By now, you've probably heard of the dating phenomenon dubbed "ghosting." If you've been single at some point within the last five years, then you've probably experienced it firsthand, whether you yourself were the ghost or the mortal soul. If you're one of the lucky few who's unfamiliar with this term, ghosting is when someone ceases communication with the other person without an explanation and ignores them if they ask for one. And just as there's a constant influx of new buzzy devices or forms of social media, there also seems to be a new pattern of courtship popping up every day.
Most recently, my friends and I were discussing a dating trend that takes ghosting to a whole new level of spooky: haunting. It's is when a past romantic fling or partner continues to engage with you by watching your Instagram stories and occasionally liking your posts. The haunter is usually the one who ended the relationship, and yet they lurk on your Instagram account every so often. Welcome to 21st-century dating, where every like and story view on social media sends a loaded but indecipherable message.
To find out more about the expectations around dating and breakups in the digital age, we decided to create a survey so we could ask participants about their mindsets and intentions when they ghost, haunt, and unfollow exes on social media. With 36 participants (25 of which are single) from a variety of backgrounds, ages, sexual preferences, and genders, the results about breakup etiquette on social media were incredibly eye-opening. Scroll through to find out the major trends from the survey, as well as strategies and solutions for ghosts and haunted mortals alike.
Dating Revelation #1: Why We Ghost
The Pattern: Though an abrupt, unexplained ending leaves one with no choice but to move on, the lack of closure can be hurtful. And while there is a multitude of reasons for ghosting, there are also common trends. Indeed, 25% of the participants said they've ghosted because it "was never serious enough to need a formal ending" and another 25% said, "I just didn't like them and wanted to move on." Though they had the option, not one person said they ghosted because they simply forgot to reply or just got too busy to date.
One participant, Erin, says, "I didn't want to hurt their feelings, so I just avoided them, although that's a bad way to deal with things," and Dylan agrees that "it all really comes down to just being afraid of confrontation." There are also plenty of cases in which it has nothing to with you and everything to do with the ghost, who doesn't even have an explanation for themselves; 20% of the surveyed ghosts say they didn't expect to lose interest, and they weren't sure how to articulate something they didn't quite understand.
It all really comes down to just being afraid of confrontation.
The Takeaway: As the ghost, it feels obvious that it wasn't going to work out. Yet when you're being ghosted, it doesn't feel nearly as obvious or predictable. As Parker, one of the participants, says, "things become quite complicated in unexpected ways sometimes." But that's not necessarily an excuse to disappear after consistent dating or to ignore someone when you aren't sure what to say, even if it was just a couple of dates.
Interestingly, each of these responses sheds light on the difficulty millennials have with confrontation. It makes sense that confrontation would be hard to do in person, but if we're already hiding behind the screen when we send that "I'm just not that into you" text, what's keeping us from hitting the send button? And not everyone ghosts. Sometimes they'll opt for the fade out instead, but this can feel similar to being ghosted since there's still no direct explanation or acknowledgment of what happened, which brings us to the next revelation.
Dating Revelation #2: Playing It Cool
The Pattern: Going on an internet date with an open-minded approach of "whatever will be will be" is a great idea in theory, but it's usually not the full story. While 57% of participants said they resonate with that approach when using dating apps, they usually also had a secondary motivation for going on the date. Indeed, 18% of that group reported that they were also looking for a real connection with someone, hoping that it'd develop into a committed relationship based on mutual trust and love. Another 12% said that on top of thinking whatever will be will be, they use dating apps for fun flings, while another 5% were also looking for casual sex. Not many people provided insight into why they'd be looking for something serious but also wanting to go with the flow, or being open to something serious while also seeking a relationship with no strings attached.
The Takeaway: One participant, Dylan, says, "I'd convince myself [I felt that] whatever will be will be but probably [would] really be hoping for a real connection that would develop into something serious." This indicates that there's a sort of pressure to present yourself as less vulnerable, even if you're looking for something with more longevity. The most important things are to check in with yourself and to be honest to avoid any miscommunications and disappointment down the road.
Dating Revelation #3: Anonymity Means Less Accountability
The Pattern: 63% noted that they had different expectations and intentions when dating someone they'd met online, as opposed to a mutual friend or an in-person origin. Parker, another participant says, "I used to have Tinder on my phone when I was single and drunkenly attempted to start conversations, but I never actually met up with anyone through the app." Mike Tolbert also relates to this mind-set and alludes to using apps as a way to gain validation: "To be honest, I check my messages to see who liked or wrote me, but I never write anyone back. Who even am I?" Similarly, Drew writes that he uses dating apps to kill time.
Though for different reasons, Kit also says it's a different dynamic: "I feel more awkward, and I trust them less when I meet someone from an app. I also feel more pressured to have sex than I do with someone I meet through other ways." Dylan says, "I think there's a better chance of having a connection with someone you've met through a mutual friend or have already met in person. I tend to almost assume a dating app date will go poorly since it's so random." On a more optimistic note, 34% say they hold themselves to the same standards of accountability, regardless of how they met.
