The Latest Ghost Story

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In which you swipe left to erase a relationship

NOTHING SCARES ARUN Sharma. The 25-year- old MBA graduate has participated in high-altitude bike racing, trekked to Everest Base Camp by himself, jumped off an aeroplane at 15,000 feet and if all goes well, he’ll soon be diving with sharks in Australia. Yet, when it was time for him to tell his girlfriend that he’d found someone else, he suddenly developed cold feet. Eventually he decided not to inform her at all. Since they’d met through a dating app, Sharma suddenly realised he could also end things equally conveniently. “We only met at coffee shops and chatted through Tinder. I simply stopped taking her calls and deactivated my account. She was really into me, I didn’t want to break her heart,” says Sharma. Since then he has virtually ended or ‘ghosted’ nearly ten different women in less than a month. He believes he’s spared them heartache, humiliation and suffering by simply vanishing from their lives with no word or message—just like a ghost. “Of course, I’ve also saved myself from countless emotional talks and pointless arguments. Ghosting is easier—for her and for me,” adds Sharma, handing out the names and numbers of the last three girls he ghosted.

When I meet his victims, Suhana Lal, Mira Khanna and Arunima Bose, all business development executives from Delhi, I expected to hear sob stories and terrible tales about the man who had digitally dumped them. But all three seemed genuinely happy with the way things turned out. “Break-up talks are hard. I would have liked to have been told that he wanted to end things but I guess this was also fine,” explains 22-year-old Bose, a graduate from Delhi University. Khanna, 24, adds that she briefly felt confused at the sudden turn of events but soon took it in her stride and moved on. Lal, a 24-year-old originally from Kanpur, had the same experience as Khanna, brief anger followed by complete complacency. Just as all three have managed to convince me that ghosting is the most effective and harmless way to break-up, Lal lets on the real reason behind their easy acceptance of what Sharma did to them. “This isn’t the first time we’ve been ghosted.”

The first time took place when Lal was only 21, a student at Symbiosis University in Pune. “I didn’t really understand what had happened. At first I thought he was unwell or had met with an accident. But as more time passed and he didn’t turn up online or answer my calls, I began to realise he had ended our relationship— a three-month relationship where we spoke every single night for two hours. I opened up to him about my parent’s divorcing and spilled all my secrets. I thought I had meant something to this man, whom I admit I only spoke to and saw electronically. In the end I knew I was just another name he had swiped right on. And then I became just another name he swiped left on, without even letting me know,” reflects Lal, who attended relationship counseling for two months after this introductory ghosting experience. Since then, she’s been ghosted another 12 times.

Along with throw-away parties and catfishing (dating a fake profile), being ghosted has become one of the top fears of young daters today

“It happens so often now. Relationships mean nothing because it’s all aided by technology. You can choose a person and throw a person away in the same way you pick out the clothes you wear, the car you drive or the food you eat. It’s so easy to dip in and out of relationships these days. Sometimes I wonder if the people who ghost others even realise that they are dealing with another human being with feelings,” adds Khanna. She has dealt with over 25 different men fading away from her life without the slightest hint or indication. Bose too has met with her share of ghosts, ever since she turned 19 and befriended her first digital boyfriend on Facebook. “It’s the way things are now. You meet people through friends online or through dating apps, but you never really expect much to come out of it, sometimes not even a physical relationship. For people who have just started dating, the first break-up, especially when the other partner just randomly walks out on you, can be extremely scarring and painful. But after a point, you just learn to handle it. I don’t invest any emotions on relationships now nor do I expect much from my partner. Being abandoned doesn’t surprise me. What would surprise me now is a man who decides to stay,” says Bose.

ALONG WITH BREAK-UP SMSes, throw-away parties (where people bring along someone they want to dump) and catfishing (dating a fake profile), being ghosted has become one of the top fears of young daters today. Last week, a survey by dating app PlentyOFish noted that almost 80 per cent of millennials have been ghosted at least once in their lifetime. Another survey on ghosting by Huffington Post and YouGov found that participants feared being dumped electronically above all other forms of communication. “There’s a grey area when it comes to ghosting. Psychologically speaking, we are talking about relationships which have been terminated without any sort of communication at all. In other words, the person has become a ‘ghost’. Sometimes people also consider electronic break-ups through tweets, SMS and Facebook updates to be ghosting too. While both scenarios are equally hurtful, the former is the most emotionally and mentally damaging,” explains US-based psychologist and relationship researcher Dr George Hill.

