I’m a 27-year-old who’s been dating for most of her adult life, and I’ve never had anyone formally break up with me. That said, plenty of people have left me, just without giving me the decency of a reason or a conversation. And each successive instance of learning I, in fact, had been dumped, left me feeling like I was dying a slow, painful death.
The first time it happened, I was 21. We had been talking nonstop for a few weeks and had been on several dates when the texts pretty much just stopped. When I broke the silence and asked to meet up, he apologetically let me know he was “too busy,” and played text-banter volley with me for a few rounds. I remember immediately feeling relief; “Oh, he’s just busy. Okay.” I waited for him to text me when his time freed up, but he never did. It ended there.
Years in the modern dating pool taught me that people leave all the time, and they rarely tell you when or why it’s actually over. After that first experience of being faded out, I racked up plenty of ghosters, breadcrumbers, cloakers, delayers, and ignorers in my Little Black Book—and some hefty abandonment issues to match. If there were ever a lull in my communication with a prospect, I’d immediately assume I was being faded out.
I’m not the only eligible single who’s developed an abandonment complex from her experiences out in the dating wild. In my dating discussion group, many women bemoan the rampant disappearing of suitors and resulting emotional whiplash. “Whenever I don’t get a quick response from someone who I know always has their phone, I wonder if I’m being ghosted again,” a twentysomething woman tells me. “The sad thing is I’ve never been wrong when I assumed someone was ghosting me, so it’s not even me being ridiculous.”
Being in a committed relationship isn’t even enough to strike down the negative, often destructive thoughts common to those who have abandonment issues. “I told my boyfriend of eight months that I was worried he would ghost me because we’ve been really busy and not in communication. He said that hurt him,” one thirtysomething women tells me. Another woman in her late twenties who lives with her boyfriend and is discussing getting engaged echoes the sentiment. “I still have a tiny part of me that knows technically anything could happen. I’ve been blindsided countless times by ghosting and sudden indifference, and [the fear] may never go away,” she says.
By the time I met my boyfriend, who had never proved to be untrustworthy or uncommunicative in any way, the slightest “emotional distance” made me worry that he was suddenly going to disappear—even six, seven, eight months in.
I, for one, blame the current love landscape. There used to be an unspoken code of conduct for romantic endings, wherein after a certain number of dates, you felt you owed the person you were seeing the finality of a conversation and a last goodbye. But in the age of technology and dating apps, the courting process has become increasingly casual and fluid. And while disappearing without a word is not a new thing, the new, digital mechanism for meeting potential partners has made ghosting the problematic and normal (shudder) epidemic it now is.
“Many daters are contacting several people at any given time, so the number of potential people a given person can ghost increases when they decide to pursue one particular person,” says Marisa T. Cohen, PhD, relationship researcher and author of From First Kiss to Forever. “Also, people may feel less bad about leaving a relationship without a word as to why, because they may have viewed it in a less serious manner.”
Ghosting leading to abandonment issues is also a vicious-cycle pattern that lends itself to increasing in intensity at every successive iteration. “Everyone has differing needs,” says clinical counselor Karla Ivankovich, PhD. “If one needs more space, the other, especially someone who has a history of being ghosted, may see this as the desire to leave altogether. This relationship anxiety can lead to crippling fears of abandonment, which, in turn, can cause the anxious person to seek more closeness.” If this is perceived as smothering to the person who prefers a bit more space, then they may sever ties or ghost.
“Sharing your fear of abandonment with your new partner is important, but it is equally important to let them know that they have not done anything to make you feel that way.” —Marisa T. Cohen, PhD, relationship researcher
Reliving the same story of dating and getting ghosted, and dating and getting ghosted can leave a lasting impression on a person, namely in the form of self-sabotage. By the time I met my boyfriend, who had never proved to be untrustworthy or uncommunicative in any way, just the slightest “emotional distance” made me worry that he was suddenly going to disappear—even six, seven, eight months in. I found myself testing him, too: If I don’t text him first thing this morning, how long will it take before he texts me? I’d think. If I don’t plan time for us to talk or see each other, will he take initiative and make sure it happens?
“If you’re worried about being abandoned, you may constantly look for behaviors that would confirm this fear and misattribute some benign behaviors as being the result of something negative,” says Dr. Cohen. “It is important to make a conscious effort to separate one person from others and try our very best not to let previous experiences interfere with the current relationship.”
Dr. Ivankovich says the only cure for abandonment issues is a level of communication and compromise that will balance the needs of each partner, while still being fully open about your own vulnerability. “Be willing to step away from anything that makes you feel poorly about yourself, but also be willing to compromise based on the needs of your partner,” she says. “Remember that relationships are bidirectional; if one person is the distancer and the other the pursuer, the relationship will never work.” Both parties need to have their own space and be pursued at a measure both can feel good about.
So, to get the ball rolling on setting a healthy equilibrium in my current relationship, I let my boyfriend in on my abandonment issues. When I first explained it, and what it meant I need from him communication-wise, he didn’t understand why I had it at all. So I laid out in detail why I feel how I do—and also that it’s not his fault, a key detail. “Sharing your fear of abandonment with your new partner is important, but it is equally important to let them know that they have not done anything to make you feel that way,” Dr. Cohen says. “You should also share your triggers, so your partner is aware.”
I told my boyfriend that an accumulation of past experiences subconsciously reinforced that people leave me as soon as they exhibit X, Y, and Z behaviors. Once we talked about it, he upped his communication frequency and was more in touch about plans and potential changes to them. And as a result, my anxiety has eased a lot.
The process has taught me that before severing a promising relationship because I’m feeling vulnerable to being abandoned, I can have an honest discussion about how I’m feeling. The right person, I can now say for sure, will rise to the occasion.
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