What Lies Beneath

Elena Cremona
Joanna L. Cresswell

‘So I gather from your silence it’s over. See you around.’ A few years ago now, at the age of 19, Taylor* received this message from an older guy she’d been dating, soon after she started ignoring him. There was no deep and meaningful reason for doing so, she says, she just got ‘the ick’ in the end, and since it had been casual between them – at least in her mind – she just stopped messaging him one day. ‘I had to go back to uni for the next term and see him around, but he forgave me,’ she laughs. ‘I’m lucky he was so laid back, I guess.’

How many of us have sent, or received, a message like this? How many of us have walked away from a situation confused as to what happened or where someone disappeared to? And how many of us have slipped away after a date, hoping to blend back into obscurity and avoid a discussion? Chances are most of us have been in one, if not both, of those positions at some point in our lives.
When Elena and I began this collaboration a couple of months back – her taking pictures, me writing – it was because she had recently been ghosted herself, and we wound up having a lot of discussions around what the phenomenon of ‘ghosting’ actually is. Then we did a call-out for stories and the response was overwhelming. We collected tens if not hundreds of testimonies, all of which came together to form a nebulous web of experience related to the idea of removing oneself from another person’s life. Some were about relationships, others about friendships. Some made us wince, and some made us say ‘good for them’. Then there were a precious few that broke our hearts in small but significant ways. The whole spectrum of human feeling emerged right in front of us, through our screens. Elena then took portraits on Zoom – anonymous and spectral depictions of the people who had shared.
The term ghosting is a colloquialism, emerging some time in the early 2000s as a way of describing the act of ending all communication with someone without warning or explanation – usually in the world of online dating. Related terms have propagated from that since, such as breadcrumbing – the practice of sending sporadic, non-committal messages to keep someone just interested enough – and orbiting – when you cease direct contact with a person, but continue to like and engage with their social media posts.
It will come as no surprise, then, that the Internet was at the centre of what a lot of people had to say when we spoke to them. “The normalisation of ghosting is mad in the dating app world,” Lennon* says, when he writes to us. “I find it’s pretty common to be chatting to someone and then for them to just stop replying. Apps commodify interaction – and just like most of our commodities we treat them as disposable. People are constantly moving on and upgrading to the next person and the next exciting but fleeting fling.” He has a point. With so much of our communication having moved overwhelmingly into the online sphere, it has never been easier to regulate who gets your time. If you no longer want a person around, you can just block and delete them. You often don’t know the same people or move in the same worlds anyway, so it’s easy to disappear.
For Teresa*, who moved to the UK from Italy a few years ago, dating apps were a way – in fact, one of the only ways – of meeting people. She was trying to establish in a new city, but she was also recovering from an eating disorder, and struggling with her mental health. “One experience left me in shock because it came from a person I was dating for a few months, who ghosted me in time of need. He disappeared completely when I was in hospital and needed him the most,” she recalls. It’s hurtful either way when someone makes it clear they don’t want to spend time with you anymore, but without any explanation, it can become devastating, and rock the very foundations of our self-esteem. 
Meanwhile, Mia* felt the pain of ghosting in one of her earliest experiences of dating at school, and it’s something that’s stayed with her. “Nobody knew except her and I, and it was super intense because of this, and very toxic because I ended up cutting out a lot of things that made me happy to be with her. She was quite confused about her sexuality and the day we slept together, after about a year and a half together, she began ghosting me not only online but whilst at school, walking past the corridors and never looking me in the eye.” Not for the first time, ghosting became a fallback for someone’s confusion around their own sexuality in same-sex relationships, and Mia* became the collateral.
Self-preservation and protection came up a lot in the messages we received. Take Violet* for instance, who ghosted a man who got violent on a second date. “Once I made it clear I wasn’t as keen to go further physically with him, he gradually became more and more aggressive to the point where I had to leave. What started out as a lovely evening filled with romance and possibility turned out to be a date night from hell, ending with me running a mile into a very well timed cab.” On the journey home, she deleted him from all of her social media, and she never spoke to him again. “I guess it was my form of wiping the slate clean and almost pretending it didn’t happen,” she says. “Although looking deeper into it and chatting to close friends, it was a form of protection too. I instantly felt safer removing him from all of my digital spaces…like I had regained a sense of control.”
