It was not long ago that Sean Penn and Charlize Theron were a happy couple: appearing together at fashion shows and film festivals, hugging on the beach. Last month, though, it was reported that Theron had stopped responding to Penn’s calls and text messages. She was “ghosting” him.
Ghost, a word more commonly associated with Casper, the boy who saw dead people and a 1990 movie starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, has also come to be used as a verb that refers to ending a romantic relationship by cutting off all contact and ignoring the former partner’s attempts to reach out.
The term has already entered the polling lexicon: In October 2014, a YouGov/Huffington Post poll of 1,000 adults showed that 11 percent of Americans had “ghosted” someone. A more informal survey from Elle magazine that polled 185 people found that about 16.7 percent of men and 24.2 percent of women had been ghosts at some point in their lives.
Justine Bylo, 26, an independent account manager in publishing, has felt what this is like firsthand. She once invited a man she had been dating casually for about eight months to a wedding. As the day approached, he stopped responding to Bylo’s text messages, and she ended up attending the wedding alone. A few weeks ago, she found out that he had been dating another woman at the time.
“It happens to me so often that I’ve come to expect it,” Bylo said. “People don’t hold themselves accountable anymore because they can hide behind their phones.”
Elena Scotti, 27, a senior photo editor and illustrator at Fusion, the media company, has also been a victim of ghosting. She once flew to Chicago to attend Lollapalooza and spend time with a man she had fallen for while studying abroad. “We were inseparable,” Scotti said. “I was talking to him every day and sleeping in the same bed with him for six months.”
After the one date in Chicago: crickets. “He fell off the face of the planet,” said Scotti, who didn’t see him again until he moved into her building in Brooklyn with his girlfriend three years later. The silent treatment continued, Scotti’s former flame ignoring her even as they passed each other in the hallway.
In a less dramatic but similarly confounding fashion, Aaron Leth, 29, a fashion editor, found his texts unanswered when a man he had been dating for a month disappeared after he and Leth had bought the ingredients for a dinner they planned to cook later that evening. “He went home to take a nap and said, ‘I’ll call you,’” Leth said. “I’m still waiting, two years later.”
Many of those who have ghosted are contrite, citing their own fear, insecurity and immaturity. Jenny Mollen, 36, an actress, avid Twitter user and the author of “I Like You Just the Way I Am,” a collection of essays, had been dating a man for three months when she told him her grandmother died and froze him out of her life.
Her grandmother had died — months earlier. “He came to my house one night banging on my door, and I pretended I wasn’t there,” Mollen said. “I didn’t know how else to extricate from relationships. It was me being young and not knowing how to disappoint.”
She theorized that people who fade away do so out of a desperate need to be loved, even after a breakup. “If you disappear completely, you never have to deal with knowing someone is mad at you and being the bad guy,” she said.
Joe Stahl, 25, a shopper for Instacart, a grocery-delivery service, had been with his former boyfriend for nearly a year when a painful argument erupted between them. “I knew that there were things that I couldn’t fix about myself that were making him angry,” Stahl said. “I felt like I was powerless and ashamed that I couldn’t be this person I wanted to be for him, which is why I deserted.”
Stahl had already been contemplating a move from New York City to Boston, and the fight spurred him to finally leave. He cut off contact, blocking his former boyfriend on his phone and unfollowing him on social media.
Whether this behavior has become more predominant with the advent of technology is debatable, but perhaps now it stings more, since there are so many ways to see your beloved interacting with other people while ignoring you. The rise of apps like Tinder and Grindr, and the impression they give that there is always someone else — literally — around the corner, is certainly empowering to ghosts.
Anna Sale, 34, host and managing editor of the WNYC podcast “Death, Sex & Money,” believes that social media enables the avoidance of difficult conversations. “As people have gotten less and less comfortable talking face to face about hard things, it’s become easier to move on, let time pass and forget to tell the person you’re breaking up with them,” she said.
Kate Eberstadt, 23, a multidisciplinary artist who admits to ghosting more times than she can count, can testify to this kind of avoidance. She recalled meeting a man while with a group of friends, exploring art galleries together and spending an entire night talking to him when he showed up at the bar where she worked. He later asked her out to dinner.
“I couldn’t bring myself to respond,” Eberstadt wrote in an email from Germany. “I was not emotionally available. I could have explained this to him, but did not want to for fear of coming off, and potentially being written off, as overly complicated.”
Brian Allen, 24, an associate analyst for a consulting firm, who has gone silent a few times but never after more than a couple of dates, also praised the crisp simplicity of ghosting. “They’ve all been quite effective in their purpose,” he said of his endings.
Indeed even Bylo, the account manager ghosted before a friend’s wedding, admits that she has given the fade-out a few times to men she connected with online and planned to meet in person. In one instance she discovered, via Google, that she did not share many of a prospect’s religious and political beliefs.
“I made an excuse not to go on the date and then stopped responding,” she said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it, and it was an easy way out.”
But while ghosting may be more and more socially permissible, Sale believes a long-term relationship, even a celebrity one, requires certain standards of decorum.
“If you go on more than three dates, you’ve indicated you’re interested,” she said. “To disappear after that is confusing.” She added, aptly, “Breakups can haunt you.”