Coinciding with Valentine’s Day, Peter McGraw talks to Lisa Bonos, a journalist who writes the relationship column for the Washington Post. They talk about ghosting, why it happens, how to deal with it, and how to properly break up.
Listen to Episode #66 here
Ghosting And Breakups
This episode coincides with Valentine’s Day and you probably can guess how I feel about Valentine’s Day. My guest, Lisa Bonos, writes a relationship column for The Washington Post. We have an enlightening conversation about ghosting, why it happens, how to deal with it, and how to properly break up instead. I hope you enjoy the episode.
Lisa writes about dating relationships, friendship, and single life for The Washington Post. She’s a native Californian, voracious reader, and amateur competitive punster. She’s also responsible for the first media hit for SOLO in an article that explores how singles were spending election night. Welcome, Lisa.
Thanks for having me.
It’s fun doing this show because I’m paying attention to a whole different set of podcasts, books, articles, and in your case, columns that I wouldn’t have otherwise. We’ve gotten to know each other through Twitter, some calls, this interview, and so on. This episode coincides with Valentine’s Day. Rather than talking about the good things about love and relationships, which everybody is focused on for Valentine’s Day, I thought we would look at the bad and the ugly. Let’s talk a little bit about Valentine’s Day. I want to know what your thinking is about this. You think a lot about Valentine’s Day because you have to write about it. What are you thinking about when you think about Valentine’s Day, besides the obvious workload?
I say to people that Valentine’s Day for me is like being an accountant on April 15th. It’s my busiest workday of the year. In 2019, I did a big event with The Washington Post at the Portrait Gallery in DC, where we had a panel and I was doing radio hits before the panel in a small office ahead of time. There’s a lot going on.
I want to know how you think about Valentine’s Day because it’s something that’s part of your work. You write this relationships column, so this is the big day of the year. It’s not going to be any surprise to my readers that Valentine’s Day is a farce for most people. You’re the expert.
I think the same. When I started my column, it was called Solo-ish. It was similar to what you’re doing. It was focused on single people, so I shape at the idea of having to do a lot of Valentine’s Day coverage. In the media world, if you write about dating and relationships 10 or 11 months out of the year, it’s hard to get top billing or time on The Washington Post homepage, or radio or TV hits, or any of that. For me, it was a big opportunity to put love in whatever I was working on front and center.
I think of it as the time of year when I can showcase my best work and get love and relationships in front of people’s faces, but the actual day, it’s just a day. It’s not that big of a deal. I’m sure you feel the same way. With the pandemic, people do care more about relationships 24/7 so that I no longer have that feeling of I have to get all this great content out for Valentine’s Day because people do care about this stuff.
Let’s start with that. Why is it that because of the pandemic people care more about love and relationships?
If you’re in a good relationship right now, that might be a huge lifeline that you have. If you’re in a bad one, it’s probably worse because you’re with this person all the time. Maybe you’re going through a breakup because the relationship wasn’t good. We’re also separated from the rest of our loved ones or the rest of our life. The relationships where you are seeing somebody in person, whether that’s friends that you’re going on walks with or a romantic partner, everything is magnified. It’s a bigger deal. Being separated from somebody that you love is harder than it was pre-pandemic. That’s why people are thinking about this stuff more for sure.
There’s this prominence of intimate relationships because of a lot of the rules and regulations around COVID. At one point in time, I came across something on Twitter. It was illegal to go on a date in San Francisco. You could go on a walk with your partner, husband, or wife, but two people who weren’t related could not be on a walk together in public.
That may be the letter of the law, but are police officers going up to people and asking them?
I get that. There’s a difference between enforcement and the actual regulation, but if you live in a building, you and your household partner can be able to use the gym or the pool but a friend can’t. There’s an inner circle that is acceptable. You’re allowed to break the COVID distancing and so on for one set of people but not for some other set of people. It’s because the family unit is so prominent and the special status that a life partner gets that it shows up in the rules and regulations around COVID. I agree with you that the police officers are not saying, “Show me your marriage license.”
It’s been a lonely time for singles. I’m single and I talk to singles all the time for my job. I remember one conversation with somebody early on in the pandemic. It was writing a story about what it was like to go without physical touch. This was April or May of 2020. It’s hard to remember. There’s one woman I was speaking to and she lives alone. She was lonely and hadn’t touched anyone in six weeks, which sounds like not that long now. She was having this real crisis where she was like, “I chose this life for myself and now I’m miserable. What does that say about my ability to live alone? Do I not want to be single?” All of the stuff that a lot of people have been thinking about.
I said to her, “You chose this life under a different set of circumstances. You could go into the office and see your friends in the workplace. You could go out afterward and meet whomever for dinner or drinks. You could go on a date or you could not go on a date. Living alone and being single was a different experience pre-pandemic than it is during the pandemic.” I wanted to remind her that she chose this life, but when she chose it, it looked a lot different.
