Here’s a scorching hot take forged in the burning fires of Hell by Hades himself: dumping your long-term partner is easier than cutting the ties that bind you to a marketing assistant from Bumble who, over the last month-and-a-half or so, you’ve been meeting in an assortment of pubs of ever-decreasing prestige; who you’ve accompanied to three consecutive Sunday markets and that vegan chicken place that made itself known to your bowels; and who you’ve been messaging constantly in a way that could neither be described as ‘platonically’ or ‘romantically’.
Ending something definable as ‘a relationship’ has structure. There are rules.
An acrimonious break-up goes something like: You yell and howl at one another for several hours as you each try and apportion blame - who never wants to talk to who anymore, who didn’t take who to the aquarium despite repeated promises, who forgot whose mum’s 50th even though Jamie’s Italian had been in the calendar for ages and you lose your deposit if you don’t let them know you can’t make it in advance and the whole family had been excited to finally meet who, who slept with whose best mate on whose mum’s 50th - until you’re both tired and teary and slumped and sad, and one of you looks at the other and melodramatically whispers, “What happened to us?” And then you both turn away from one another and look at the floor or the window or the ceiling, because who can really explain how you went from that blissful weekend in Lisbon where you really thought this time, honestly, you’d found it (and it was true love, and true love is forever) to a screaming match triggered by slightly differing opinions on how funny The Death of Stalin actually was.
Then someone has to spend the night at a friend’s and even though this has happened many, many times in recent months, somehow you know the fragile spider’s silk still holding you together has finally snapped for good. There will be a period of civility and peace before a huge blow-up over the retro replica ‘90s football shirts that have to be urgently collected from someone’s bedroom floor (“see, they’re worth quite a lot, actually…”) ruptures the truce and now you have to icily notify your former lover every time you’re planning to attend a mutual friend’s gathering to ensure you’re not within 20 feet of one another.
A peaceful parting goes: Yes, you agree over one final, pleasant meal at your favourite restaurant, we are done. Of course you still be friends! You’re adults, are you not? And so you form a wonderful platonic relationship whereupon you meet for dinner three times a week and call each other for emotional support. You’re dating other people, both of you, but you agree during one of these hour-long phone binges that they’ll never come close to what you had. Sometimes you go round to their house to watch Netflix and maybe cuddle, just a bit. You say “I love you” when you hang up the phone. Why does everyone say break-ups are so hard? you wonder aloud. They should take a look at you two; you’ve got this friendship thing down. Anyway, soon you’ll watch Netflix a little too platonically and then get back together and then, eventually and finally, break-up acrimoniously. So, really, there is only one kind of break-up that happens when you’re in ‘a relationship’.
’A relationship’ has a definite beginning, and therefore it’s simpler to bring it to an end. But what of those not-relationships, the harder to define entanglements? The people you’re seeing or hanging out with or having a Thing with or just fucking? How do you end those? And do these not-relationships even need to be properly ended?
Our modern tech-heavy interaction has led to a crisis in closure. We’re so unsure of what exactly three dates in a Sam Smith’s, one bang and countless WhatsApps add up to that our instinctive reaction is to avoid the problem until it goes away. Or stops asking if we want to hang out on Saturday, every Friday at 5pm.
“[I’ve ghosted] on a number of occasions,” says Tom, aged 29 and name changed on request. “Either the level of engagement up to that point didn’t merit a response (maybe a bang, an average date or two) or I just couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say that didn’t seem really dramatic for one date.”
He believes that going AWOL is somehow kinder. “I ghost because being ghosted gives the other person the comfort that I may not have seen their text, or I’ve lost my phone, or replied but it didn’t send… It doesn’t give that immediate kick in the stomach a dumping text would.”
It’s the twin concepts of sparing someone’s feelings and avoiding ‘unnecessary drama’ that seems to be the motivation for an inability to end things properly with someone you’re in a not-relationship with. “I’ve decided I don’t want to see someone again and abruptly stopped initiating conversations or inviting them on dates,” Joe, 27, tells me. “My rationale is that if I don’t start a text conversation, and the person never [messages again], then presumably she doesn’t care that much and it would be condescending for me text after two weeks saying it’s over.”
However, when I asked him if he’d ever been unduly blown off without a word, he said this: “Yes. I felt frustrated. It’s hard to believe how annoying it is waiting for a text. I would infinitely prefer to be told directly someone is not interested than be kept waiting.” Curious. Ironic.
