Ghosters—to sue or not to sue

Ghosters—to sue or not to sue
The number of ghosting incidents has soared alongside advancements in communication technology, leaving a long trail of ghostees.

Memories of my first ghosting experience surfaced when Negros Oriental Rep. Arnolfo Teves Jr., filed House Bill No. 611 in July. His proposed measure would declare ghosting an emotional offense because of the trauma that develops from “feelings of rejection and neglect,” according to a CNN Philippines report. 

“The emotional abuse caused by ghosting” was “detrimental to the nation’s productivity,” Teves said. But he wasn’t specific on the penalty.

A boyfriend ghosted me ages ago. My feelings alternated between numbness and pain for years before I realized that I’d been ghosted, and that my experience wasn’t a novelty. 

Kelvin Gotama, an Indonesia-based physician, was similarly crushed.  “I have never been one to develop affection towards someone easily. When I was ghosted for the first time, it was also the first time I had actually fancied someone. Naturally, I was devastated … They just walked away from me, like I meant nothing and held no significance whatsoever in their life,” he said.

When Patricia Corre, now living in France, was ghosted by her close friends, the initial surprise turned into profound hurt and anger. “[They] should have known that they could be straight with me,” said the Filipino homemaker.

The number of ghosting incidents has soared alongside advancements in communication technology, leaving a long trail of ghostees. Admittedly, it’d be poetic justice for ghostees if ghosters got their legal retribution, but is suing ghosters a sure-fire protection from future ghosting? 

Without a trace

In the past, ghosting meant relocating without leaving a forwarding address, or the “simple act of leaving a party or social gathering without notice and goodbyes,” said Bree Jenkins, a Los Angeles-based licensed marriage-family therapist, in verywellmind.com. It later came to be viewed solely in the context of romantic relationships, where the lover went poof. 

Online dating afforded ghosters the opportunity to quickly disappear digitally from someone’s life, bringing ghosting to the mainstream of modern living. Friendships and business partnerships are now the new breeding grounds for ghosters living with impunity and ghostees nursing their wounds.

At the core of this phenomenon are people wanting to make real connections; like yin and yang, it’s twinned with disconnections. Traditionally, people weathered breakups with the help of the brain’s “social monitoring system [that] used mood, people, and environment cues to coach [people] how to respond situationally,” wrote Adam Popescu in nytimes.com. And here lies the dilemma: Ghosting doesn’t provide hints. Ghostees are like deer caught in the headlights because they can’t respond and, consequently, wallow in self-doubt. They eventually sabotage their “self-worth and self-esteem” in dealing with the overwhelming ambiguity.

Lady Yesisca, an Indonesia-based digital marketer, felt that the problem was with her, while Harriet Limbo, a Philippine-based financial adviser, quietly struggled with it and constantly asked herself why she was ghosted. Gotama felt like he didn’t know himself.

The cause of the pain is ambiguity. It’s the dagger in this form of silent treatment akin to emotional cruelty, said psychologist Jennice Vilhauer in an interview with Popescu. The severity of the pain depends on the ghosting level, of which there are three. 

Psychology professor Wendy Welsh explained in Popescu’s article that it’s lightweight ghosting when someone doesn’t text back. It’s midweight ghosting when avoidance is frequent in spite of past meet-ups. It’s heavyweight ghosting when the partner suddenly vanishes after having entered into a sexual relationship.

Ghostees endure devastation, anger, decreased life satisfaction, and heightened feelings of loneliness and helplessness, according to Dr. Anita Dhanorkar in medicinenet.com. The last two are felt especially by those who experienced “breadcrumbing,” an act of leading someone on by dropping crumbs of interest, or a combination of breadcrumbing and ghosting. Depression, dehumanization, devaluation, and poor self-esteem are also experienced by ghostees, added Jenkins. (Taking pain relievers like Tylenol said Dr. Dhanorkar can lessen the emotional pain which is as excruciating as physical pain.)

As for ghosters, they suffer from underdeveloped communication skills, an unhealthy problem-solving pattern, and the karmic backlash of being ghosted.

Breaking ghosting

Ghostees endure devastation, anger, decreased life satisfaction, and heightened feelings of loneliness and helplessness, according to Dr. Anita Dhanorkar.