It probably served her well. There is a lot of mythology around solos for this reason. Solos may enjoy their solitude, but they’re not necessarily loners. They may not have a life partner, but it doesn’t mean they don’t date or it doesn’t mean that they don’t have this big group of friends. It doesn’t mean they lack physical touch in their life. It’s that situation. Your column started off focused on solo and now it’s relationships. What caused that transition?
Partially, it’s one of branding at the Post. We were getting rid of a lot of our personality blog names and coming up with things that were more Google Search-friendly and they chose relationships. Even when it was called Solo-ish, I was doing a lot of content on unmarried relationships. The content that I’m putting out hasn’t changed that much. It’s the name associated with it.
I thought a lot about this. In the same way, you can’t have loud without quiet, you can’t have single without partnered. In that sense, that contrast is real. What I find interesting is the default and it’s something that bothers me now that I pay attention to it. It’s called marital status or relationship status, where everything is seen through the lens of whatever the norm is and then the non-normative thing, which is the single side of it.
It’s part of what bothers me so much of that question, “Are you still single. Why are you still single?” Both of those bothered me. You get, “Why are you still single,” on dating apps and things like that or from people that don’t know you well often. My retort to that often is that I wouldn’t go to a married person and be like, “Are you still married? Why are you still married? I’ve heard your relationship is not going well. Why are you still married?” It’s a loaded question.
At its best, it’s meant to be conversational and encouraging. At its worst, it’s backhanded and insulting. It reveals the bias that comes up time and time again that single people face. One of the other things is it assumes that everybody’s looking for the same thing and that they’re looking to be partnered. That’s not the case. One of my favorite statistics pulled from a Pew Center research study is half of the American adult singles are not interested in dating.
Is that from that survey about how difficult dating has gotten?
Yes, but that statistic is nearly identical to a survey from several years ago, so this is not about the pandemic.
The study was done before the pandemic. I know the survey that you’re talking about.
The problem, of course, is that there is not a conversation around the folks who don’t want to date or who don’t want to partner. We have Valentine’s Day, but we don’t have an equivalent. There’s Singles Day in Asia on November 11th, but it’s more of a Commerce Day than even Valentine’s Day in a sense.
I don’t know that anyone observes Singles Day. I heard about it when I had a column called Solo-ish, but other than that, I didn’t know it was a thing.
It’s big in China. It’s coming. It’ll be here in the United States eventually because there’s a product to sell. Once Bezos decides to put Singles Day on the front page of Amazon, people will know about it.
Let him know.
I meant the Bezos Washington Post. Jeff and I don’t talk much.
That’s fine. You’re both busy. You have Valentine’s Day column to plan. Why do you think Valentine’s Day is a farce?
It’s because love is not measured in what happens to you on February 14th or not. Weddings are a little different because they’re tailored to professing your love for someone and you pick the day, time, and place to do that. In any given relationship, even if you are partnered, what’s to say that what happens on February 14th is any more special than what happens on March 25th when someone’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere and it’s raining and they call their partner who then comes and picks them up? They’re able to change their tire themselves because the partner taught them how to do it on a good day. The most important times in our lives where people are showing up for us and we feel loved or get to give that love. You can’t predict when those days will be most of the time.
You’re kind in your assessment that, in my opinion. To me, the thing that’s bothersome about Valentine’s Day is that it makes a few happy couples, at this general time of year, a little happier and reflecting and expressing gratitude, which is good. It makes a whole lot of people feel crappy about their current situation, and then, of course, it’s also amateur night. The restaurants, flowers, and chocolate. It’s the most amateurish way to go about doing relationships, in my opinion.
Even if you’re in a relationship, someone is destined to be disappointed with how their partner does or doesn’t show the requisite amount of affection. You have to talk about, “What are your expectations? Let’s figure out how to make this a special night for the both of us.” Without that conversation, I don’t know how it goes well.
I also have this weird thing that in some ways it sets back feminism.
Maybe. The explosion of Galentine’s Day and all the things that women do to celebrate their female friendships on that day are nice and that feels feminist to me.
Galentine’s Day? I never heard of it.
It’s from Parks and Rec. It’s about celebrating your girlfriends and there’s a scene where they’re all out to breakfast.
Is it on February 14?
It’s the 13th. On Valentine’s Day, if I don’t have plans with a boyfriend, I make plans with girlfriends or I give my girlfriend’s cards. My mother always expects a Valentine. She’ll send me cards and things. The day should be an expression and celebration of love in all its forms. It has gotten branded as romantic love and that’s it. If you can celebrate the other love that you have in your life, whichever one hopefully has, then it can be fun and I don’t think it is feminist or anti-feminist.
I would say that I agree with you that Galentine’s Day clearly is feminist, but it certainly pushes people back into gendered roles within a heteronormative relationship.
I remember having a conversation with a boyfriend where he was complaining about an ex wanting flowers on Valentine’s Day and that she didn’t get him anything.
