A new study provides evidence that relationship attachment styles and destiny beliefs both play a role in the dating phenomenon known as “ghosting” — or ending a romantic relationship by unexpectedly cutting off all contact. The findings appear in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
“On my college’s campus, I had heard students use the term ‘ghosting’ and my immediate thought was, ‘Wait — what’s happening?’ After doing some Googling, I realized that several people were writing popular press pieces about their own experiences with ghosting or making conjectures as to why others ghosted, but that almost no quantitative empirical research had been conducted on the topic,” said study author Darcey N. Powell, an associate professor of psychology at Roanoke College.
“I’m a developmental psychologist who is especially interested in transitions during individuals’ lives, and being ghosted is definitely a transition. I wondered why ghosting was happening, what might be associated with the use of ghosting, and the impact of ghosting or being ghosted. Working with colleagues who study rejection (Dr. Gili Freedman, St. Mary’s College of Maryland), ostracism (Dr. Kipling Williams, Purdue University), and romantic relationships (Dr. Benjamin Le, Haverford College), we began conducting studies to further understand the topic of ghosting.”
Across three studies, which included 1,275 participants, the researchers found that individuals who scored higher on a measure of attachment anxiety were more likely to report having been ghosted by a romantic partner. Attachment anxiety is characterized by a fear of abandonment, an excessive need for approval, and distress when one’s partner is unavailable.
“Having higher attachment anxiety (i.e., possessing negative views of one’s self in relationships) was associated with being a ghostee (i.e., the person who has been ghosted by a romantic partner). Meanwhile, a couple recent popular press pieces have alluded to a link between attachment avoidance and being a ghoster, but we did not find that association within our studies,” Powell told PsyPost.
The researchers also replicated previous research that had found destiny beliefs were positively related to ghosting a romantic partner. People who endorse destiny beliefs about relationships tend to think that partners are either compatible or they are not (e.g. soulmates), and that relationships that do not start off well inevitably fail.
“The field of psychology has faced a ‘replication crisis’ and so it was important to us to demonstrate that our findings were replicable. Specifically, we were able to replicate the destiny-ghoster association from one of our other papers,” Powell explained. “Additionally, the attachment anxiety-ghostee association was consistent across three studies and an internal meta-analysis we conducted for the paper.”
The main limitation of the current study was its cross-sectional design. It is unclear, for example, whether being ghosted increases attachment anxiety or whether having higher attachment anxiety increases the risk of being ghosted.
“I believe that future research on ghosting should consider employing longitudinal and/or experimental methodologies, which would expand upon the correlational research that has been conducted to date,” Powell said. “For example, does heightened attachment anxiety increase the odds of being ghosted, or does being ghosted by someone increases an individual’s attachment anxiety, or is it bidirectional? A longitudinal study could help us more thoroughly understand the association.”
“Furthermore, there’s still a great deal to understand about ghosting,” she continued. “The work with my collaborators, and that of other researchers, is just beginning. It’s important, though, for the research findings to also be shared with the general public. The topic of ghosting tends to be of great interest to individuals, especially those who are dating! Sharing the research findings may help individuals better understand why they or others have ghosted and acknowledge the implications of ghosting.”
“Organizations are also learning from the research findings on ghosting. For example, dating apps have recognized the negative perceptions and regularity of Ghosting on their apps, and in response some dating apps have introduced methods to reduce the frequency with which ghosting occurs.”
The study, “A multi-study examination of attachment and implicit theories of relationships in ghosting experiences“, was published April 20, 2021.