There’s no particular look or trait to distinguish a ghoster or ghostee, but one’s view on relationships helps to shape the ghosting tendency. In a 2018 paper titled “Ghosting and Destiny: implicit theories of relationships predict beliefs about ghosting,” Dr. Gili Freedman et al. posited that ghosting is determined by the individuals’ mindsets. She studied ghosting in romantic relationships and friendships using the implicit theories of relationships and the dimensions of destiny and growth beliefs.

Destiny, or fixed mindset, is premised on relationships working out because people have found their soulmates, while growth beliefs, or growth mindset, is based on the idea that relationships can be improved through communication. 

Ghosting is one of the four methods of ending a relationship influenced by the implicit theories of relationships. It consists of not contacting and responding via phone calls and texts, unfriending or unfollowing on social media, and blocking the partner’s access to social media posts. (The other methods are face to face, phone conversation, and texting.)

The study on ghosting in romantic relationships had 554 participants—274 males, 273 females, four transgenders, and three undisclosed—of whom 3.2% were Asians. The results revealed that participants with strong destiny beliefs were more amenable to ghosting to end short- or long-term relationships, as opposed to those with strong growth beliefs particularly in ending long-term relationships. 

The study on ghosting in friendship had 747 participants—394 males, 346 females, and seven nonbinary—of whom 3.3% were Asians. Findings showed a majority admitting to ghosting in friendships. Interestingly, all participants were found to be more accepting of ghosting in a friendship, whether of a destiny or growth belief mindset.

Not apologizing is a way to break ghosting. “Saying sorry only makes the injured party feel more aggrieved,” argued Freedman, as apologies increase the hurt feelings, not the feelings of forgiveness. Vilhauer said it’s better to be honest about boundaries because apologizing only enforces a social norm. “If you say sorry, that answer would be ‘That’s ok. I forgive you.’ The good middle ground is explicitly rejecting someone and telling them, ‘No,’ not ‘I’m sorry.'”

Punishment

A Google search showed only two proponents calling for punishing ghosting. Apart from Teves’ bill, The Break-up Network (TBN) in the United States has a four-year-old petition in change.org on making ghosting illegal in long-term relationships. Addressed to US Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), TBN asserted that punishing ghosters would lead to healthy communication in relationships and less depression and suicide. It has 38 signatories to date.

Penalizing ghosting looks right at first read, but do Filipinos need to have their emotions judicially controlled? The state is already policing people’s thoughts (Red-tagging), marital status (there’s still no such thing as divorce), and women’s bodies (is the Reproductive Health Law working?). If implemented, is there a statute of limitations and, as Corre asks, “How does one go about proving and penalizing it?”

Yesisca thinks there’s no need to resort to legal means because social punishment is enough. After all, there are only six degrees of separation between ghosters and their ghostees. 

“The odds of you meeting one another again or meeting someone who knows the two of you are quite high. When people find out you’ve ghosted on someone, you won’t be painted in the most flattering light,” points out Gotama.

Predicated on fear, ghosting is the coward’s way out, or what Gotama calls a “shortcut to avoiding confrontation and the guilt that comes with telling someone that you’ve had a change of heart.” 

Corre finds that ghosters lack confidence and emotional maturity to face hard conversations. Yesisca labels them as egotists while Limbo describes them as hiding in the closet, only to come out when things have died down.

Teves’ bill is an overreaction because, as Vilhauer explains, “ghosting has a lot to do with someone’s comfort level and how they deal with emotions. A lot of people anticipate that talking about how they feel is going to be a confrontation [and] that mental expectation makes people want to avoid things that make them uncomfortable.”

Trauma is a major yet overlooked factor making ghosters avoid confrontations, but it isn’t “grave enough to warrant getting a law passed on it,” opines Gotama’s sister, Jakarta-based dentistry student Kelcy Gotama.

“I can sympathize with those who want to run away from existing problems. However, ghosting would absolutely sever all possibilities of patching things up,” she continues.

As painful and disrespectful ghosting is, judicial punishment won’t address the kink in the ghosters’ emotional development. Understanding and, at the extreme, professional counseling will. They need to come to terms with their puerility, emotions, and traumas without the threat of a lawsuit hanging over their heads.

As Kelvin Gotama puts it, “If someone ghosts you, leave them be. We shouldn’t disturb the dead, right?”

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