Let’s move on. You and I have mildly overlapping perspectives about this, but I also hope you land on a sizzling set of articles for that day.
I would like you to celebrate Palentine’s Day or something. You’re missing out.
No, I’m not. I do that all the time. I don’t wait once a year to tell my guy friends that I love them, and then I do special things for them. I do like the idea that if you could co-op Valentine’s Day to be more about loving relationships and about love in the way that love works best, which is a connection between two people and in the moment. Rather than this romanticized version of love that we see in Jane Austen novels, we all would be better off. To be able to create loving moments with friends, families, family members, and so on where Valentine’s Day becomes a day where we lean into love in a way that we would normally. I wouldn’t be calling it a farce, in that sense.
The focus is on the positive side of it. Anytime there are lots of positives, you’re going to find a counterweight to that. You’re going to find some negative. Around this time, people get reflective. They think about their relationships. They think about the person that they may be trying to cultivate a relationship with. They may be trying to make something of this day, even if it’s ill-fitting for their particular relationship. It shines a light on the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the bad and the ugly moment because it matters. The thing about love that I find so fascinating is while the highs can be high, the lows can be as low. When you think about the negative emotions you’ve had in your life, moments of heartbreak are up there with moments of grief in terms of losing loved ones, losing a relationship, losing a romantic partnership in that sense. Let’s talk about the mild side of that, which is to be ghosted.
Do you think that’s mild?
Compared to heartbreak, infidelity, and divorce.
People ghost one another to get into divorces sometimes. Ghosting can happen at any point in a relationship.
That’s useful to know because my experience being ghosted is on the mild side of it. I’ve never had a truly meaningful relationship end by ghosting, so that reveals my bias. You’re more of an expert than I am. Why are people ghosting? This is something that you’ve written about and you’ve clearly thought about. You’ve had conversations with folks about it. Let’s start with the mild version of ghosting and let’s take it all the way up to the initiation into a divorce.
Sometimes, people ghost one another after a 1st or 2nd date. They might not be interested in going out again. There is some conversation often where someone will say to me, “We went on a 1st or 2nd date, and then I didn’t hear from him. He ghosted me.” I was like, “You also didn’t reach out to him, so I don’t think anyone ghosted anyone there. It’s a mutual decision not to contact one another.”
Let’s clarify this because that matters.
Ghosting is when one party has reached out to the other or been in contact with the other, whether they’re in a relationship or a couple of dates, and the other person doesn’t respond.
Getting back to heteronormative gender roles, I do a lot of asking when it comes to dating and thankfully, I do a lot of asking because if I didn’t, I would never go out on a date. Someone may make it clear that they would want to see me, but I know I don’t get asked out. After a first date or as I call it, meeting, after meeting for the first time, if it’s not a connection, I usually will send a little thank you. “Thanks for meeting,” or maybe it’s a phone call or something like that. There are times where I don’t send something. I don’t consider that ghosting.
I don’t either. That’s a misconception about what equals ghosting because people have mentioned it to me before.
Part of the reason I don’t do it is, first of all, it’s highly presumptive. It can be mean to send someone a note that says, “Thanks for talking. I don’t feel like there’s a connection there.”
I’ve gotten those notes after our first dates and I’m like, “I didn’t want to see you again either.” You don’t want to rub it in. We don’t need to talk about it if we’re both on the same page about not seeing each other. If you haven’t been seeing each other that much, I don’t think it requires a discussion. If you’ve been out several times, you’re in each other’s lives, and you’re in a relationship, then you need to talk about it and be an adult about it.
To give an example like that, I was ghosted by someone I’d been seeing for six weeks or so, so it’s not too long. He had made several overtures about how interested he was in me and how he missed me when I was gone for Thanksgiving and all sorts of things. We talked about making future plans about spending New Year’s together and potentially traveling together. Both of us have gotten the flu in mid-December 2019 and I reached out to check on him. I was like, “I got a flu test and I have the flu. How are you doing? Are you okay? You should also get tested.”
Thankfully, this was pre-COVID because that would have not been great. I never heard from him. I contacted him several times. The thing about ghosting that I find to be so cruel is you don’t know that it’s happening right away. With a breakup, you’re like, “I may not want to accept this decision, but I can accept and process it.” You can maybe talk to the person and find out why they think things aren’t working out or at least get some answers even if they’re unsatisfactory.
Ghosting takes a little while for the message to sink in which is the cruelest part. I probably texted once, left a voicemail, texted again, and texted a third time. That was basically like, “I understand if you don’t want to see me again, but you could at least tell me that you’re alive,” and then nothing. He blocked me on all social channels and we even met through a mutual friend. He lives about a mile from me. I don’t know if he lives there anymore but we were the person that you could run into again so maybe you might want to have good relations with them or at least cordial ones. It was terrible especially because ghosting often happens. Sometimes it’ll happen with somebody who’s a bad communicator or who is pretty unreliable. Maybe that’s not so much of a surprise.
