’s fulfilling a social contract. When we enter into a connection, we implicitly agree to abide by certain conventions. We agree to try not to hurt each other.

Above all it’s the obligation we owe to people we once cared about, for no other reason than that it’s the right thing to do. The belief we are all human; that we all have feelings; that we apply decency.

It’s time to normalise the art of confronting bad behaviour. This, after all, is the era of not standing for shit. The age of challenging bullies, standing up for ourselves, speaking our mind: the age of self-empowerment. And yet when it comes to our most intimate connections we’re supposed to tolerate every indignity and take whatever comes. It’s not just the expectation of silence; we’re not even meant to find it painful.

This is a curious omertà. Why are we never allowed to show people we’re angry, or hurt, or affected? Why must we always turn the other cheek? Why is it the height of desperation not to take the hint; to request an explanation; to deny a free pass? The demand to be cool and get on with it really means denying how we feel and letting someone off the hook. While we suffer, they are spared even the consequence of accounting for themselves.

My friend’s invocation of the Old Testament makes good sense. As with most biblical principles, it’s about human behaviour and expectation: treating others how you’d like to be treated yourself. When someone in your life leaves it without explanation, they take more from you than just themselves.

We can’t force others to like us, care about us or keep us company. Nobody owes anyone love or friendship. But, in the end, we owe each other respect, and an explanation. We can’t stop some people starting as lovers and ending as ghosts – but we can find a way to exorcise them.

Jonathan Lis is a political journalist and commentator. He has written for publications including the Guardian, Prospect and Washington Post, and regularly broadcasts on television and radio

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