What to do if a friend ghosts you and how to move forward
It’s not just a dating thing, and it can hurt. A lot. Here are ways to cope.
In my late 20s, I was ghosted by one of my closest friends.
We met in college and began drifting apart after graduation. He moved to the Midwest for grad school; I stayed in New York, but we visited when our circumstances and budgets allowed, and emailed – frequently at first, then less often.
I have tried not to dwell too much on the time when our relationship ended, but I recently dug up my last email to him from 12 years ago: “I’m putting this out there as a final attempt to be in touch,” I wrote in a note that makes me feel a combination of heartache and embarrassment, even now. “I hope we can reconnect.”
He never responded, and I never tried again. It felt an awful lot like being dumped.
Ghosting – when someone unilaterally cuts off communication without warning or explanation – has become a seemingly inescapable part of the modern dating scene, but we pay far less attention to it as a phenomenon between friends.
Yet research suggests that experiences like mine are pretty common. In one study from 2018, 39 per cent of the participants said they’d been ghosted by a friend. And a study published earlier this year found that people often feel just as hurt after being ghosted by a friend as they do after being ghosted by a romantic partner.
“With ghosting, we know that there are four fundamental needs that get threatened,” explained Gili Freedman, an assistant professor of psychology at St Mary’s College of Maryland who was an author of the 2018 study: “Your sense of belonging, your sense of meaningful existence – that you have a place in the world, and that place is meaningful – your sense of control and your self-esteem.”
Dr Freedman cautioned that there isn’t any research on the best strategies to help you cope with being abruptly dropped by a friend – and stressed that the bulk of research on ghosting has focused on dating and romantic situations. But she and other experts who study friendship and ghosting offered several approaches that may help.
VALIDATE YOUR EXPERIENCE – AND YOUR PAIN
There is “a certain shame” to being ghosted by a friend, said Irene S Levine, a psychologist and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend. She believes much of it stems from the mythology that you’re supposed to keep your friends for all eternity, when in fact research in the Netherlands suggests people may lose about half of the friends in their social network every seven years.
Simply reminding yourself that fluidity is a hallmark of friendship and that platonic ghosting is relatively widespread can offer some comfort, Dr Levine said, because it helps normalise the experience.
“Try to step back and remember that not all friendships, even very good ones, last forever,” Dr Levine said.
It may also help to recognise that being ghosted is a form of “ambiguous loss”, a psychology term that describes a loss without information or closure. Marisa Franco, a psychologist who studies friendship, said it is normal to feel sad, angry or embarrassed, and it is normal to ruminate.
Research suggests simply naming feelings without trying to change them or push them away – a technique known as “affect labelling” – can offer solace.
"Anything that helps you express emotion will ease grief,” Dr Franco said. That might include journalling, crying or talking to friends who won’t minimise your feelings. Try to validate your suffering in a compassionate way, she urged, by acknowledging that your feelings connect you to others who have struggled with similar issues – an idea called “common humanity”. (I, for one, have found it cathartic to write this story and realise I’m not the only one who has been through an experience like this.)
RECLAIM SOME CONTROL AND A SENSE OF CONNECTION
Because ghosting is characterised by uncertainty, it can help to “fortify your need for control”, Dr Freedman said. Focus your time and attention on areas of your life where you feel a sense of agency, she said. Is that at work? Through certain hobbies? Pour your energy into those pursuits.
Christina Leckfor, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Georgia, added: “If you think you’re being ghosted, try to fill that void in your life with social connection from other people. If you can try and spend time with close friends or family members, you might still feel hurt by the experience, but hopefully you won’t feel as lonely.”
At the same time, although being ghosted feels deeply personal, it may help to “remind yourself that getting dumped may have nothing to do with you”, said Dr Levine. She noted, for instance, that your friend might be grappling with mental health issues, an illness or family problems, and they “may not be ready to share – even with a very good friend”.
CONSIDER REACHING OUT ONCE MORE
Sometimes it’s obvious a friend is done with you, as was the case for me. But often, friendships simply peter out. For instance, an often cited 1984 study among young adults found that physical separation was the most common reason friendships end.
So, consider the possibility that your friend isn’t deliberately ghosting you; life simply got in the way. “Typically, friends don’t go: ‘I will be moving across the state to start a job, and at that time I’m not going to keep in touch as much,’” said Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, who noted that friendship does not have the same kind of clear expectations for behaviour that romantic relationships tend to have.
It’s possible that if you get in touch, they might thank you for your persistence, Dr Hall said.
Even if you never hear back, it can at least help interrupt the cycle of rumination, Dr Franco said. Taking initiative can offer more closure that the friendship really is over, she said, rather than leaving you wondering.
“You might just say, ‘Hey friend, I haven’t heard from you in a while. At this point, I’m not sure if you continue to be interested in a friendship with me,’” Dr Franco said. “Try to welcome them to just be honest with you. I think ghosters often think honesty is worse than ghosting.”
By Catherine Pearson © The New York Times Company
The article originally appeared in The New York Times.