This person, up until this point had been communicative and checking in a lot. That surprised me because it seemed out of character but I also didn’t know him well. To layer on top of the fact that we were both sick so I was worried about him. It was pre-COVID so I had spent five days not leaving my apartment and not exercising. I was sleeping, eating and watching movies, and trying to get better. In a way, it was what we’re in now. It was quarantine pre-quarantine. It was so destabilizing partly because I wasn’t getting outside. I was not going to work. All those things that I should not have been doing because I wasn’t feeling well. The isolation made the experience of being ghosted felt harsher.
Why do you think people ghost?
I’ve talked to a lot of therapists about this, dating experts, and even a comedian who was doing a podcast for the dating app Hinge that was about ghosting. They would take two people that ghosted one another and make them sit down and talk to each other about what happened. It’s pretty fascinating. Take a listen. The podcast also explores all the reasons people do this so there are many reasons. Sometimes the person doing it, it’s been done to them. It’s like, “Someone did this to me so it’s okay. Even though it hurts, I’m going to do it to somebody else, because this is what we’re doing.” The headline on my essay about ghosting was Ghosting is Normal Now. That’s completely bonkers and it is. Sometimes they do it because it’s been done to them. Sometimes people do it because they don’t know how to tell someone this isn’t working out.
They paradoxically think that having a conversation like that is going to cause the other person more harm and pain than not having it at all but not having it at all, we have so many questions and also not knowing that you’re being broken up with. That pain is worse than knowing. Sometimes people do it because they’re insecure, and they don’t know how to have the conversation. With technology, there’s a lot of things where we don’t have to have difficult or uncomfortable conversations. A family member calls and invites you to Thanksgiving, you don’t want to go or you don’t feel close to them and you don’t want to tell them you can’t go so you let it go to voicemail or maybe you send a text. One person calling another person and the other person defaulting to text a lot is not knowing how to have difficult or uncomfortable conversations. We don’t teach people. There’s so much pick up culture in TV and movies about how to pick people up, how to approach someone or a pickup line. All of this stuff, there’s little in our culture about saying goodbye.
I’m going to get to that because I want to talk about how to break up. There are people reading this who have been ghosted, and there are people reading this who have ghosted. I want to go on the record and say, I feel bad for you if you’ve been ghosted. It’s an aversive experience. The fact that it’s normalized doesn’t make it any easier to take. It’s uncertain rejection, which is hard to cope with because the psychological research is clear. Uncertain things already tend to be aversive, to begin with. We prefer certainty over uncertainty. Uncertain weights are worse than certain weights, for example, even if the uncertain weight ends up being shorter than a certain weight.
Uncertain negative things are especially looming. It crowds out other things that demand our attention, and it demands our emotions that are there. Especially if it’s a more advanced relationship, even in the one that you described, this is someone that you thought cared about you and liked you, in a way. In some ways, a breakup can be kind because you have a chance to say how much you appreciate the person and things that you like about them but unfortunately, it’s not working out for whatever reason. It’s the, “It’s not you, it’s me,” classic stuff. You have some loss, uncertain loss, it drags on, it demands attention in a way that is destabilizing, and so on. I do think that it is unfortunate, as you said, that it’s been normalized.
I felt like a real fool worrying about him because I cared about him. It’s humiliating.
I want to go on the record to say it’s not okay to ghost. It’s important for people to say that. If you want to date and you want the good parts of dating, you need to be able to handle the bad parts of dating, which means that you either might need to reject someone.
It’s a skill. Rejection is a skill that people have to learn. I’ve even had situations of going on a date or two and not being interested in telling the person and I often get a response back, “Thank you for telling me that you’re not interested.” The bar is so low for communication out there.
In your article, you said that the term dates back to 2006, the earliest notice about that. Ghosting became a thing in the last few years.
2006 sounds early. I still sometimes use the term on the radio and radio hosts will be like, “Excuse me, what is that? Explain it.” You can use it for many different things.
I had a friend who was nearly ghosted. She was criticized by a date because she took a little while to get back to him about something. In part because she was trying to figure out what to say. When she finally did, he came back at her and was like, “You nearly ghosted me.” I was like, “There’s no such thing as nearly ghosting.”
I accused someone of that once. I was dating someone but it wasn’t dating. It’s hard to tell. This was several years ago. I left a voicemail and I was like, “I see what you’re doing. Can we have a call? Can we meet up and have the breakup talk?” Which is what we did. I accused him of ghosting me and he was like, “I haven’t ghosted you. I haven’t been in touch in two weeks.”
That fits. This is not even 24 hours in her case.
That’s not ghosting. You got to give people a little bit of a buffer here. Life happens.
This guy ended up being a jerk anyway. There is this thing, there’s this idea in psychology called an empathy gap. Another reason why ghosting happens is we’re aware of how we’re feeling and ghosting is an act of avoidance. Avoidance is one way that we deal with negative emotions. It’s like, “There’s that problem. I’m going to procrastinate. I’m going to distract myself. I’m going to do all these things, these emotion focused coping strategies.” Some of them are problem focused coping strategies. Avoidance is one. It can be completely appropriate and useful in some situations.
