It was all going so well. Sure, there might have been a few red flags, but what new relationships don’t have those?
Then… nothing. One morning you wake to find yourself unfriended on the socials. They’re not answering their phone. Texts go unread. Slowly it dawns on you. You’ve been ghosted.
If your first response is to call them a psychopath, there’s good news. You now have some science to back you up. As a bonus, you can also describe them as manipulative and narcissistic, and have a reasonable chance of being right.
Referred to as a ‘dark triad‘ of personality traits, this unholy trinity of dickishness pops up often in applied psychology, being linked with a higher tendency to commit certain crimes and generally be a social nuisance.
They’re also more likely to have a selfish, or even exploitive approach to relationships. Yet little research has been carried out on their preferred way to end things with a partner.
Now we know these three traits could make some people more likely to sever ties in the early-to-mid stages of romantic and sexual relationships in a way that – for them, at least – limits the heartache that comes with break ups. That’s right, enter ghosting.
Psychologists from across Europe and the US invited 341 adult volunteers to take an online questionnaire that scored them according to personality traits and acceptability of ghosting.
To make responses relatively consistent, they were given a clear definition of ghosting, being “when a person abruptly socially disengages with someone they are romantically/sexually involved with little-to-no explanation.”
Volunteers were also asked if they, themselves, had ever ghosted.
The response to that last question was relatively evenly split, with just over half admitting to having done so. It’s not an entirely unsurprising figure, with other surveys also suggesting the practice is far from uncommon.
Overall, participants who scored higher in personality traits of psychopathy, manipulation, and narcissism were a little more likely to consider ghosting as more acceptable, but only when it comes to ending shorter-term relationships.
Ghosting in long term, more emotionally committed relationships is thankfully still largely taboo, even for heartless, egotistical, Machiavellian types.
Unsurprisingly, those who had ghosted before were more likely to see it as a fair way to slink away from a recent partner who just wasn’t doing it for them anymore. They were also more likely to be manipulative and psychopathic, though not necessarily narcissistic.
Of course, none of this comes as a huge shock to those who have been dumped unceremoniously without so much as a cliché “it’s not you, it’s me” text.
The researchers speculate that ghosting may be a way for people with low empathy and high self-regard, particularly men, to divest themselves of a casual partner to chase new opportunities, or to limit the chance of getting caught up in a long-term commitment.
While admittedly cold, the act of ghosting isn’t necessarily a sign of anything pathological. People can be jerks without qualifying as mentally unwell.
It’s important to note that studies like these are typically WEIRD: limited to samples from western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic demographics. How personality traits correlate with casual dating behaviors in other classes and cultures would require more research.
Non-monogamous relationships are in principle based on different values and allow for multiple intimate partners, leaving room for further study on break-up behaviors and personality types there as well.
But research like this helps us better understand a phenomenon that although hardly novel, could be encouraged by digital technology. In the age of swiping right to score a hit of dopamine, a fun new relationship is just a Tinder profile away.
A study published earlier this year not only supported this view, but suggested the anonymity and surveillance that technology allows might also play a role in its predominance.
Ghosting sucks. There’s no doubt about it. Being rejected without closure – especially where there’s an emotional investment – can be a traumatic experience.
At least now you can take some comfort in knowing you probably dodged a bullet.
This research was published in Acta Psychologica.