Joe’s sweetly oblivious contradictory stances - ghosting because it seems nicer, but experiencing ghosting is truly hell on earth - show a dissonance in the kindness and cruelty of vanishing on your would-be-lover by just ignoring all their texts and regularly archiving the chat, depending on whether you’re the ghoster, or ghost-ee.
“I was dismayed when I was ghosted,” 24-year-old Holly recounted to me. “I felt so stupid for thinking that he actually liked me as a person ‘just because’ he’d cooked me breakfast and spent money on me and time with me… and then I never heard from him again. He left both my texts urread but he’s still got me on Facebook, so take from that what you will.”
Lauren, 23, related a similar tale. “Recently I was ghosted by a guy I’d seen a couple of times; every time we’d hung out it had been pretty intense and we’d spent a long time together. I liked him quite a lot, and he’d said a few things that implied he felt the same. Then, after I got back from a trip away, I asked if he wanted to hang out again and he just ignored me. He still watches my Instagram stories though, it’s fucked up.”
Chris, 28, is even more blunt. “Ghosting makes me feel shitty. It’s an action without context. It could have been the last message I sent him. Maybe I was shit in bed. Maybe I talk about work too much, or maybe the gap in my teeth isn’t nice to look at for a whole evening. Ghosting makes you question your own behaviour… Our generation need to stop assuming saying nothing is effective, and stop equating communication with commitment. People appreciate a no more than a maybe (or just total silence).”
There’s a simple test to discern when you owe someone at least the Level 1 dumping package (polite text, perhaps a carefully selected emoji to keep things light): are there any pangs of guilt when your app cranks up and their unanswered missive is staring unyieldingly up at you? If you’re not in the 1% of psychopaths who make up the general population (and 100% of the banker population (hi-yoh!)) then there’s your red litmus paper.
Establishing exactly how you should proceed with the operation is harder. “I think [the way you end something is decided by] a matrix of length of time and level of intensity in the relationship,” Tom ponders. Lauren thinks it’s time-sensitive. “If I’d been dating someone for say, a month, it’d just be cool to get a text saying they weren’t really into it anymore. That’s too soon to develop any complex feelings, so a head’s up and a ‘thanks for a fun time’ would be fine.”
The key is to jettison pre-conceived ideas of who ‘deserves’ to be dumped and who doesn’t; if you’ve been sending memes and nudes in equal measure to one specific person for the last two weeks, they’re owed a goodbye, just as much as your formative three-year relationship with that volatile Mancunian did. And a WhatsApp is fine – it’s not the medium that matters but letting your-not-quite-significant-other know they can stop flicking through Facebook photos with their friends trying to find one that shows “they’re hot in real life, I swear,” and move with dignity onto to pastures new. Otherwise, you’ll be the principal focal point of the group text for a month and brought up on any future occasion that requires a solid ‘This Happened To Me’ confessional.
Despite having pitched this article a month ago, born of my own righteous fury with ghosting, I’m not immune. I did something so drastic and poorly thought-out during a date last week, that it even came as a shock even to myself.
Three double rum and cokes down, I WhatsApped my friends “Help” as my date – a harmlessly earnest musician who I unfairly resented for making me leave the house – danced, obvious. “Pls come crash my date” I demanded. They arrived 20 minutes later and I left, without a word to the man who’d travelled from the hinterlands of Zone 4 to meet me at 10pm on a Friday.
How do you defend behaviour like that? I tried feebly and failed. I reasoned to myself, look: I was drunk, so my propensity to be an asshole was heightened. But that can never absolve the guilt of grimly having to stare past someone, so as to avoid meeting the blossoming crestfallen comprehension in their eyes as they realised that, actually, I would like to leave right now, sans them. That their nice navy woollen coat, and the person inside it, was so anathematic to me that I chose to completely disappear without a “bye”. To ghost, physically, if you will.
So I did what I had to do. I sent him an early AM apology. He was extremely gracious and wished me well in getting my “fucked up issues sorted out”.
Was it painful sending that text? Yes. Even more excruciating watching his eviscerating reply roll in. Do I sleep sounder for having done it? Yes. So my advice is this: if you’re not into it, end it. Tell them. Let’s-be-friends them. Dump them. Whatever it is you need to do to do right by them. Don’t leave the other half of your not-relationship to decipher when they’ve been reeled out beyond a point of no return, let them know you’ve cut the string.