To be honest, I check my messages to see who liked or wrote me, but I never write anyone back
The Takeaway: Since the majority of those surveyed felt like there was less at stake and less pressure with dating apps since there are no mutual connections, it makes sense that they would have lower expectations. While that may not be shocking, it's pretty alarming that so many people disregard the golden rule of treating others the way they want to be treated simply because the introduction occurs in another realm. For example, in Mike's case, he perceives his matches on dating apps more like avatars in an online game than as people. And that probably wouldn't happen, at least not as blatantly, with in-person interactions.
This lack of accountability seems to be driven by a sense of anonymity when there are no shared friends or contacts. Whether you meet on an app or not, the notion of accountability and varying expectations get even more complicated when social media is thrown into the mix.
Dating Revelation #4: To Follow or Not to Follow
The Pattern: Since you often don't have any mutual friends if you've met on a dating app, you probably aren't following each other on social media. And while there isn't a rule of thumb for how many dates you should go on before following someone on social media, the general consensus is that it depends on the dynamic. However, a few people note that "an Instagram follow after a few dates is fine, but definitely not Facebook for a while." Twenty-two percent of the straight women who participated said, "I always wait for the other person to follow me first." This might have something to do with gender dynamics in heterosexual relationships, like the arbitrary notion that a woman should wait for the man to make the move.
The Takeaway: But this conjures up another issue (or shall we say spirits?). If you follow someone after two to four dates, what happens if it doesn't work out? You may end up having dozens of fizzled dates, failed flings, or long-term exes lurking on your social media profile, which can be annoying or potentially hurtful to either one of you.
Dating Revelation #5: Online Hauntings
The Pattern: When things end relatively amicably after a few months of consistent but unofficial dating—or at least the party who ended it thinks they were on good terms—they didn't think social media interactions mattered much. Fifty-one percent of the participants said they like to continue watching their stories and following them because they're "curious to see what they're up to since they liked them as a friend," while 19% said, "I'm just mindlessly flipping through all the stories in my feed."
But zero people said, "It automatically plays the next account's stories, so it's an accident," and "I had no idea they could see who watched their stories until now," while 17% said, "I intentionally avoid their stories. Otherwise, they'd think I still cared." Sarah writes, "I don't want them to forget about me," even if she's the one breaking up with them, and yet she also admits that this makes it harder to move on or at least more confusing when she's the one who is broken up with.
I intentionally avoid their stories. Otherwise, they'd think I still cared.
The Takeaway: These findings indicate that even if they aren't aware of their intentions or it's a mindless habit, they're fully aware that their exes know that they're still engaging with their content. Since they weren't the ones who were hurt in the relationship, it sets up an unfair dynamic. Another participant, Summit, says social media doesn't matter at all, "but if I did have them on Instagram or the like, it would just seem sort of … rude? It's like, 'if I don't hate you, why would I feel the need to unfollow you?'"
That's a good point, too, but it seems that those who were broken up with feel differently. One participant keeps up with their exes' social media presence because, "I want them to know I'm still semi-interested in case I regret the breakup later," though they also later noted that it makes it harder to move on if they're the one who got dumped.
Dating Revelation #6: Poor Signals or Mixed Messages
The Pattern: When asked how they felt when an ex still interacted with them on social media even though they didn't have any contact after their breakup, 25% found it harder to move on. Almost everyone who said this also said that they simply watched their exes' Instagram stories or liked their posts because they still like them as friends or were just mindlessly flipping through. A whopping 36% say this behavior is simply annoying, "but blocking them seems petty," so they allow it to continue.
A few others said that it isn't necessarily weird to continue following each other, and 6% say, "it's not weird, it's just confusing." For example, one user says, "after the breakup, stop following." But the same participant also says, "I'm curious as to what they're up to since I liked them as a friend," when asked why they still engage with an ex's content from time to time. A select few say they don't follow their stories since they know from personal experience that it sends the wrong message, making it harder for the other person to move on. Some admit that it makes them feel hopeful since it means the person who broke up with them still cares in some capacity.
If you're not calling and texting, you shouldn't still be following me.
The Takeaway: Ghosting, fading out, or even consciously breaking up with someone and continuing to follow and engage with them on social media sends mixed signals unless there have been clear boundaries and conversations that indicate otherwise. So while it may feel like a normal, mindless thing to check their social media, it can also feel a bit violative or give someone false hope. If you're not sure if you're just maintaining a friendship or if you're haunting a past romantic partner online, one participant's rule of thumb is: "If you're not calling and texting, you shouldn't still be following me." As one participant explains, "we both know there's that interaction but don't acknowledge it," which creates more opportunities for misunderstandings and a lack of closure.
Have you ever been haunted? Share your stories and coping mechanisms below, and find breakup survival advice from a psychologist here.