Exactly how ghosting impacts a person is still debatable but most psychiatrists and psychologists seem to agree that at the very least it leads to dramatically reduced self-esteem and confidence. Dr Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist at Mumbai’s LH Hiranandani Hospital, says that the most common responses to sudden, unannounced break-ups include prolonged depression, insomnia, suicidal tendencies and self-loathing. “Bad break-ups have been around for decades. What has changed now is that there are no break-ups, but disappearances. When a person you have grown close to suddenly leaves you, it deals a terrible blow to your sense of self and your sense of others. One needs time, patience and understanding from the partner who is leaving in order to recuperate. This is more commonly known as closure.”

It is this lack of closure that makes ghosting the psychological nightmare that it is. In a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, authors Collins and Gillath identified ghosting as the worst possible way to break-up with someone. When Anita George, a psychiatrist student from Mumbai, first got ghosted herself, she immediately noticed the long-term harm that the experience causes. A month later she started a Facebook page to help people deal with closure. The page ‘One Step Closure’ encouraged her friends to put up pictures of Post-it notes where they have written a message for their ex. “People put up stuff like ‘I wish you could have just said goodbye properly’ or ‘It wouldn’t have been so hard for you to tell me why you wanted to leave’. The point was to help everyone articulate their feelings of hurt and vent the frustration. That is the best way to cleanse your spirit after you’ve been ghosted. Bottling up your anger and torment will only lead to problems in the future,” explains George, who now runs her own counselling practice in Pune.

Developing a fear of troubling situations makes ghosting a costly experience for not just the one being ghosted but also the person who is the ghost

DEVELOPING A FEAR of troubling situations makes ghosting a costly experience for not just the one being ghosted but also the person who is the ghost. “Taking the coward’s way out is never the answer. When you ghost someone, you have to live in the knowledge that you couldn’t resolve a conflict. This then goes on to become a regular habit and ghosts start to regularly run away from any sort of anxiety-inducing or potentially problematic situations,” says Dr PK Jain, a psychologist based in Delhi. Sharma has recently been attending counselling sessions with Dr Jain to overcome his fear of tough conversations. “In my heart, I truly believed that what I did was for the other person’s benefit. However, I have noticed that I am always running away any kind of honest communication or heart-to-heart talk. I have a chronic fear of disappointing someone and I cannot bear knowing that I am the reason for another person’s pain. I realise I didn’t give a lot of young girls closure, but I myself have not had closure from some of my own childhood fears of commitment and open dialogue,” says Sharma. “My friends all make fun of me, calling me a ‘ghost’. I don’t want to be like that. I want someone to help me stop ghosting.”

To help chronic ghosts like Sharma, Dr Jain spends two to three months analysing the root cause of their fears. “In almost 90 per cent of the cases, the reason is a fear of closure. The person is terrified of committing to something but also equally terrified of ending something. This has a lot to do with our modern lifestyles, where we are not encouraged to permanently hold on to anything be it our jobs, our diets or our relationships. There are too many choices available that encourage us to embrace fickle lifestyles. While this is fine when it comes to what you order for dinner or which movie you want to watch, it become problematic if you apply the same impermanence to human-to-human affairs. It is frightening to think of the number of young girls and boys out there who are ghosting others and being ghosted themselves. Such psychological baggage is not good at all,” explains Dr Jain.

Sharma might not ghost girls anymore, but he’s still not confident enough to tell them what he feels face-to-face. He now leaves his innermost thoughts and feelings on Post-it notes and handwritten letters for his girlfriends. “I don’t want to be floating around from woman to woman, too afraid to open up or speak my mind. I am hoping, one day soon, I’ll graduate from the written word to the spoken word. Then I won’t be a ghost any longer.”