You meet someone through a dating app. And it seems to be going well. You share a passion for good food, art, even Rilke. Together you explore the city you’ve lived in for years, and everything suddenly feels new. Is this love? You think it might be. But then – he disappears. He stands you up and suddenly he’s not answering your texts. Not taking your calls. You met online, so you don’t really have any friends in common. He was a stranger before, just a picture on a screen. And now he’s disappeared into the ether. You, my friend, have been ghosted.
There’s always a seed for every novel, a moment, or point of obsession that leads me to research. For Last Girl Ghosted, it was a conversation with a young friend about online dating. We were talking about some of the current apps out there – apps for dating, as well as just for “hooking up.” (Don’t worry. We’ll get to that.) And she said something that stayed with me. She said that there was this endless pool of choices, that you could just keep swiping and there was the next person and then the next. How could you ever know, she wondered, if you’d picked the right one?
And then, if the person you chose turned out to be less than you had imagined from your online encounter, then it was just too easy to ghost that person and move on. You had no tie to that stranger before or after.
The internet and dating apps have taken what used to be a relatively small pool of people – your town, your church, your workplace, the local bars and clubs – with a relatively small set of expectations – courtship, marriage – and expanded it exponentially. The upside: endless choices. The downside: no close connections, no external reason to treat each other well. You’re not going to wind up in church on Sunday sitting next to your Tinder date’s grandmother. So, go ahead and ghost her.
Ghost her? There’s that phrase again. My fellow-oldsters might be wondering: What does that even mean? It’s okay. I had a lot to learn too.
I’ve been married for twenty-one years. So when I was younger, online dating services had just made their debut. I met a few men through dating sites, each encounter more disappointing than the last. (I met my husband the old-fashioned way – in a bar.) But these days dating apps are the norm, how single people connect most often. And when it comes to the lexicon for this brave (and not always kind) new world, there’s a colorful and evocative glossary of terms.
Allow me to enlighten you, as I have been enlightened:
Let’s start with an easy one. Ghosting is defined as when someone cuts off all communication with you – phone calls unreturned, texts not answered. No reason. No good explanation or even a lame excuse. You might find yourself blocked from his social media sites. There are levels of ghosting, of course. Your friend doesn’t answer your text after an argument? That’s micro-ghosting. A mid-level ghosting might occur after a few encounters – a coffee date, a drink after work – where you kept the other person, or you were kept, at arm’s length. It’s heavy-weight ghosting, and the most hurtful, after you’ve started a relationship, possibly a sexual one. Rather than formally breaking up, you just cease communication. The message, a harsh one, is clear. I’m done with you and I don’t care enough to tell you to your face.
You like him. You do. But you’re not a hundred per cent sure he’s the one. Maybe there are things about him – his friends are jerks, his place is a mess – that irk you. But he’s a good cook, a good kisser. He has money. You’re not ready to move on, nor are you certain want to get more serious. So you lead him on. Drop a text: Hey, thinking about you. Or: How about drinks next week? Or the king of vague, breadcrumby messages: What’s up? Will you meet him for that drink? Do you care what’s up? To be determined. In the meantime, you’ll just keep leaving that trail for him to follow.
You make a connection online and decide to take it to the next level. It’s not an actual date, not really. Sometimes this is referred to as a “sex interview.” In the olden days, you might get to know a person before you decided if you wanted the relationship to get physical. But in modern dating, you might have sex with a person before you decide if you want to get to know him better. So, hey, let’s hook up. Most often this refers to a very casual sexual encounter. It could lead to more. Maybe.
You’ve seen each other every Friday night for a month. It’s more than hooking up, you think. But you are definitely not ready to change your relationship status online. And you’re nowhere near bringing her home to meet your mom. (Do people still do that?) So what do you call it when you like someone, see them a lot, when the relationship is sexual – but you have no idea what the future holds, or if that girl who has been breadcrumbing you might actually decide she really likes you (because she was superhot). That’s a situationship. It happens when it happens and the lack of commitment is implicit – or should be – for both parties.
You’ve been ghosted – again. Well, sort of. She’s not answering your texts. But you can tell that she’s seeing your stories on Instagram; she liked your admittedly lame post on Twitter. There’s no direct communication, but she’s still out there, watching. She’d be a stalker if she actually seemed to care or want something more. She’s orbiting you. Keeping her distance, checking out your feeds. Who knows when – or if – you’ll get a What’s up? from her one night when she’s lonely.
It’s not Catfishing. You’re not claiming to be a twenty-two-year-old swimwear model when you’re actually a fifty-year-old (ahem) mother of four. It’s just that you used a photo of yourself on your profile that’s a few years out of date – the lighting was great and you were ten (okay, fifteen) pounds lighter. Or you took a photo of yourself next to your pal’s new Tesla – but you drive a Kia. You always wished War and Peace was your favorite book. It’s okay. We all want to put the best version of ourselves out there. But kittenfishing is when you put out white lies, half-truths, filtered images, and curated versions of your true self. Maybe you’re hoping that when you show up for your first in-the-flesh meeting somewhat less polished than your avatar, that your charm and charisma will make up it. Depending on how dishonest you’ve been – probably not.
The dating game has changed. Apps and dating sites have connected us to more people than ever. So why do we feel so disconnected? So lost. The truth is as much as things change, they stay the same. There might be different rules of engagement and a whole new language to learn. But we’re still just looking to be known, to be seen. We’re still just looking for true love. And the rules are still simple even though they seem anything but: be honest, be kind, respect yourself, and others. And – no ghosting!
Get yourself a copy of Lisa Unger’s Last Girl Ghosted here.