That sense of power is particularly poignant in stories like Daisy*’s too. “My mum was trapped in a marriage with my abusive dad,” she says. “One day, when I was 12, my dad took me for a two week holiday, and during this time, my mum figured out a plan to run away from home.” By the time they got back her mum was already moved out, without a word. She came back to get Daisy* soon after and the rest is history. Watching her mum leave her dad was emboldening, and in cases like this, a person doesn’t always deserve an explanation. An abuser will already have been told, and should already know.
For Mo*, a similar sort of final-straw energy led to him ghosting his ex. They’d split up twice already, but would always follow a pattern of getting back in touch, arguing and he just couldn’t do it anymore, so he ghosted her. “The mere thought of another conversation is enough to leave me bed ridden for days, so avoiding this kind of toxicity is essential to getting by and feeling okay,” he says. “I just know for sure that it’s not healthy for the two of us to be in contact with each other.” For some, ghosting feels like the last option to break a toxic cycle, and sometimes contact is no longer productive. Sometimes reason is just not possible anymore. Sometimes ghosting is a way to finally cut out people who don’t understand your boundaries. And sometimes a history of painful, emotional stuff, spread out over months or years, leads up to that point, and silence is the final weapon.
At other times, ghosting can be the go-to method for people incapable or fearful of expressing their emotions. For Marcel*, a lifelong struggle with confrontation and crippling insecurity has led him to ghost people. He knows it’s toxic, he says, but it comes from a lack of trust towards others. It’s the impulse to leave before being left. “I feel bad doing it…” he says, “but I just feel more comfortable burying my head in the sand.” Elsewhere, for Ronan*, ghosting is a means to end when she feels she’s given all she has to give. “I’ve usually been driven to the point [of ghosting] after a multitude of questions, and once I’ve fully explained why I no longer want to see that person. I always think honesty is the best policy, but it’s whether they are able to listen to that which is the deal breaker.” And that’s the real crux of all these stories isn’t it? Boundaries and how to enact them.
At the tail-end of 2019, a meme dubbed the ‘I’m at capacity’ meme started doing the rounds on social media, taken from a post on Twitter about personal boundaries. The original poster – a woman called Melissa Fabello – wanted to start a discussion around a text she had received from a friend, asking if she had the headspace to talk to her about a personal problem. Fabello said she appreciated the thought, and then suggested the template for a message in response, telling someone you just can’t be there for them right now.
Personally, the thought of sending a message like this feels wildly uncomfortable, and it had the same effect on a lot of other people – hence why it was relentlessly parodied in meme-form, I suppose. I do wonder though, if this type of language is so uncomfortable because it is very much not normalised, and I also wonder, if it were, would social practices like ghosting become less common? Would ghosting, in other words, feel less like the only remaining option if people felt like they could just say ‘I can’t let you in right now’ and know, for sure, that they would be heard, just as Ronan* suggested? Perhaps that’s reductive and too simplifying of our emotions, though, because our capacity to process them doesn’t always happen in a timely and consistent way. After all, this sort of planned offloading doesn’t take into account the moments where you just really need to say what you’re feeling, while it’s fresh.
In the end, something that becomes clear in the midst of Elena’s portraits and the stories collected here, is that nobody comes out well in the messy, modern rhetoric of ghosting, because so much outside of what it originally meant has been conflated into the ways we label and use it now. Ghosting still carries with it entirely negative connotations, but ultimately, while there are people that are hurt, and there are people doing the hurting, there are far more people somewhere in between, trying to figure out where their own emotions lie. Sometimes ‘ghosting’, or the act of cutting someone out, is just cruel; but other times it is a valid and necessary step we take for our own wellbeing. Added to this is the overwhelming, haunting realisation that we are contactable, from multiple directions,100% of the time. Whichever way you cut it, our issues with ghosting are likely part of a larger problem with communication in the digital age, and our ongoing struggle in learning how to draw the line between identifying boundaries, respecting others, and enacting our own values.
*All names have been changed.
Photographer: Elena Cremona
Words: Joanna L. Cresswell