Speculation, Inquiry, and a Quest for Purpose

Collecting Ghosts


When I was in high school, I would try to punish people who crossed me by “excommunicating” them. Not from the Church—I lacked the papal authority for that—but from myself. I would refuse to talk to the individual either in person or online, ignore them whenever they tried to get my attention, and generally treat them as if they didn’t exist.

Now, we call this practice “ghosting”. While all my attempts at excommunication were ultimately unsuccessful (and, in retrospect, rather desperate and transparent pleas for attention,) I have been ghosted enough times as an adult that I have felt the sting of what I was trying to inflict as a teenager. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me so much because I expect it or at least accept it as a possible risk—such as in online dating—but other times it cuts so deep that I end up nursing the wound for years. What’s the difference?

Ghosts who are former (or prospective) romantic partners are the easiest for me to wrap my head around. When I was using an online dating service called OKCupid, I had made a connection with a woman named Kari. We exchanged messages, a few photos, and eventually set a date to meet in person—only she called it off at the last minute and I never heard from her again.

Ghosting makes sense to me in the semi-anonymous world of online dating as a means of establishing boundaries. She didn’t know me, I didn’t know her, our social circles didn’t intersect in the slightest, and so it was somewhat expected that she might suddenly decide to stop talking to me and that was okay. It didn’t hurt at all, I just thought it was a little rude because of how well we were hitting it off until she suddenly dropped the thread of conversation.

There are a lot of reasons to be suspicious of strangers on the internet. It is an investment of trust and vulnerability to allow someone you barely know to stay in touch with you. I can imagine any number of scenarios where a potential suitor is too obsessive or aggressive to keep in touch, and in those cases the simplest conversation is likely no conversation at all.

Kari was not my first ghost. My first romantic ghost was a woman named Dayna, whom I met on a business trip in California. She was from Long Island, New York, and I was from Alabama. Our company flew us there for a week of training at their corporate headquarters, and we hit it off suddenly and surprisingly—so much so that we started a long-distance relationship as soon as we were back in our home states.

Long-distance relationships are hard to manage, but we were able to sustain a level of interest, intimacy, and commitment nonetheless. We were getting along so well that we talked about closing the distance between us. There was a job opening in nearby Yonkers, New York, so I applied for it. While we waited to find out if the transfer was approved, Dayna and I planned a weekend trip to New York City for her birthday, to see if the spark we found in California would kindle a sustaining warmth.

Instead, we found more sparks. Dayna was strangely controlling over our time, resentful of the fact that I wanted to see the only person I knew in New York (my friend Drew) while I was there. This was despite her birthday party taking the entirety of one evening and being filled with tons of her friends, none of whom I knew and few of whom she was interested in introducing to me. It got so bad that at one point she and another dude were talking past me on a booth seat, making plans to go to a concert together.

Dayna broke up with me in Washington Square on her way to take the train back to Long Island. I got the call that my transfer application was accepted the same afternoon. I texted her the news that we had another chance to work on our relationship, but she wasn’t having it and I never heard from her again.

I don’t think I deserved that kind of ghosting, but I eventually understood where she was coming from. To her, I was just some guy she had a fling with and while it was fun as long as we were long distance, she was uncomfortable with how physically close I was getting and didn’t want to deal with the fallout of telling me distance wasn’t the reason she didn’t want to be together. I felt blindsided and tried to reach out to her a few times, but my best friend River always said that if you send three messages and get no reply, it’s time to move on.

On the other hand, I totally deserved to be ghosted by Bethany. Our relationship was tenuous from the start. She developed an interest in me while she was still living with her boyfriend at the time (who was just the nicest guy ever) and I was new enough to the poly-curious dating scene in Portland that I didn’t question it—I trusted her to manage her own interpersonal boundaries. Our brief romance was hot and fast, ending after an ideological disagreement resulted in a lengthy email exchange before she went to stay with her friend in Canada and I never heard from her again.

The fact that she took a romantic interest in me while she was living with her boyfriend meant she was volatile and unpredictable—which, incidentally, made the ghosting after our breakup seem more predictable, less hurtful. It hurt to be dumped, but the ghosting didn’t really bother me because we had just demonstrated via email that we couldn’t communicate effectively with each other.

In all three cases, the people ghosting me didn’t know me very well, and I think that was a big part of why I didn’t take it as personally as I did my other ghosts. When someone is unfamiliar and unpredictable, it can be scary to maintain contact with them because you don’t know how they might try to hurt you, emotionally or otherwise. It’s a precaution, a protective measure, a firm boundary that I have to respect.

