Ghosting as emotional offence: Inquirer contributor

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER) – In one of the more perplexing legislative moves, Negros Oriental Rep. Arnie Teves Jr. filed House Bill No. 611, an act declaring ghosting as an emotional offence.

Ghosting is defined under the bill as “a form of emotional abuse when a person is engaged in a dating relationship with the opposite sex, affecting the victim’s mental state.” If you notice, this definition does not actually define the behaviour of ghosting, which, colloquially, is to abruptly end communications and relations with someone without notice or explanation. Furthermore, this already vague definition in the bill also seems to limit ghosting to heterosexual relationships, making it seem like ghosting only occurs among such couples.

Ghosting is a somewhat recently coined phenomenon that pertains to the disappearing act of a person in a dating or romantic context. One does not have to be in an exclusive, labelled relationship for ghosting to occur. This is actually more common among people who have gone on dates only to never hear from the other person afterwards. Another form of ghosting is to be “left on read,” meaning that your messages were received and read but never replied to.

Just because this is a new term, however, does not mean that ghosting did not happen in previous generations. Every now and then, we would hear scandalous stories of spouses and partners running away from their relationships and families or of suitors who suddenly stop courting. Partners who choose to disappear rather than face a difficult breakup have always existed.

Ghosting is currently experienced as a more acute (and pervasive) phenomenon due to norms surrounding online communication. The ease of social media and online messaging has ensured that there can no longer be any excuse for not replying to or communicating with someone. The effort of communicating has become very minimal: It only takes a few seconds, it does not require live or face-to-face so you can think about what to say, and it is easy to communicate with multiple people at a time.

This low effort requirement means that people expect-and take for granted-that they will be replied to instantly. Whereas before, when snail mail trained us into waiting for weeks or months before a reply, or when we used to wait for the person to arrive home before we can reach them through landline, we now expect instantaneous feedback since everyone is perceived as always reachable. (I’ve encountered many couples who get into conflict because the reply didn’t come within hours.)

Communication requiring minimal effort can be a double-edged sword in that it can lead to the low valuing of communication overall. Since it no longer takes much effort to communicate, then the partner may not see communication as a form of investment toward the relationship.

Conversely, lack of communication is now perceived as a proactive violation or withdrawal of investment. In the investment model of relationships, it is important that the person feels invested to maintain commitment. Higher investment (time, effort, committed resources) makes it much less likely for a person to walk away from a relationship. Higher investment also helps the person to consider exiting the relationship gracefully, so as to recover as much investment as possible (e.g., sharing custody of children, pets, and property; retaining shared friendships and social circles).

This is the crucial factor as to why ghosting is becoming more and more common: It has become much easier to cut someone out from your life, especially when you have not yet seriously invested in that relationship such as when you just first started dating.

The more mature alternative to ghosting is to engage in a proper conversation about ending the relationship. However, I find that more and more people are lacking the skills and the courage to do this. I suspect that the intention behind ghosting is more to avoid painful conversations than it is to actively hurt the other person. As painful as ghosting can be for the receiving party, I find it too extreme to label it as emotional abuse as this is not done “solely to cause emotional distress to the victim,” as the bill asserts. Having someone no longer wanting to be in a relationship with you is painful, but not abusive.

Ghosting is an uncaring act but it is not necessarily abusive (unless it is combined with stealing your money or leaving you with debts and obligations). There are better things we can do to denormalise ghosting. We can teach and encourage people on skilful communication, including how to maturely express wanting to end a relationship.

With more and more people going on exploratory dates rather than dating with the intention of developing a serious relationship, let’s make it the norm to openly state their expectations and intentions at the beginning so as to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Ghosting is a sign that some people no longer know how to communicate; let’s teach them how.

  • The writer is a columnist for the paper. The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 news media entities.