In the last month, three people have “ghosted” me—ceased to communicate sans warning or explanation in what is a disquietingly common phenomenon in modern dating. I’d had a single date with one of them, A—. Then, we’d shifted to building what seemed to be a budding friendship based on a common interest in politics and philosophy. We went to dinner several times and saw a movie together; he even attended my thirtieth birthday party. Another, C—., was a fling of several months. Our relationship was largely physical yet featured a certain affection which I thought was friendship-adjacent.

The third, and perhaps most befuddling, was a person around my age, J—., whom I’d met on Hinge, one of the most popular American dating apps at present. We’d texted frequently for weeks before meeting up for two apparently successful dates. He sent me poems and occasional selfies both before and after the dates. We had a surprisingly confessional written conversation in which we bemoaned the difficulties of gay dating and the way people often treat each other as disposable. He postponed our third date, proffering the excuse—apparently genuine, given its embarrassing specificity—that he’d contracted pinkeye while babysitting. He apologetically promised that we’d meet again soon.

I sent him a piece of my writing which he purported to have enjoyed immensely. In turn, he sent me an essay of his, prefacing it by cautioning that the contents were intimate, in some parts erotic, and appending the caveat that I was under no pressure to critique the piece. I took his decision as a sign which betokened increased closeness. The essay was revelatory, memoir-like. I texted him praising his writing and indicating interest in meeting again. He responded enthusiastically. We made plans to meet in a few weeks, after the holiday season abated and his work schedule lightened. That was our last substantive exchange; when I attempted to confirm logistics the week of our ostensible date, he stopped answering.

There’s a straightforward explanation for why these men may have cut ties. A—. might have met someone he clicked with romantically. With less free time available, perhaps he elected to reserve his remaining leisure for maintaining his preexisting friendships, especially since he knew that our connection harbored little possibility of becoming romantic. C—.’s appetite for me might have faded. More mundanely, he may have been inundated with work. And prior to going altogether silent, J—. had alluded to a change in job responsibilities which was set to saddle him with a greatly increased workload.

Part of me dislikes any “breakup,” even when the rupture is with an acquaintance or a not particularly close friend. But it’s naïve—or at least unrealistic—to want to be friends with everyone. We can only maintain so many significant social connections, after all. Although I had benefited from my connection with A—., C.—, and J—., these people’s exit from my life isn’t what disturbs me particularly. Indeed, ironically, in the piece J—. sent me, he’d confessed to a penchant for romantic inconstancy. I’d enjoyed my interactions with the three men, but I wasn’t profoundly attracted to any of them—though I hadn’t closed my mind yet to that possibility. And I know well the unwritten law of socializing which stipulates that, except in exceptional cases, the quantity of quality time you’ve spent with someone correlates with the degree of unease associated with breaking that bond. It’s easy to bid somebody adieu when you’ve been on two dates; it’s far harder when you’ve been on twenty. And even once close friends often drift apart with time and changes in personality and circumstance—a fact which I find quietly tragic, but which is nevertheless a normal aspect of life.

Why then my unhappiness at these men’s spectral behavior? A brutally cynical take, reminiscent of Nietzsche or Freud, would be that it wasn’t the abandonment itself that disturbed me. It was the power imbalance: rather than being the agent of the breakup, I was its undignified object, consigned to a position of passivity and vulnerability, subject to these men’s whims and vagaries. If love is a species of warfare, any hint of weakness renders one open to injury, indignity, humiliation. The best defense against destruction, then, is a good offense: severing ties preemptively. I recoil at the notion that this logic governs my psychic life. Yet honesty compels me to admit that it has an element of truth.

Such a perverse, peculiarly recursive logic occasionally directs the first stages of relationships too. I have found myself on dating apps, pursuing moments of connection but semiconsciously convinced that they will not materialize. In these desultory, quasi-defeatist moments, when I unexpectedly receive a flurry of messages from a potential prospect, I sometimes discover that I’m more interested in the experience of being desired, the confirmation that someone out there finds me worthy of their yearning, than I am in converting that reminder of my desirability into a real-life rendezvous. Desire becomes abstracted; proof of lovability substitutes for the thing itself.

Yet those cases of idle flirtation, where one entertains the idea of meeting up with somebody and discards it, differ from real-life meetups. It is one thing to engage with somebody’s profile on a dating app, to view their photos and interchange a handful of insipid texts, all sight unseen. An aura of unreality, of virtuality, shrouds the exchange. Without meeting in real life, you are interacting with an avatar, a potential spambot or fake account. Once you meet in real life with somebody, once you see their facial expressions and listen to the timbre of their voice, once you witness their living, breathing, fleshy reality, their personality—once you know that they are indeed some body—ethical obligations attach to that connection. Sharing face-to-face time and conversation, achieving any level of genuine connection, creates a bond, a responsibility to honor the Other.

There’s a good reason that Emmanuel Levinas regarded the Face as the basis of morality, declaring that “the face gives priority to the self” and that “the relationship with the face is immediately ethical in nature.” The face of the Other, in its vulnerability, its nakedness, its vital, somatic reality, possesses “the supreme authority that commands.” Indeed, Levinas went so far as to declare that “the human face is the conduit for the word of God.”

