It was our third date. I sat at Brian’s kitchen table while he elegantly multitasked between searing steak au poivre and replenishing my glass of Cote-Rotie. Our mutual friend Wendy had introduced us after a work event. We were both sommeliers, sharing an obsession with wine, and my legs felt like jelly. This man was too gallant, too available, too together. I shifted my gaze toward the door and mentally rehearsed my exit. The following day, I stopped responding to his texts.
This is my ugly secret: I was a serial ghoster. Although ghosting ― or disappearing from a relationship with no warning by ceasing all communication ― is now common (a recent survey found that 30% of American adults identify as victims of ghosting), and perhaps even accepted by many people as an inevitable part of dating, it doesn’t occur without consequences and can leave a path of emotional destruction. Psychologists say ghosting is a character disorder that stems from trauma and conflict evasion. They aren’t wrong. While legendary ghosters immortalized in literature have often been men (think Willoughby from “Sense and Sensibility”), ghosting is actually gender-neutral and equal-opportunity. Anybody with a healthy dose of avoidant-attachment is capable of callously leaving without a trace.
My first ghosting episode was senior year of high school with Fernando, whom I met on an exchange program to Magdalena, Mexico. Sneaking out of my home-stay family’s house, we stayed up talking and making out in the back seat of his parked car until the sun rose over the Sonoran desert. This was before cellphones, so after I returned home, he mailed me love letters in messy cobalt cursive on lined paper and signed, “Te amo mucho.” I was tongue-tied, incapable of expressing my conflicted emotions. I procrastinated writing back. The hurt in his follow-up notes made me want to crawl under the table. Correspondence dwindled until it eventually stopped altogether but I stayed silent. At 17, I’d established a pattern of running away that would haunt me for decades.
In college, ghosting became habitual ― an involuntary muscle movement as natural as blinking or breathing. As soon as someone tried to get close to me, a warning buzzer went off in my brain and I vanished like an apparition.
Once on a blind date at a coffee shop in San Francisco, the man across the table squeezed my hand affectionately while discussing the orphanage where he’d volunteered in Malawi. He was just my type ― kind, witty, a master of the New York Times Sunday crossword, and was like a son to my best friend’s aging mom. I laughed at his jokes and quizzed him about his passion for recumbent bikes. As he drove away, I heard a little voice in my head say, Cut him off now, before things go too far. Easier to mourn something that could have been than the alternative. My next move was to stop returning his calls. Before too long, he stopped trying.
Unlike some other antisocial or destructive behavior, you can ghost almost indefinitely and no one calls you out. At least in the early phase of dating or a relationship, most ghostees won’t stage dramatic Lifetime movie scenes, banging bravely on your door in the rain, demanding to know why you exited without an explanatory word, Post-it note, text, call, smoke signal, or carrier pigeon.
Most people who are ghosted assume they did something wrong or that the ghoster just wasn’t feeling it and wasn’t brave enough to admit it. We’ve allowed this bad behavior because it happens so often that now it just seems normal.
“The ghosting spun even more out of control in my 20s and 30s. It became a coping skill, a magic shield that I used whenever there was conflict, if I felt vulnerable, threatened, or worried about letting somebody down.”
Post-ghost, while others are losing sleep wondering if it was the wine they spilled on the waiter or the story of how they once sharted at a Vegas casino from bad buffet shrimp, the ghoster is already moving on to the next victim. There are no ghost police, no ghost courts, and no ghost “interventions.”
Once it dawned on me that there were no imminent emotional consequences to disappearing, it was even easier to pull a Houdini the next time a romantic prospect invited me to their brother’s bar mitzvah.
Even when I myself was ghosted in the most humiliating ways (e.g., waiting on a street corner in Madrid with matching floral luggage in tow, anticipating a weekend getaway with a guy who would never show), it wasn’t enough to deter me from the dark path.
In fact, the ghosting spun even more out of control in my 20s and 30s. It wasn’t just limited to the romantic context, but spread malignantly throughout my life to friends, co-workers, and even family. It became a coping skill, a magic shield that I used whenever there was conflict, or if I felt vulnerable, threatened, or worried about letting somebody down.
I discovered the more I ghosted, the harder it was to sustain the intimacy and connection I craved. It was a self-perpetuating cycle of self-loathing and shame. Sometimes, I imagined going back in a time machine to Fernando or the guy at the coffee shop and begging for a redo.
I ached to stop running, but first I had to face up to why I ran in the first place.
A skilled therapist helped connect the dots between my childhood trauma and inability to sustain relationships. I pieced together the stories of my life like a horrific, fascinating tapestry. When I was 8, the nanny tasked with raising me since infancy disappeared abruptly, leaving me with trust and abandonment issues. Essentially, I was a ghoster because I had been ghosted as a child. Given my terror of intimacy and rejection, ghosting gave me a sense of control.
The word “ghost” is so apt. What is a ghost but an empty breath of air, incapable of taste or feeling, pathetically doomed to wander the Earth alone like Dickens’ Jacob Marley? This was no way to live.
One year after steak au poivre with Brian, I finally came clean with our mutual friend Wendy about how I’d screwed things up. “Do you think he’ll talk to me?” I pleaded. “You really hurt his feelings,” she responded quietly. “But I think it’s worth a shot.”
This was my first time un-ghosting someone. I cringed while gathering courage to call him. He didn’t pick up. I left an awkward message, stammering an incomprehensible apology. No response ― which was no less than I deserved. A few weeks down the line, we ran into each other unexpectedly in the hallway at a San Diego sommelier convention. We hugged stiffly, while I tried not to wrinkle his suit. “It’s nice to see you,” he said coolly. But later, he texted to invite me for a glass of wine.
At our wedding years later, Brian joked that he had nicknamed me “Casperina” to his friends.
I wish I could say that my ghostiness was cured. It’s still a thing, but now it shows up in less extreme ways. Close friends and family have (grudgingly) come to accept it. When I fall off the wagon, I regain course by owning my actions and finding self-compassion, but it’s a constant work in progress. Parts of me will probably always struggle with connection. But now, when it matters most, I choose to do the opposite of ghosting. I show up.
Michelle Powers is an attorney, sommelier and writer in San Diego, where she lives with her husband, Brian, and two dogs.