When we are undergoing negative emotion, we feel guilty, we’re going to let someone down, we are focused on our emotions but that other person’s emotions are quite distant oftentimes. Sometimes people ghost not because they’ve been ghosted, and it’s within some hazy sense of normalcy nowadays, with text culture, especially. Also, we are less aware and less tuned in to what the ghosting is going to do to them. That empathy gap further causes this to be the case. As I alluded to, I do think there is something about text culture that allows ghosting to happen because texting is already more distant than if you were having phone calls all the time.
It’s easy to meet someone in a public place and if you’re late, send a text to say that you’re late. There’s little pressure to show up on time.
I was saying that. People are late more often now because they have an easy way to say, “I’m running a few minutes or ten minutes late. It’s traffic.” Before, for younger readers, this would happen. You would be sitting there going, “Where is this person?” There was a lot of pressure to show up on time because of that uncertainty.
I had this friend in 2006 or so living in DC. She was one of the people that grew up without a TV at home and resisted getting a cell phone for a long time. It’s 2006 and Nel doesn’t have a cell phone. I love her dearly but she doesn’t want to be plugged in all the time. If you make plans with Nel, you have to show up on time because there’s no way to tell her. You can’t call her. There’s no way to tell her that you’re running late. She is one of these people that is better.
Out of all of my friends she’s pretty good about staying in touch. I haven’t seen her in years and she sent me a Christmas card that has a thoughtful message inside that references the last time we spoke and that she hopes we get to see each other this year, the following year. I’m sorry. We’re talking about holiday cards. She’s somebody that values relationships and part of that is showing up on time and showing up in whatever form that is.
This is coming at the heels. I did a long series on making remarkable friends. The regular reader has been reading a lot about what good friends do and it sounds like Nel even though you don’t see her often is a good friend. She’s reliable. She is one of the important criteria for friendships, which is you can count on them. They show up when they say they’re going to show up. Let’s finish up the ghosting thing, but let’s say that you are being ghosted. You’ve sent a text. What happens when it doesn’t come back? What is your state of the art advice about how to deal with a situation where you’re being ghosted?
At first, I would advise people not to jump to conclusions. Give people a couple of days. Do not immediately think that someone is ghosting you because you don’t know what’s happening. Once it is clear that you’re being ghosted, stop reaching out. Do not continue to contact the person, show up on their doorstep, or any of those things unless you’re pregnant, you need to tell them you’re having their baby. There might be some extenuating circumstances.
For all intents and purposes, you can move on with your life. Maybe you lost a sweatshirt, a book, or something at their place within reason, I would try to process it on your own because you’re not going to whatever closure you think you’re going to get from the other person. You’re probably not going to get it. If they’ve already decided they’re not going to have the conversation with you, guilting them into or trying to get the breakup talk out of them when they’ve already clearly shown you that they’re sidestepping it, it’s not going to be helpful. I processed my own ghosting in therapy. It’s similar with other breakups. It’s similar to cutting off contact with somebody if somebody does that to you.
I do want to say that this is a saying that I have, which is, “I don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with me.” I’ve had to tell myself that in the case of heartbreak, the idea that you want to try to repair this bond and fix this. You don’t want to experience this loss because it can be quite upsetting and even debilitating, at times. If this is hoping your cognitions can override your emotions, by reprogramming how you think, but I regularly say to myself, and I say it to other people I care about, “You don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want to deal with you.”
Moreover, you don’t want to be with someone who’s going to treat you poorly. To ghost someone is to treat someone poorly. It’s unacceptable to do it. I have had the great fortune of never having a major ghosting, so to speak like I’ve never had someone I dated regularly disappear on me. I have had dozens of situations where I was flirting, pursuing and interested in someone. You move from the apps over to text and you send a text, leave a voicemail, or something like that, and the person never gets back to you. It sounds to me that I should let this go.
Let that go. If you haven’t met in person, it’s hard to brand anything as being ghosted. I get that. I’ve had so many app conversations that don’t go anywhere or even that move to text and don’t go anywhere. I don’t think that’s ghosting.
Whatever version of this is, if you send someone a note, you ask them a question, you say, “When do you want to talk,” and they never get back to you, call it what you want. The person is disappearing, or they’re not responding to you. One way to do that is you delete the thread and you move on. I don’t. I do something else.
What do you do?
I will often say, “Lisa, looks like I’ve lost your interest. I want to say that it’s nice connecting with you. Good luck out there.” I don’t always do it, but I often will put a little bow on it, tie it up, and I say, “I know what you’re doing. You know what you’re doing. You are now released from this,” in that sense. I find it helps me move along because the uncertainty is gone. For them, if it has 1 or 2 effects, I’m comfortable with it. If they feel less guilty as a result of it, I’m happy. If it forces them to recognize that they have done this thing, which is mildly rude, I’m okay with that also.
