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A Field Guide to Ghosting

It’s a new semester and, as we all return to campus, so do the ghosts of past situationships. If you’re anything like me, you’re feeling a little bit awkward - unable to pass through the libraries, union or even just lectures without being haunted - and whilst these brief interactions give a little thrill and something juicy to tell the flatmates, they ultimately leave me feeling quite empty. Unfortunately, this cultural custom of treating past lovers as something less than strangers has become something of a skill amongst people of our generation. But why are we so accustomed to checking our phones, brushing past and pretending that it doesn’t burden us to remember the intimacy once shared between us?

Perhaps the answer lies, as it often does, within the social minefield of the internet. The seemingly endless possibility for connection on dating apps makes us dependent on the dopamine hit of being liked, and reluctant to engage with the very real possibility of connection. I will admit, it works for some – I’ve seen friends find long-term partners whom they truly love – but this seems to be the exception, not the rule. The ‘casual’ culture that dating apps sustain poses an obstacle to building real relationships: apps like Hinge cultivate an environment where low emotional investment is encouraged: to operate out of any other intention threatens us with wounds of rejection. To make matters worse, our habitual use of the internet – even outside of dating apps – overstimulates us with never-ending visual reminders of the attractive potential partners supposedly within our reach. Dubbed the ‘Goldilocks Effect’ by TikTok users, this phenomenon chronicles the effect of the illusion of choice on our ability to settle on a distinct option; in a continuous effort to remain available for the ever-elusive ‘right’ option, we instead perpetuate our own aloneness. Whilst it is, in theory, a great way to keep oneself occupied in the waiting game of true partnership, jumping from casual fling to casual fling can instead close us off from our ability to form genuine connection. The damage of casual relationships lies in our inability to communicate. Connection between two individuals relies on communicating our hopes, desires and boundaries, and a cultural endorsement of unregulated emotional unavailability directly threatens this. In an attempt to protect ourselves from rejection or the embarrassment of being labelled ‘too intense’, we instead choose a dynamic that harms both partners. Thomas Moore writes in Soul Mates that the “soul thrives on ephemeral fantasies” – by removing communication from our love lives, we allow fantasy to take root. Instead of being nourished towards growth by the work that true love requires – because real love and commitment will always involve dedicated work – the soul is fed an imbalanced diet of fantasy. Detachment from both our own emotional needs and those of our partner’s enables a relationship dynamic that favours power over emotional investment. It is no secret that a ‘situationship’ denotes a kind of imbalance where one partner is more emotionally invested than the other, who (whether with intention to hurt or not) reaps the rewards of this investment. bell hooks writes in All About Love that the inability to “connect with others carries with it an inability to assume responsibility for causing pain.” In short, by practicing emotional detachment, encouraged by online and offline representations of our generation’s dysfunctional dating habits, we are seemingly freed from daunting emotional responsibility at the detriment of our partners’ emotional wellbeing.

I realise that this article so far has taken a bitter and slightly cynical perspective of dating but that is not my intention – to fatalistically imply that our generation is doomed would be an insult to our collective ability to enact change. But, in order to change as a collective, we must first change as individuals. Mindful evaluation of our own habits and patterns takes not only a critical eye but also consistent effort to transform the self from the inside out, by way of practicing – though the term’s ubiquity in mainstream cultural consciousness has stripped it of its original essence – ‘self love’ and self prioritisation. Investing in pre-existing connections with our friends, families and self rather than another potential romance. By turning out loneliness into a “fruitful solitude” (bell hooks, All About Love), we revitalise the potential for new emotional connections without pressurising the outcome. Investing both mentally and emotionally in tangible connections, as opposed to “ephemeral fantasies,” provides the mental and emotional security that disconnected, casual approaches to dating falsely promise. This isn’t to say that casual relationships are all bad – to give credit where credit is due, some of my most fulfilling and transformative relationships have been fleeting and unserious. I don’t mean to diminish what casual relationships can teach us about ourselves, and how vital experimentation can be to constructing our identities. What they usually don’t tell you, however, is that any fulfilling relationship requires the intentional focus of both partners to prioritise communication. In building a healthy foundation of mutual respect, other healthy habits like trust follow with ease. This isn’t always easy, like any relationship, individual quirks propose individual challenges. , Nonetheless, hardly anything rewarding ever came easy. Like any other skill, communication, in time, seems less uniquely terrifying and more commonplace in the rhythm of everyday life. Perhaps, if I continue to focus on cultivating (and harvesting) my own “fruitful solitude,” seeing ghosts of situationships past won’t seem so uniquely terrifying either. Here’s hoping.

Words: Bea Butterworth, she/they

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