Despite the backdrop of mossy-green boulders and crystal-clear water rippling over glistening rocks, I could hardly divert my gaze from his budgie smugglers. It was a bold choice for our first date but the thickness in the August air made it reasonable. Something about his confidence excited me.
I’d been in North Queensland for just over a month before I met Noah. His photos clutching marathon medals and sporting various button up/wayfarer combinations made for a very innocuous Hinge profile. When I found out he had a psychology degree, I figured we’d at least get through a beer together. He countered by suggesting a swim at a nearby waterhole and, like all stories of torrid romance, within 24 hours we of meeting were both rendered senseless by the euphoria of mutual attraction.
This a story of romance and rejection: my story of Noah. But because we met using a dating application, this is also the story of modern love. It is a proverbial tale and one I have heard in many iterations. One with a climax so common, it’s been normalised.
According to the social sciences, there are three fundamental ways in which online dating has shifted the culture of dating at large: access to diversity, means of communication and algorithmic matching. While these may seem like the obvious benefits associated with using applications like Hinge, Tinder, Bumble and their $5.61 billion industry rivals, whether or not these services actually lead to universally better romantic outcomes is a topic debated hotly among journalists, scholars and gal-pals-on-the-vapes alike. When significant trauma could be the result of giving the virtual love heart to someone you mightn’t have otherwise encountered, using technology to widen the dating pool starts to feel like a game of Russian roulette.
Following our excursion to the swimming hole, Noah and I spent six nights straight together; obsessed with each other’s newness. I had scheduled some time off work to start my masters degree, so there was room in my calendar to be preoccupied by lust. After that first week of passion was out of the way (and our bodies caught up on the sleep they’d missed), we started getting to know each other like adults. I met his friends, his CrossFit buddies, his dad, his dad’s dog, his sister’s best friend and heard his colleagues’ voices over loudspeaker in the car. We talked about how we envisioned commitment fitting into our lives and both agreed that there was something special between us beyond our physical chemistry.
“He’s the greatest guy I’ve ever met,” I told my best friend over the phone on a blistering morning walk.
“So, you’re moving to Queensland now?” she teased, in only the way someone who knows you can.
I scoffed. But sure, I’d considered it.
Like with any novel product that capitalises on humanity’s affection for convenience, dating applications don’t always promote the most respectful relations. In fact, a phenomenon worthy enough of its own name has been coined thanks to the evolving landscape of digital matchmaking. The term ‘ghosting’ describes an instance in which one partner terminates all communication and contact, without warning or explanation, and then precedes to ignore or ‘block’ any future attempts made by the former partner/s to reach out. A 2016 survey conducted by dating site Plenty of Fish on 800 single Millennials – platform members aged 18 to 33 – found that 78% of its participants had been ghosted at least once. This number is both startling and vague because it can be. While the details of the definition may fluctuate person to person, everybody has a ghost story for around the campfire; as a victim, a perpetrator, or the support person of someone whose sense of security has been shattered after the disappearing act of a lover.
We can’t blame the application, we’re still dealing in the business of human behaviour. But while severing all contact is not an entirely new approach to terminating romantic, sentimental or sexual relationships – it’s just the antithesis of offering aftercare – its application as a breakup strategy has become more prominent amid the increased adoption of dating technology. An American study published in the Journal of Computers in Human Behaviour suggested that mobile phone haptics (i.e. touch screen capabilities) reduce the perception of personhood, making profile-havers appear more like commodities than actual beings with context, emotions and tax file numbers. Correspondingly, so too does using an application affect the false realisation of a relationship – an influence the study names “the mere holding effect” – giving daters a sense of psychological ownership over and pseudo-intimacy with their prospective partners.
Almost 30% of participants in a different study – conducted by Dutch behavioural scientists – agreed on the ease of ghosting afforded by mobile dating applications, with some naming anonymity and the absence of shared social networks as factors that made ghosting appealing. Other participants cited the magnitude of choice available when dating online that made ghosting a straightforward option for terminating no longer desired connections.
But if the reward of these applications is the effortless access they provide to an abundance of potential new partners, what risks are there to the reputations of daters who decide to behave poorly? If we pluck each other from complete obscurity, who is holding who accountable? Amongst the ambiance of oblivion, red flags are harder to spot
In becoming enraptured by the sweltering heat of tropical Australia and Noah’s irresistible sock and sandal medley, I had forgotten the nature of our acquaintance.
“I think I’d like to have a girlfriend,” he mused in the bathtub one afternoon. I sunk into the warmth. Everything felt stable.
Except that it wasn’t.
Meanwhile, a friend of mine from school had been given an aggressive and terminal cancer diagnosis. She had stopped treatment and was spending what precious time she had left with her two young children and a very small circle of family. It felt peculiar to be celebrating a new connection whilst simultaneously grieving the loss of another. In contrast to how destabilising it felt to be confronted by my own mortality, my budding relationship with Noah felt solid. Had I clumsily applied the gravity and permanence of the other events in my life to our infantile romance?
Eventually, my friend transitioned and I flew home for the funeral. After spending my final three nights in North Queensland together, Noah dropped me to the airport – “Max four weeks until we see each other again!” – and I boarded my flight in a sweaty haze of reverence and devastation. Neither of which would fade for months to come.