That’s nice of you to do. I don’t know that you need to do it but it’s a nice way of saying, “I see what you’re doing.” We have so many text threads that can get lost in the shuffle these days. When you haven’t met face to face yet, it’s hard to tie all of those up. I’ve certainly been guilty of letting conversations on apps go because I lose interest or I stopped using the app or whatever. There are times where I get messages back from men where they’re angry at me for not responding and it’s like, “I don’t owe you anything.” That doesn’t go well. As long as you’re not angry.
I want to be clear that this is not on the app. This is via text. This person has given me her phone number. Maybe there had been some communication in that sense. This brings up another question and this is some conversation I’ve been having with a friend and listener about the double text. She introduced me to the term Double Texting. Call me proud but I’m not a big double texter. Her name is Kylie. Kylie made the case for when double texting might be appropriate. It goes something like this. You are interested in that person, there’s something about their profile, or whatever it is, and they never got back to you. It’s simply another reach out.
I don’t have that many live text message threads going. I don’t have that many group text message threads. I’m a pretty disconnected person. I talk on the phone a lot and so on. If you are an appealing woman in particular and you’re on dating apps, you are inundated with messages. I never get asked out so I’m not inundated with messages so everything is outbound for me, but a lot of these ladies especially have a shield up because it’s an onslaught of messages. In that way, you might get buried under hundreds of bodies, so to speak and a double text gives you a chance. Most of the time, nothing happens because the person never got back to you, but on occasion, the person says, “I’m so happy. You sent me a note. I’ve had the flu. I’ve been busy.”
A friend was going to bring something over and I asked, “Would this time be good?” I was going to go to her place and I didn’t hear back from her. The next day she texted me about something. She was like, “Did you receive my text message last night? I have had some texts that aren’t going through.” I was like, “I see it now but I didn’t see it last night.” With app messaging, I’m not so good with it, but texting with people that I know, I’m usually 97% responsive. I didn’t even see these text messages. She had texted back, “Come over at this time or I can come at this time.” I didn’t see it until the next day when she followed up. I’m like, “I didn’t see it.” Things like that happen whether it’s somebody in your life or somebody that you want to be in your life. You have to give people some room too and sometimes it’s technology. Sometimes text don’t go through.
On occasion. It’s rare. Double texts avoid the possibility. The issue is we never think twice about double texting a friend, family member, or something like that.
I don’t think she wrestled with, “Should I text Lisa? Is she mad at me?”
Kylie’s point, and this is from a heteronormative, traditional gender roles thing where the man picks, and the woman chooses thing. Her point is, and I get it, if there’s someone that you think you’re interested in there’s little harm. Don’t be too proud so to speak, to give it as a second try but not a 3rd, 4th, or 5th. Don’t then slide into their DMs.
Do you want to be with someone who can’t be bothered to respond to you? That doesn’t sound fun.
The issue is when you’re a picture on a screen with a 200-character bio, there may be some reason for it. That’s adjacent to this conversation about ghosting more generally. By your definition of ghosting, it’s much more profound than the way I had thought about ghosting. The idea that someone would initiate divorce proceedings by ghosting never crossed my mind. Now that I hear you saying it, I get it.
You asked before about how to respond to these things. I had an example of a couple in that piece where a woman had been ghosted and she had been upset about it. The next person she started dating, she told him, “My last relationship ended by ghosting and it was difficult. I want to make sure, as we start to get to know each other and date, if this isn’t working for you, let’s talk about it. I don’t want to go through that again.” The therapist that was telling me the story said that they went on to have good communication after that initial talk about that and they ended up getting married. I’m not saying they got married because she said this thing to him upfront. Long, drawn-out breakup conversations aren’t necessarily easier.
The person that I dated after being ghosted, I did tell him how my last relationship had ended and that I barely felt ready to be dating again. Even months later, I was still hurting from that. Early on, he said, “I promise you I’m not going to ghost you.” He didn’t. We had months of conversations about our relationship not working and eventually breaking up in the end. Even after we broke up, he wants to be friends. I had to be like, “Give me some space.” He kept contacting me. That’s the other side, the two extremes. The thing is people also take this personally and they don’t realize that it is personal and how common it is. You don’t have to be ashamed of talking about it because the chances are it’s happened to the person that you’re telling about it to.
First of all, I’m sorry that you had to deal with both of those. Breakups are difficult almost regardless of how they happen. This is a good segue into the last thing that I want to talk about which is how to break up, which is important. My last comment about the ghosting thing is I believe in good behavior when it comes to dating. I strive for it. What happens is people who act badly aren’t hurting that one person, they’re hurting the dating pool in general. I do believe that matters. I’ve talked about this several times on the show and then in my personal life. If you’re on the apps and someone says, “No this. No that.”
In their profile, “I don’t want this. I don’t want that.”
