Breaking up has always been hard to do, but does our modern reliance on mobile technology mean we don’t have to do it at all? Annie Stevens investigates
They’re either a douche or they’re dead,” a colleague said with slightly alarming confidence when I asked what she thought about “ghosting”. Clearly a victim, her words will ring true for anybody who’s had a new crush or casual hook-up vanish without a trace. No “this isn’t working” text, no abrupt unfollow on social media, definitely not a phone call and not even a Post-it note on the laptop in the manner of Sex And The City’s Berger. They just… poof, simply disappear from your life.
It’s nothing new. Ghosting – or the slow fade as it’s sometimes called – has always been around (no doubt some caddish Neanderthals simply switched to another cave) but it’s now become the way we expect to be dumped. Or, at least, how we know we’ve been dumped. It’s the opposite of consciously uncoupling and the antithesis of all that talk about “us” and “where is it going” and “it’s not you, it’s me” – and it’s a break-up method that really defines our time.
“Dating communication has shifted lots thanks to mobile technology,” says UK-based dating coach Hayley Quinn. “Now instead of fearing not getting a phone call, people are worried when they know their WhatsApp has been read but not responded to. As communication is much more constant due to chat-based messenger services, not responding is now a clear indicator ‘it’s over’.”
Dr Nikki Goldstein, a Sydney-based sexologist, relationship expert and author of #SingleButDating, agrees that an unanswered text in the age of constant contact (“if a guy’s into you then he’s picking up the phone”) is a fairly clear sign that somebody isn’t feeling it. There’s only so long you can convincingly tell yourself that they might be busy, or that maybe their dog died.
The thing is, breaking up has always been hard to do (thanks Neil Sedaka). It’s awkward, undignified and somebody usually cries. So it makes sense that a 2014 poll of 1,000 people commissioned by YouGov/ The Huffington Post found that 11 per cent of Americans had ghosted someone, and a survey of 185 people by Blog US found nearly 17 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women had done the disappearing act. A study by American think tank Pew Research
Center also found that among millennials, 15 per cent have experienced a break-up by a slow drift, while 31 per cent have been broken up with by text. This is despite the fact that 78 per cent stated that an in-person break-up is the most acceptable way to dump someone.
But there are consequences to trying to avoid “the break-up talk” by slowly fading out rather than talking it out. Goldstein says never really calling it quits properly can lead to an inability to deal with difficult situations. “We’re living in a society that’s scared to be awkward or uncomfortable – a quick-fix society looking for a quick solution,” she says. “And with relationships in general, we’re too scared to be honest and have these awkward conversations.”
Our current dating habits might make it easier to bail, but they’ve also made it harder to gain some much-needed distance. Geo-location dating apps mean there’s a chance your flatmate might bring home that man who never called you back. Meanwhile, if you can check Instagram and see what the guy you went on five dates with just had for breakfast, or if your hook-up added you on Facebook, can you ever truly vanish?
Goldstein calls it “recycle dating”. Or you could think of it as a soupy pond that everybody’s swimming in and, yes, they’re going to talk (maybe even rant online) about you. Consider Lulu: an app launched in the US and UK that lets female users rate males as if they were reviewing the corner cafe on Yelp. Think for a moment about the consequences of that for dating if it launched in Australia – or if a version to rate females was created. “Our behaviour can impact our dating future, who’s going to say what about you – if you’re not showing someone the common decency of giving them closure and a cut-off, there’s a risk they might take it out of proportion,” says Goldstein.
But just like never replying to that email from your high-school friend about the drinks neither of you really wanted to go to, ghosting can be an appropriate method of breaking up – like if a guy is scoring off the charts on the creepiness meter, or if the “not feeling it” is mutual and you’re in the very early days of dating when an official split would be kind of weird and unnecessarily dramatic.
For 32-year-old communications executive Matilda, not quite breaking up is appropriate in some situations, with one caveat: don’t do it after you’ve been intimate. “After a few dates you can realise you’re not into someone and it’s awkward to tell them that – they might think it’s arrogant since you barely know each other,” she says. “In those cases I fade out and stop replying to their messages, hoping they get the picture – they always do.
But I can hand-on-heart say I would never, ever do that to someone I’d known longer or had sex with – you have to give anyone who may have emotionally invested in you the respect they deserve.”
In the age of digital dating, Quinn says the old saying about treating others as you’d like to be treated is still pertinent. “Treat others well and have the selfconfidence to be upfront – it will be a lot easier if you bump into them again, too.” (Or when their profile pic inevitably pops up on your Tinder again.)
The impact of technology on the way we approach dating and break-ups can’t be understated. For one thing, it’s helped create a veritable buffet of options for potential partners – which can lead to not really making a choice at all. It’s something particularly relevant in these FOMO-riddled days. As Quinn says, “We now have what scientists are calling a ‘lack of mate scarcity’, which means we have lots of options so find it harder to commit.”
London-based lawyer Christopher, 33, who’s now in a happy relationship after dabbling with dating apps, agrees that the modern way of meeting people can lead to a “grass is greener” culture a particularly fertile one for bailing out. “Dating apps require little effort except the use of your finger to swipe right or left_so it’s easy to see what else is out there for you,” he says.
This choice creates what Goldstein refers to as a disconnected dating state. We might be swiping on more and more people and sending lots of carefully chosen emojis to them (hello, eggplant), but we may be missing out on genuine connections. “We have too many options so we become easily disposable,” she says. “If you went on a date with someone who didn’t quite tick all the boxes, you know you can jump on Tinder even before the date has finished and make plans to meet someone else. We’re disconnected because we’re distracted.”
Another by-product of this disconnect, says Goldstein, is accidental ghosting. “I see it a lot where women go on a date with a guy and leave the date thinking he will call them, and believing that a woman should be pursued by a man and not budging on that. At the same time, the guy is sitting there thinking, I haven’t heard from her, she mustn’t be keen’.” Goldstein blames this on an over-reliance on “tactical dating” or game playing. “You don’t want to seem eager, but he thinks you’ve ghosted him,” she says.
It’s not all grim though: choice is a good thing, not settling for second best should be commended and looking for real love – be it on a dating site, The Bachelor or at your local pub – is always a worthy pursuit. “The biggest thing is antidistraction dating,” says Goldstein. “Be mindful of not having a long dating checklist… instead be open-minded to people in front of you. Be present.”
Ultimately, putting yourself out there can lead to rejection and that sucks, regardless of who the snub comes from and whether it’s via one final sad Snapchat sext, a face-to-face showdown or a vanishing act. Moving on, however, can be empowering, as is being upfront about what you do and don’t want.
And having a handle on that will only free up more time to carefully craft that eggplant-laden message and send it to the right person.
Your heart hurts like hell. We get it. But there’s life beyond crying into a tub of Ben & Jerry’s or brooding over an Adele soundtrack. Trythese tech tricks to help you recover.