The galling thing about the three cases of ghosting that I’ve raised—and the blameworthy aspect of ghosting as a general phenomenon—is that the behavior evinces a lack of respect for the ghostee’s living, breathing personhood. “Out of sight, out of mind” isn’t an adult attitude to social relations—objects and people are permanent. They exist even when they aren’t directly perceived. Particularly in the case of a relationship lasting months, the ghoster can no longer invoke the excuse that they aren’t sure the ghostee is real. After numerous encounters with a ghoster, the ghostee deserves the closure of being told that a relationship is coming to an end, rather than being left to wonder what has happened to the other person or whether they’ve committed an offense worthy of suffering such abrupt abandonment.

The other blameworthy element of ghosting is that it is often a rash, hasty decision, the manifestation of a mentality which judges others to be disposable and fungible, reflecting in microcosm the “absolute interchangeability that extinguishes man as an individual being” which Theodor Adorno regarded with such horror.[i] It reflects a deficit of receptivity, a summary judgment that a deepening of connection, the evolution and enrichment of a relation over time, is impossible. It is a particularly modern phenomenon, an artifact of our world of digital excess, the “tyranny of choice,” and information overload, a function of dating apps’ capacity to expand the range of our dating partners far beyond the bounds of our social networks.

In the days before cell phones and dating apps, when many people’s primary mode for meeting romantic partners was being set up by mutual friends, not showing up for a date or ghosting a potential romantic partner carried social repercussions. Naturally, the negative ramifications of not abiding by a socially accepted code of politeness didn’t eliminate ghosting altogether. But fear of suffering friends’ censure certainly reduced it to an enviable minimum, at least from the vantage point of today’s dating app denizens.

In ghosters’ defense, though, we’re all still suffering the aftermath of pandemic-era social deprivation and mild derangement. And it’s true that there isn’t a preestablished etiquette for terminating a social relationship, particularly when it occupies an uneasy middle ground between a long-term relationship and the most fleeting of acquaintanceships. As a society, in the realm of dating and friendship, we leave a great deal—perhaps too much even for Aristotle—to practical wisdom.

Of course, it is possible to go overboard in ending a connection. For instance, on a dating app where you can message anyone without having to match first, it seems excessive to tell someone, after having only received one message from them, that they aren’t your type. Merely ignoring the overtures of someone in whom you are disinterested ironically seems gentler: it belabors the point less. That being said, I can also appreciate the counterargument: being met with overwhelming silence on such apps can be equally ego-bruising, if not more so. Likewise, after having only met up once, whether for romance or friendship, it seems polite to tell someone you’re not interested in meeting up again if they ask, but without the need for a prolonged explanation. And it seems excessive to preempt somebody by proactively contacting them simply to notify them that you don’t want to see them again—far better instead to let them contact you if they remain interested, at which point you can gently inform them that you’re not interested.

The degree to which a thoroughgoing explanation and a proper good-bye are necessary seems tied to both the duration and the psychic intensity of a social tie. It is possible to meet numerous times without any need for a drawn-out farewell. As an example, I went on six or so dates with S—. over the course of a few months. We shared some nice moments, but our conversations were largely superficial, and we didn’t reach a deeper level of emotional or intellectual intimacy. For a while, I was unsure about the depth of my feelings, which is why we kept going on dates. Ultimately, I didn’t feel a strong attraction and decided it would be best to end things. Wanting to protect his feelings and give him the chance to process things in private, I texted him a carefully worded valedictory note. He insisted on meeting in person to discuss.

Fearing the extreme awkwardness that would ensue—I’d genuinely said everything I wanted to say—I suggested a phone conversation. I figured a call would afford S—. the sense of closure and immediacy he evidently craved without the consummate discomfort of an in-person encounter. Unfortunately, he persisted, evincing an urgent need to be in physical proximity. We met for a mortifying half-hour which mostly consisted of excruciating silence. As it turned out, he didn’t have much to say. I had nothing to append to my text. Nothing remained to discuss. Nor was there much for us to mourn, beyond the generalized regret that we hadn’t connected very deeply (a fact which was ethically indifferent, since neither of us was at fault).

It felt as if S—. wanted to live out a romantic movie and was shoehorning our interactions into a predetermined script, even when that overdetermined rubric fit our dynamic very poorly. I felt for him: I had been in situations where I was the party who desired the other person more. But I also felt acutely uncomfortable at the incongruity of the situation: his behavior was excessive given the nature of our past exchanges. S—.’s dogged insistence on a protracted parting represents ghosting’s diametric opposite, but it isn’t much better than ghosting—if indeed it’s better at all. There must be a golden mean between these two extremes, a middle ground which would make Aristotle proud.

Is there a silver bullet to this lack of clarity vis-à-vis dating etiquette? Maybe we can have recourse to the vague yet seductive injunction of the Golden Rule to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Applied to the brave new world of digital dating, such an injunction enjoins us to be clearer, more courageous communicators. It calls upon us to be less ambiguous, and simultaneously more humane, in how we relate to others, to emancipate ourselves from the immaturity of ghosting. After this act of emancipation, prepared to practice the arts of friendship and romance unreservedly, we’ll be able to join Macbeth in saying to the ghosters in our lives, “Avaunt, and quit my sight!”



[i] Theodor W. Adorno, “Aldous Huxley and Utopia,” in Prisms, trans. by Samuel and Shierry Weber (Boston, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981, 105).