Earlier this summer, I was ghosted for the first time.
It’s not that I’ve never had a relationship end ambiguously. We’ve all had those first few uncomfortable dates where we know that a third isn’t coming. When the passion wanes and the texting peters off – where a natural end follows an unsuccessful middle. That seems comfortable to me. It always has.
But for the first time ever this year, I experienced the full ghosting experience – of meeting someone I was crazy about, feeling an intense connection with them, being altogether sure that the feelings were mutual – that they were different than the other shady people I was used to dating – and then having them disappear into absolute thin air.
I can’t pretend it doesn’t suck to be ghosted. I know I’m not the first or last to experience the phenomenon but it still felt a bit like someone had punched me in the gut when it happened. The disregard is insulting. The lack of closure is maddening. You move on, but not before your self-esteem takes a hit. The only thing worse than being broken up with is realizing that someone didn’t even consider you worth breaking up with.
Being ghosted was an unpleasant experience. But it was also one that forced me to reflect on my own past dating behaviours. While mulling over my own rejection, my mind flashed back to a day several weeks before, when I was sitting on my best friend’s couch with my phone in hand.
“I’m just not interested in him,” I explained. “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with him objectively, the attraction just isn’t really there for me.”
“That’s fine,” She assured me, “But you have to tell him.”
“I don’t know.” I winced. “We weren’t serious or anything. I think I’m just going to let it… you know… die out.”
She gave me that infuriating look that only someone who’s a generally better person than you can give you. “Okay,” She said. “But consider if it were you in his shoes.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” I replied confidently. “Being broken up with is humiliating. When things peter out it’s just a way of letting everyone escape with their pride intact.”
And so I stood by my own logic. I ghosted the guy I wasn’t feeling and I slept fine at night. I told myself that was just how we do things now. That it was the modern break-up protocol we’d all agreeded to adhere to, after all.
Flash forward a few months later: I’m sitting on that same friend’s couch, lamenting over my own unfair dismissal (karma working in full force, as per usual). It turns out that I did mind being ghosted – in fact, I minded a lot.
And what I was forced to realize at that point was my own cardinal dating mistake prior to being ghosted – I’d put all my eggs in one basket. I had foolishly expected dating post-college to work the same way it always had – you were single for a while, you did your own thing, and then you met someone and started casually seeing each other. If it went well, it became a relationship. If not, it ended amicably because you still had to see each other in econ class.
But that was not how things happened anymore. Dating post-college was an entirely new ball game and I had to face the stark truth of what had happened to me: The person I’d been dating was in the game and I was not. College was over and the real-life dating scene was an absolute rat race.
And so, I did what any other jaded twenty-something would have done: I brought myself up to speed. I downloaded Tinder. And OKCupid. And Snapchat. I started swiping, texting, dating and ‘talking with’ various people at once. I forgot names on first dates. I made notes on my phone to keep track of who was who. After all, it was what everyone else was doing. And it seemed to be the only way to keep up without getting duped.
The longer I stayed in ‘the game,’ the clearer it became to me why other people acted the way they did in relationships. Everyone had, at some point or another, had the exact same experience with dating:
You put all your eggs in one basket. You get burned. So the next time, you make a point to distribute them evenly. You’re so worried about not getting your own heart broken that you don’t really care whose you break along the way.
You date the person you kind of like to distract yourself from the fact that the one you really like hasn’t texted you back in three days. You sleep with people you have no connection with to convince yourself you don’t need anything more. You keep your options open because when one relationship crashes and burns, you need to have somewhere to run. You don’t want to have to feel inadequate, so you keep the back burner full of people to fall back on.
We’re dishonest because we don’t trust each other – because we can’t. No matter how happy we are with somebody and how invested it seems like they are, we never know when the other shoe might drop. We never know who else they’re talking to, who else they’re sleeping with, who they might meet at the bar or online or at work who blows us out of the water and renders us suddenly obsolete. We are constantly at risk of being one-upped and there’s no way to shelter ourselves from it other than to prepare for it. To always have one foot out the door. To never be totally invested or all the way in.
Check any twenty-something’s phone and you’ll generally see a specific smorgasbord of people they’re keeping in touch with – one they want to date, one they want to sleep with and a few others they’re keeping around ‘just in case’ nothing else works out.
And do we want all of these people in our lives? Not particularly. In fact, it’s exhausting.
The texting. The dating. The small talk, the drama, the hooking up and breaking up and falling half in love and then having it all fall to pieces. After playing the game for long enough, we all inevitably start to wonder if we’re the only honest player left.
Until that scary moment where we check ourselves and realize that we’re just as bad as all the rest.
We’re dating multiple people at once. We’re taking things too far before we decide how we feel. We’re keeping people around ‘just in case’ and we feel no remorse – because we see these things as necessary measures. We are desensitized to the ways in which we’re using other people, under the guise of ‘Well, that’s just how it works.’ It’s easy to hate the people who’ve flaked on us but it’s harder to admit that we’re a big, consuming part of the problem.
Save for those who are empowered by a false sense of grandiose detachment, we all like to think we’re decent people. That we treat other people with respect. That if the tables were turned, we’d date ourselves. And yet, we all remain stuck in this vicious cycle of hurting and neglecting one another.
At some point or another, most of us throw in the towel. We pack up our bags, delete our apps and temporarily bow out of the dating game. We don’t like the people we’re meeting and we don’t like the people we’re becoming. We wonder if there are any honest people left out there. We wonder if we could even count ourselves as such, if there were.
The dating game is a vicious cycle that has taken any semblance of human emotion almost entirely out of the picture. And yet, as much as I’m frustrated by the culture, I’d like to think that there are still good people behind it. That we’re not all selfish, desensitized robots, controlled by the endless monotony of swiping right, being matched and feeling validated. That every once in a while, we stop to question ourselves. What we’re doing. What we’re looking for, and how exactly we’re going about it.
I’d like to think that as much as we all lie, deceive and discontinue, what we want deep down is still to tell the truth. That we want to believe each other. To trust each other. To be honest with each other, even when it’s painful and uncomfortable.
I’d like to believe all this and yet some part of me knows that as a society, we’re still all very far from figuring it out.
And so for now, we pick our phones up. We feel that age-old hunger for validation. And we swipe. And we swipe. And we swipe.