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Dating dilemma: is ghosting ever okay?

We’re fortunate to be living in a time where the most sophisticated communications tools enable us to participate in witty group chats without opening our mouths and broadcast our thoughts to large audiences on a whim. However, in evolving beyond handwritten letters and telephone calls to landlines, we’ve weakened the romantic etiquette that has dictated the behaviour of previous generations.

‘Ghosting’ is a widespread phenomenon that’s among the most prevalent of online dating habits. For the uninitiated, it involves abruptly ceasing contact with a romantic partner – ignoring messages and vanishing instead of clearly communicating the reasons why the partnership is ending.

Psychologists and researchers have explored this form of behaviour. But, perhaps some of the world’s great philosophers have insights into the moral dilemma of how to end a relationship in the ‘right’ way and can tell us whether ghosting is ever acceptable.

Defining modern love

Whether you see ghosting as justifiable or just plain wrong depends on how you define modern love, explains Dr Petra Brown, teaching scholar in philosophy at Deakin University.

She cites contemporary philosopher Raj Halwani, who sees modern romance as ‘concern on the part of the lover for the wellbeing of the beloved’. By this definition, putting your lover through the confusing and sometimes heartbreaking experience of being ghosted cannot be acceptable, Dr Brown says.

‘Ghosting in this instance is morally bad because it shows a complete lack of concern for the other, one of the basic qualities that we see as essential to romantic relationships,’ she explains.

To love selfishly or not?

But some philosophers argue that living selfishly can be justifiable. So by that logic, maybe it could be acceptable to ghost someone? Well, not exactly.

‘I would say that aiming to live a selfish life is a bad thing, if being selfish is understood as having no regard for the needs of others,’ Dr Brown suggests. She highlights Friederich Nietzsche, who argued that it’s better to ‘be open and honest about one’s selfish pursuits, than to hide behind the claim to be “a good person”, while actually channeling a kind of passive-aggressive attitude to the world.’

Nietzsche argued that historically, people who lived strong independent lives were subsequently labelled selfish. ‘An independent person in Nietzsche’s account would simply ignore the “selfish” label and live as they see fit,’ Dr Brown says. However, she suggests, ‘I think there is a middle ground between respecting others, and being an independent person who carves their own path in life.’

Dr Brown explains that if a person enters a relationship and reveals their motivations and patterns in behaviour upfront, this could alter their level of responsibility around ghosting. ‘You might disclose that ghosting is your preferred method of ending a relationship on the first date. You explain that you will abruptly and without explanation end the relationship, once you’ve found it is no longer satisfying,’ Dr Brown suggests.

'You might disclose that ghosting is your preferred method of ending a relationship on the first date. You explain that you will abruptly and without explanation end the relationship, once you’ve found it is no longer satisfying.'

Dr Petra Brown,
Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

As unconventional as this might sound, Dr Brown argues that someone who’s been ghosted feels indignation not so much because of the act itself, but ‘because of an appearance or pretension of care, and it is the pretension that damages and hurts us.’

‘Oddly, it might be easier to trust a selfish person who is honest about their intentions than to recover from the betrayal of someone who appeared to be good, but turned out to be a scoundrel,’ she adds.

What ghosting says about society

Dr Brown suggests that while ghosting might feel like an individual experience, it is a bigger reflection of societal behaviour. ‘Ghosting isn’t just something that happens in romantic relationships, but something that has grown out of a society with changing sets of values in which the earth and other human beings are often treated without dignity and respect,’ she explains.

19th Century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard argued for the individual to rise above of pack-mentality – a philosophy he took to extremely personal lengths. ‘Kierkegaard instigated a painful breakup with his fiancée, which he felt was necessary in order to be able to devote himself to his writing, a decision he questioned through the rest of his life,’ she explains. He’s one of many who suffered a broken heart and ended up completed some of the greatest philosophical work, according to Dr Brown.

Taking Kierkegaard’s philosophical approach, we might be wise for defiant individuals to reject this now universal behaviour and start giving people closure, in the hope that the crowds follow suit. ‘Perhaps the phenomena of ghosting is another area where as a community we need to reaffirm the values that we believe are an important part of romantic relationships, and learn to communicate in a way that respects others,’ Dr Brown concludes.

Want to learn more about the philosophy of life and love? Consider studying philosophy at Deakin University.

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Dr Petra Brown
Dr Petra Brown

Teaching Scholar, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University
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