It's time we spoke frankly about something almost everybody does but no one mentions in polite company. No, not that. I'm referring to the phenomenon of ghosting, in which a person gradually withdraws from a relationship—ignoring phone calls, being mysteriously unavailable for social engagements—until only her wraithlike absence remains. Terrible, right?

Not really.

I'm not making an across-the-board statement here. Obviously, it's wrong to ghost a person you really care about, or one who literally physically depends on you. If you're a firefighter who's just promised someone you'll be right back to extract him from flaming wreckage, you can't take off for a week and then say, "Sorry, I got really busy."

In many other situations, however, ghosting is just practical. It's the inevitable by-product of modern transportation and communication technologies, which let us stay in near-constant contact with a virtually limitless number of people. Originally humans moved in small groups, and the only options for avoiding someone were (1) making excuses that required exhaustingly vigorous follow-through ("Sorry, I have to build a hut/give birth/fight a cave bear") or (2) dying. So we didn't evolve to tiptoe out of relationships: It's a skill we, as a species, had to learn. Over time, some of us have honed ghosting into a fine art, and now you, too, can master it the way our ancestors mastered fire. But I sense that you have questions, so please ask away....

Isn't it morally wrong to ghost someone?

This is a bit like asking if it's morally wrong to forget a book you read. When you're flooded with information, forgetting is inevitable. When you're flooded with social connections, you have to let some go. No one can keep up with the sheer number of relationships available in a world so cyberwired that kittens have their own Twitter feeds. If you consistently email, text, or post beyond your genuine desire to do so, your soul will be sucked into your smartphone. So you can exorcise your ghosting guilt at once. Except in a few special cases.

Which ones?

It's unfair to ghost someone while simultaneously expecting her to maintain an intimate connection with you. If you routinely ignore a friend when it's convenient but assume she'll drop everything when you're bored or need a sympathetic ear, expect to be ghosted yourself.

I also never advise fading away from someone you're dating. Because people are particularly vulnerable in romantic relationships, most of us would rather ghost than face the dreaded breakup conversation. The gradual approach seems gentler, easier. It isn't. In fact, emotional intensity is the very reason you shouldn't disappear. Ghosting someone you're dating could cause agonies of confusion, false hope, and disappointment. A clean break makes it far less likely you'll find your former lover hiding outside your bedroom with a box of tissues and a playlist of Adele songs. Or a machete.

Is ghosting just a cop-out for those who can't handle confrontation?

Confrontation is actually an intimacy skill, a way to resolve issues with people you really want in your life. Intimacy will die if serious conflicts aren't addressed, so in your important relationships, you have to develop the courage to confront, whether that means putting your thoughts in a letter, going to couples counseling, or organizing an intervention. You are not obligated to offer this level of effort to every coworker, acquaintance, or stranger who follows you on Instagram.

So what's the most humane ghosting method? Should I offer a series of polite excuses or just shut it down?

White lies—"I have to train my hamster," say, or "I'm having a kidney transplant"—can be a relatively easy and effective option, provided that your ghostee is capable of grasping subtlety. If she comes from a place (such as Japan or Downton Abbey) where fibs are a way to save face, she'll probably correctly read the subtext, and if all goes according to plan, she'll ghost you back—calling you less frequently, liking fewer and fewer of your selfies. Some people, however, will stick like deranged poltergeists no matter what you tell them ("Wow, you have Ebola? Perfect, I have a hazmat suit! Be right over!"). In these cases, you'll have to take a more assertive approach.

"More assertive" as in the old "It's not you, it's me" routine?

It really is about you, so own it. Practice honest, clear, nonnegotiable statements like "I know I've been fading out lately, and I'm sorry. But right now I just don't have the energy to connect as often as I think you want." Full stop.

As a black-belt people pleaser, I cringe at the thought of such lethal conversations, but it helps to remember this profound truth I learned from codependency expert Melody Beattie: "We cannot simultaneously set a boundary and take care of another person's feelings." I've found that the more I practice being honest and clear about my real level of commitment, the easier it becomes. Someday I hope to reach the level of the businessman in one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons: He's on the phone, checking his calendar, and blandly says, "No, Thursday's out. How about never—is never good for you?"

What if the ghostee thinks I'm a shallow human being who's incapable of authentic connection?

Modifying your behavior to convince someone that you aren't shallow is...shallow. Go below the surface to the depths of your own conscience, and you'll find that an honest goodbye is infinitely preferable to faked intimacy. Forcing yourself to connect when you don't want to is like dancing with a corpse.

Could you explain all this to my angry ex-mother-in-law?

Well, right now I've got a lot going on. I have to check myself for hammertoe, sort my legumes, learn to play the banjo. You know how it is. So maybe I can text with her later. Much later. Or, I know! How about never—is never good for her?

Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).


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