While much attention has been paid toward the experience of those on the receiving end of ghosting, studies on those who have enacted the ghosting have been narrower in depth. More available research focuses on the broad and immediate motives for employing ghosting, like convenience, safety, disinterest after negative behaviour and perceived relationship weakness; while other research looks at ghosting through limited psychological frameworks such as attachment theory, which is typically understood on two separate but intersecting continuums of anxiety (“neediness”) and avoidance (“stoicism”). Several theorists have critiqued the relevance of attachment theory when it comes to ghosting, arguing it’s use as too causal and dismissive of broader cultural, environmental and psychological contexts – all of which significantly influence the complexities of bonding and social behaviour.
These studies do hold some merit, however, given that ghosting may possess certain similarities to avoidant behaviour in traditional offline dating contexts. Research conducted in 2012 found that avoidant personalities were more likely to use indirect or computer mediated communication (i.e. texts, emails or social media) to terminate romantic relationships. More recent findings from 2021 suggested that those who had used ghosting as a severance technique were more likely to score in the attachment-avoidant quadrant of the attachment model and those who had been ghosted were more likely to score in the attachment-anxiety quadrant. Interestingly, those with attachment anxiety who had previously been ghosted reported greater levels of anxiety than those who had not been ghosted before, implying that having higher attachment anxiety may also be associated with prior experiences of ghosting.
Once I returned home, things between Noah and I changed. Being so prematurely catapulted into a dynamic that was no longer tactile, I assumed they would. But what I didn’t expect was how quickly he would stop calling, texting and then eventually even responding to my attempts at contact. The internal panic I experienced as a symptom of feeling so disconnected from someone I thought I had bonded with was excruciating. Perhaps my nervous system was re-experiencing a trauma from childhood, when I was too young to understand why my parents made some of the decisions they did. Or perhaps it was just an inescapably shitty feeling that cloaked my present reality in darkness. Noah and I hadn’t even known each other for long before I left North Queensland, but the potent discomfort of not-knowing was all consuming.
Wake up / check phone / make coffee / check phone / sit at computer for work / open Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, iMessage / push food around the plate / check phone / panic / call my best friend / cry / finish work / leave phone at home during pilates to instil some boundaries / get home / immediately check phone.
Finally, I received a message:
“I’m just not the right person for you. I’m sorry.”
And that was it.
Two days later, I responded by requesting that we close things respectfully over the phone. But my reply was never acknowledged. Those murky waters of rejection without clarity felt stickier to navigate than integrating the loss of my friend who’d had cancer. Sustaining such an abrupt dismissal felt so deeply personal. And humiliating. It made me question the very fabric of my own memory.
Why is he telling me he isn’t right for me? Shouldn’t that be my decision? Doesn’t he at least want to be friends? Was any of what happened real?
Last year, research from 2018 based on the existing theories about people who had ghosted their partners was replicated. Both studies found a link between having ‘destiny beliefs’ (i.e. a fixed mindset – as opposed to a growth mindset – characterised by the notion that relationships are either ‘meant to be or not meant to be’) and the intention to ghost, past use of ghosting or overall acceptance of ghosting as a tactic. Other research concludes that ghosters were more well-considered than their behaviour might exhibit, choosing to go silent rather than risk being manipulated or ghosting out of fear that their rejection will not be taken well. In the experience of this author, how well a rejection is processed usually starts with how well it is delivered.
Not much literature focuses on the aftermath of ghosting for those who enact the behaviour. We know that the recipient is left with only their imagination to fill in the gaps of what transpired (a task that often takes up the lion’s share of one’s emotional and cognitive bandwidth) and that this ambiguity can have long term ramifications. But what about the person who vanishes – the one with, presumably, all the answers? How do they fare?
Around six months after my final and only communication from Noah, I was catching up with a friend at a pub in Hobart. He asked about my love life and, since the wound still sat heavy on my chest, I relayed the story of North Queensland. I was careful not to skew any of the details and botch the opportunity for some from-the-male-lens insights. The final piece I lamented was having never had any proper agency over or closure from an event that occurred in my own life.
“Message him. Right now. From this pub.” My friend was stern.
Of course I had thought about reaching out but petrified to provoke yet another rejection, I had never followed through. I still felt blinded by my own insecurities. If I sent him a text, did I assume he wouldn’t reply because that was who he had shown me he was, or did I still not believe I was worthy enough that he might? Being shown so little respect at a time when I felt so vulnerable had siphoned all the confidence out of my judgment.
The crisp Tasmanian air had me feeling resilient so I crafted a simple message to the effect of “I still feel rough about how we parted ways, can we talk?” and pressed send before it was too late.
The bistro hummed with 90s hiphop and the sound of dinner time. I flipped my phone face down on the table and made a point of not retrieving it until we were ready to leave. When I did, the backdrop of my brother beamed up at me, uninterrupted by any new notifications. I was prepared for that.
Later that evening an unexpected buzz came from the left back pocket of my jeans.
“Makes two of us.” Read the first line of the message. I threw my phone into the sea of olive green bedsheets before me.
After a beat, I crawled over and slid my thumb across the illuminated screen. ‘Click.’
“I’m in your area in two weeks if you’d like to talk in person. Thanks for reaching out.”