Lots of negativity. I know where that comes from, that comes from a person trying to protect themselves. They’re putting up a shield to try to protect themselves. Someone says, “No hookups.” You go, “Okay.” I always wonder, “What do you mean by no hookups?” My guess is it’s not about being asked for a hookup but how you get asked and when you get asked. There’s this situation where it’s like, “If you don’t behave badly, that benefits the two of you but it also benefits the greater good because it takes someone who otherwise would be an appealing partner potentially. That I-don’t-want-no-person gets an automatic swipe left from me.” When someone leaves with negativity, what do you get?
You can write that same profile that says, “Looking for something serious.” All the positive things, the things that you do want are much more effective than like, “No this. No that,” which is basic. I can’t believe that people haven’t figured it out yet.
It shows a little bit of a lack of self-awareness. It’s an empathy gap. You are not putting yourself in the shoes of the person that you’re trying to attract. Also, it’s being done for self-preservation. These people are frustrated, they’re hurt, they’re defensive, and they think that this is going to do it. I believe in good behavior because it’s beneficial not only to the two people involved but it’s beneficial more broadly in that sense. Lisa, let’s wrap this up by talking about what people should be doing instead of ghosting and that is breaking up. You were saying how people don’t get a lot of information about how to get together and they don’t get much information or coaching on how to not be together anymore. Teach me. What is the state of the art of breaking up? How should I be breaking up when I am the breaker rather than the breakee?
It’s simple, you sit someone down to talk. There shouldn’t be a lot of lead up to that. You can say, “Can we talk?” The person can maybe know what they’re walking into. Once you’ve said that you want to talk, say your piece. I would say what you like about the other person and then make a clear statement about why and how it’s not working for you and that you need to end the relationship. I would be firm about that and not leave a wiggle room and then wish the person well in their search for love. I want to add to this that sometimes when people are in these early-stage relationships of 1 to 3 months or 4 months when you’re getting to know each other, this talk about breaking up shouldn’t be the only conversation that you’re having about the status of the relationship.
Sometimes, I’ve been taken aback by these breakup conversations and they seem they came out of nowhere or it’s the first time that we’re sitting down to talk about what is or isn’t working in the relationship. If something is not working that you would like to see if the two of you can maybe improve upon, there are ways to have those conversations before you get to the point of breaking up. I’m remembering a breakup a couple of years ago where this guy told me that he thought the relationship wasn’t deep enough and he was breaking it off. We had discussed that once before, after our third date, and then we hadn’t discussed it again and this was four months later. He was saying, “It’s still not there.” He said, “I’m owning my part in that but I’m also breaking up with you.” I was taken aback by the whole thing.
One breakup that I was in, my boyfriend spent two months waffling and saying, “You’re great but something is not working but I could be convinced to keep dating you.” There was a lot of uncertainty. I was like, “Let’s keep dating then. I see your concerns and I agree with you, but let’s give it some more time.” We had many of those conversations that when he finally broke up with me, I was like, “Are you sure?” He said that he was sure. I’m like, “Okay.” We have fully explored this. It was also stressful for me during the times that we kept going. We were talking about it so much that we were not in the relationship. That is the other extreme. I was frustrated with him for saying that things weren’t working but he also wanted to stay in it. It’s like, “Let’s talk about what’s not working.”
There’s some middle ground there to stating a problem and seeing if you can address it and things can get better. If they do, they do. If they don’t, you move on. In our culture of swiping right on every person that comes along and the same way that we’re not skilled in breaking up, a lot of times, we don’t come with the skills to discuss problems and see if something can get better. It doesn’t always have to be like, “I’m going to default to breaking up.” In the early stages of a relationship, you’re strangers to each other. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect everything to go perfectly. You’re going to have to talk about things that aren’t working for one or both of you.
That’s well said. First of all, my perspective on breaking up is the same thing, it’s a moment to acknowledge that person’s role in your life, the positivity that they brought, what you like about them, and then the however thing for it to be clear. It shouldn’t be the case that breakups should be surprising in a sense. It shouldn’t be like, “Where is this coming from?” If there is an issue that’s causing the breakup, it should have been discussed in some way, shape, or form. I’ve had exes say to me, “I’m not surprised this is happening. I’m surprised you didn’t do it earlier.” This is related to a theme that I have been discussing at length in the show, which is we are bad at asking for what we want. People are bad at asking for what they want in part because they’re afraid it’s going to derail whatever it is that they have.
I always encourage people to ask for what you want. It’s the only fair thing to do because that person now knows what you want and they can decide whether they can give it to you or not give it to you in that sense. It is hard for us to ask for what we want because we might be disappointed in the answer. We might be embarrassed by what we want. Imagine someone wants a non-monogamous relationship and the world doesn’t generally approve of that, they’re afraid to ask for it, but because they’re not asking for it, they give themselves no chance to get it in that way.