It’s harder for me to wrap my head around the friends who have ghosted me, especially when we’ve known each other for years. Ghosting is saying, “From here on out, I’m dead to you,” and the first time that happened to me, it was fairly literal. I had a friend who was expecting to die for one reason or another, and he told me that he would have to cut off contact with me after a certain date as a protective measure for me—he wanted to avoid the appearance that I might have had any foreknowledge of his death.

As that date came and went on the calendar, I entered into a state of mourning for my friend, working through the stages of grief until I had eventually come to terms with it. He was a literal ghost, in the sense that I would never again be able to get in touch with him.

Except he came back. It is hard to adjust to the notion of someone being alive again after you thought they were dead for some time, especially when your primary correspondence is long-distance. He just showed up in my town, unexpectedly and all of a sudden. I had been acting under the assumption that he was dead for months, and it was shocking to have to rewrite my reality in such a way. He was dead—and then he wasn’t. In a way, he was haunting me, and that’s the only time ghosting feels more malicious than defensive.

The ghost that hurt me the most was when River, my best friend of fifteen years, ghosted me after an argument that wasn’t much worse or more personal than a lot of arguments we’ve had in the time that we’ve known each other. It was completely unexpected and it hurt so much.

Most of the time, I understand ghosting because it helps people feel safe, or it’s necessary for them to process the relationship and move on from it, but I also expect it more from people who know me less, people who don’t feel like they can ask me not to talk to them, or feel like I wouldn’t respect their request if they did. When my best friend ghosted me, it felt like a repudiation of the core of my being. He knew me better than anyone alive, yet he, too, felt he had no other recourse. This, in spite of the fact that he knew better than anyone the trauma I had associated with ghosting. The dying friend who ghosted me was a friend of his, too—and he did eventually die, becoming as literal a ghost as can be said to exist.

Whether my best friend was intentionally or accidentally trying to hurt me, the message I took away from his ghosting was that something was so rotten inside of me that it was worth the retraumatizing just to never have to hear from me again. I sent three unanswered messages and took the hint, but I never really understood it. Because his existence in my life was at his leisure, he sent a wedding present after declining my invitation to the wedding. A ghost when he wanted to be, but haunting me when he pleased.

I would never want to date someone who didn’t want to date me, despite how much unrequited love might sting. I have done my best to respect the wishes of everyone who has ghosted me, trusting that they would know better than I would if they’d prefer silence over another apology. (That being said, I am sorry.) And I guess I don’t want to be friends with someone who doesn’t want to be friends with me either.

The hardest part about that particular ghost was that we were still tangentially connected to each other via social media. We had mutual friends on Facebook and mutual followers on Instagram, and every time I logged into one of those platforms I could see all his interactions with everyone else—everybody but me. It hurt so much to see him so active with people he had such a comparatively tenuous relationship with while completely ignoring me after everything we had been through and everything we meant to each other. Eventually, it made me feel so bad I simply deleted my accounts, effectively shunning myself from our social circles.

After a few years, River did eventually tell me why he suddenly and unceremoniously severed all contact with me, and he said he didn’t know what a path forward would even look like for our friendship. Personally, I don’t know that I could be friends with him again, knowing he’s comfortable ghosting long-term intimate friends, knowing he’s comfortable ghosting me.

And if I couldn’t be friends with River again, how can I be friends with anyone after driving someone who was so close to me so far away? Now everybody is a potential ghost, whether literally or figuratively, and these experiences have left me incredibly reluctant to be open and vulnerable with other people. While I’ve been ghosted several times by people who hardly knew me, River knew me as well as anyone ever has and still found ghosting was the only option.

My experience with being ghosted has left me thinking that there must be something about me so dark, so deep, and so terrible that anyone who gets to know me will eventually come to the conclusion that I must be shunned, excommunicated, completely severed from all contact, and that I will deserve it. I take small comfort in the fact that, for the majority of my ghosts, the ghosting has been more about circumstances and an intersection between issues they were dealing with and my own personal shortcomings.

And yet—I still wish I could speak to them all again, just one more time.

About the author

Ian Hayes

Former technical support and customer service professional, now freelance writer and entrepreneur writing Horror, Narrative Nonfiction, and Literary/Speculative Fiction.

Also backpacker, rock climber, casual biker, woodworker and armchair philosopher.

Currently living in Portland, Oregon, but also from New York, Alabama, New Mexico, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut and Tennessee.

By Ian Hayes
Speculation, Inquiry, and a Quest for Purpose