When it comes to breaking-up, there’s no such thing as a friendly ghost.

A moment of silence, please, in honor of the Charlize Theron / Sean Penn break-up.

Can you believe another Hollywood romance, inexplicably down the drain? 

One minute they were headed down the aisle, and the next, she’s ignoring his phone calls, emails and texts, and pretending he barely existed in the first place. In other words, she’s ghosting him.

The rumor-mill (which is always right), describes Penn as a hyper-critical, tantrum-prone, alcohol-fueled bully. So when Charlize couldn’t take it anymore, she did what she had to do.

Sure, but by ghosting him? Was there no other way?

Ghosting is a modern-day break-up phenomenon, that seems to be gaining in popularity. It consists of foregoing traditional measures of ending a realtionship, like communicating, or saying good-bye, or asking the person you were dating not to contact you anymore.

A really good ghosting, includes cutting your now ex off from your social media feeds, ignoring them if you happen to see them around, and never, ever, not once, responding to a bid for contact. An expert, professional grade ghosting, however, will leave a million questions unanswered and a persistent feeling of abandonment, that your partner won’t be able to shake for years to come.

We’ve all heard stories of ghostings, or played a starring role in one. As a couples therapist, I’m baffled by their frequency.

  • My client L went to her boyfriend’s house to surprise him with dinner, like she’d done times before. She stood outside, waiting for him to answer the door. Or her texts. Or her phone calls. After 2 months, she’s still waiting, although luckily, not on his doorstep.
  • Fighting back tears, my client R wracks her brain, trying to find a reason, any reason, why her long-distance girlfriend of 2 years would just stop answering her calls. 
  • This is highly out of character for my client J, but he’s in the process of ghosting a girl he’s been dating for a month. He doesn’t know how to tell her that he’s met someone else.

Personally, I think ghosting is a truly shitty way to break up with someone. As a therapist, I can speak to how enduringly traumatic being ghosted can be.

When we become suddenly invisible to our former partners, who presumably loved and cared for us, our sanity is shaken, and our self-worth shattered. Often, we go on a seek and destroy mission of our self-esteem. Looking for any semblance of control, we find fault within ourselves, deciding we alone must be responsible for the abandonment.

But why does rejection hurt so much? Didn’t we dodge a bullet?

The answer lies just around the corner in our evolutionary history, where a rejection from our tribe was akin to a death sentence, loss of access to safety, shelter, mating partners, and food. In response to the extreme consequences of spurn, our brains developed an early-detection system to alert us when the risk of rejection was nigh. Even a hint of social rejection sets off these alarms.

Hey Ghosts: You might as well have punched your ex in the chest with a sledge-hammer.

fMRI studies show that the same pathways in the brain become activated when exposed to emotional rejection as when we feel physical pain. Rejection of the ghosting variety can inflict emotional pain so severe that it fuzzies our thinking, floods us with shame and anger, erodes our self-esteem and questions our essential feeling of belonging.

Furthermore, we re-live and re-experience social pain more acutely than physical pain. As “tribe-dwelling” creatures, we value acceptance and thus feel rejection even more vividly than any other kind of pain. In 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report stating that rejection was a greater risk for teen violence than drugs, poverty, or gang membership. 

Are you reading this Charlize?? 

Sure, negative emotions are a part of life. With rare exception, most of us have experienced insecurity, disappointment, fear, loss, shame, and the humiliation of being picked last on the playground. And that’s ok. We’re wired to bounce back from things like this. But according to research, rejection differs from these other emotions because of the extent of the pain the feeling emits.

The idea here isn’t to stay with someone we don’t like, or who isn’t good for us. Sparks fizzle. Love fades. Flames die. That’s life. But the trick is to learn to say good-bye in ways that validate our partner’s humanity, communicate clear boundaries, and consider the impact of our choices.

If you don’t know how to be anything but a ghost, seek support. Your impulse to avoid conflict has probable wounds rooted in past hurts, that also need healing.

If you’ve been ghosted, look to the things and people in your life that have not vanished into thin air. Go to yoga, stay hydrated, talk to friends. These are support structures to hang onto until you start to feel better. And then when you do feel better, watch out for ghosts. They’re real.

Lonely Forever? No Way.

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