Maybe they want monogamy but they think the other person is not going to want it with them or something like that. There’s a lot of questions about monogamy exclusivity that people make assumptions about and don’t talk about.
There’s this don’t ask, don’t tell situation that people have early on, especially if they’re on what I would call the relationship escalator. The relationship escalator allows a period of non-monogamy. At some point, you must be a monogamist moving forward and that usually comes with what they call the DTR, Define The Relationship, talk.
The define the relationship talk doesn’t have to be one talk, it can be several conversations where you’re asking the other person, “What kind of relationship are you looking for? How is this working for you? Where do you think we’re going?” Sometimes, it’s obvious. Often, it’s not.
Breakups are hard, especially if you’re doing them at the right time. There is a style of breakup that is completely freeing and liberating and that is you’ve now gotten to the end, the last final straw in a relationship. You break up and you feel free and elated to be away from this person who ended up not being good for you. That’s unfortunate. A good breakup is bittersweet because what it means is, you’re doing it early enough where you can remain fond of that person. You can recognize that they brought good things to this connection but they didn’t bring maybe what you wanted to or some version of negativity.
Maybe you weren’t a good match and it wasn’t making you happy.
Or there was something about that person that wasn’t a good fit in that way and you probably weren’t exactly a good fit for them also. These are hard things to do, especially given the lofty standards that we have for as you move from a relationship into some more long-lasting partnership, at least traditionally. That’s hard. I have this particular belief about breakups. When a person tells me that they don’t want to see me anymore, it doesn’t matter why. I don’t believe I’m getting the full story in any case. The reason I say that is I’ve often left out important pieces of information about why I’m breaking up with someone. The reason I do it is because A) It could be unnecessarily cruel to say it. B) It might be something fundamental about the person. I’m not going to give them that note because I know they’re not going to change it. That may be weak of me. I think of it as a little bit compassionate in a sense.
I agree. There are certainly breakups. I’ve done the same thing. They don’t need to know all the reasons if you have a reason that is something the other person can’t argue with. I once broke up with a guy who was moving to Seoul for a job and I was not moving to Seoul and I broke up with him. There were some other reasons why it should probably end but I didn’t need to tell him all those.
The three sayings that I say over and over again, two of them have already come up in this and that one is you don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you. That’s surprising. When you hear it, it seems self-evident but it’s difficult because of these emotions and expectations. The second one is to ask for what you want and most people don’t do that because they’re afraid they’re not going to get it and they give up the chance to get it. They may be embarrassed to ask for what they want. The last one is no means no. When someone doesn’t want to be with you, they don’t want to be with you and it doesn’t matter why. They’re not asking you to change at that point. They’re saying, “I don’t want this style of relationship with you as a result of it.” You mentioned this thing about trying to remain friends. What are your thoughts and experiences about the idea of trying to remain friends, broaching that topic, and how to navigate that situation? I’ve done both.
I’ve done it well and poorly enough to know that. The main thing is you need a lot of time in between something romantic and something platonic. Once you break up with somebody and you’re going to be friends, you need to be comfortable talking to that person about their love life going forward. Would you set them up with someone? You don’t have to say yes but maybe you wouldn’t want to inflict them in that way on anyone. Maybe you would. Even if the breakup is mutual, you still need some time in between.
I completely agree. The way you can tell if you’ve transitioned to friendship is if you’re able to talk about other relationships. You often need a moratorium and some time before you do that. Keep it on the more shallow topical topics, things that you share in common outside of that as a way to do it. I have good friends who I previously dated. I have good friends who I never dated. I have some good friends that I consider dating but never tried and I’m glad that I didn’t.
Same. If you had tried, maybe you wouldn’t still be friends.
That’s exactly right. I kicked off the series on friendships with my good friend, Julie Nirvelli, who’s a regular guest or guest co-host on here. She was my neighbor, an attractive woman, vivacious, great. We never dated. I’m glad neither of us ever tried to date because we have this wonderful friendship that who knows if it would have been derailed by the awkwardness of a relationship if it didn’t go well.
Especially if you’re neighbors.
She moved away. The same things that draw you together with someone intimately are often the same things that you want in intimate friendships, close friendships that are there. If someone is appealing, trustworthy, reliable, they want to lift you, we should require that across all of our relationships that are there. This is good. I hope this gives you a little food for thought as you prepare for yet another farcical Valentine’s Day. I do appreciate your definitions and your perspective. You have thought about a lot of these things as someone who’s been writing about this topic for many years and talking to people about it. When you talk to Bezos, I would welcome a singles-related column back in WashPo.
I will relay the message if we ever get to speak. Thanks for having me on. This was fun.
Lisa, this is great. I appreciate your work. I hope we can do this again.
It sounds great.
- Podcast – Seeing Other People Podcast
- Julie Nirvelli – Past episode
About Lisa Bonos
Lisa Bonos writes about dating, relationships, friendship and single life for The Washington Post. She’s a native Californian, voracious reader and amateur competitive punster.
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