Opinion: Can men and women ever be friends?

Jon & Caroline | Ink-Stained Hearts

Don't underestimate the mental health impact of "ghosting" or "being ghosted"

Dealing with ghosting and its effect on your mental healthPhoto by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Let me tell you a true story.

It might be something that’s happened to you too, or you might be going through it now. I wasn’t aware there was a term for this behavior until I read about a similar experience.

Ghosting — or being ghosted.

Someone ghosted me, a woman I considered a good friend. To this day I still don’t know the real reason for it. But, it raised two related questions which may resonate with you as well.

  • Why do people ghost someone?
  • Can men and women ever really be friends?

What is ghosting?

If you do a quick search on your favorite search engine for “what is ghosting?” a large proportion of what comes back describes this phenomenon as something linked to dating and ending a relationship.

I give you Exhibit A from The Sun newspaper.

Ghosting is an expression used in dating terms and it’s when someone suddenly cuts all ties and communication with the person they’ve been seeing. The theory behind ghosting is that the person who is being ignored will just ‘get the hint’ and realise their partner is not interested in dating anymore so the subject should be left.

To be honest, The Sun is not my normal “go-to” place for either wisdom or news, but this sums up a common understanding of what ghosting looks like.

Exhibit B from Men’s Health magazine describes it as:

“The most frustrating behaviour in dating culture.”

While neither of these is wrong, they minimize the scale of where and how ghosting can take place. When it happened to me, this was not someone I was dating or hoping to have romantic ties with. It was a colleague.

The mental health support site, Psycom, has a more inclusive, and for me, far more accurate description of what ghosting looks and feels like.

“Ghosting is by no means limited to long-term romantic relationships. Informal dating relationships, friendships, even work relationships may end with a form of ghosting. For the person who does the ghosting, simply walking away from a relationship, or even a potential relationship, is a quick and easy way out. No drama, no hysterics, no questions asked, no need to provide answers or justify any of their behavior, no need to deal with someone else’s feelings.”

How many of you can say, or are now realizing, that someone has ghosted you during your life?

My story — and maybe yours too

About 10 years ago, my wife and I were going through a hard patch in our marriage, as all long-term relationships will at some point. We would argue, get upset with each other, didn’t communicate very well, and just weren’t getting along. It was hard.

As someone who is on the extrovert end of the Myers-Briggs scale of personality types, I have a habit of talking to most people about pretty much anything. One such person, who was as chatty and open about her life, was a female colleague. This was someone I’d worked with before, and we’d become friends. Over time, we grew to be very good friends.

In hindsight, one reason perhaps our friendship grew was because she was having relationship issues as well. This would often be our topic of conversation, providing mutual support and a friendly ear for each other. On one occasion, she texted me when upset. She’d split up with her boyfriend one weekend and needed someone to talk to. In return, I remember messaging her after a big row with my wife and needed to get things off my chest.

Struggles in our relationships weren’t the only basis of our friendship. We are the same age, so had many cultural references in common. But it was the personal problems that cemented our friendship.

Were there romantic undertones to this friendship I can hear some of you asking? Not for me. I was trying to patch up difficulties in my marriage, and the prospect of a new relationship wasn’t something I was looking for. I cannot be sure from my friend’s perspective, but nothing was ever said to suggest that. Like me, I believe her focus was on sorting out her own problems.

That said, I enjoyed her company. She was a nice, intelligent, and interesting woman, and we would often go for a walk at lunchtime for some fresh air and a chat. But this was not a romantic friendship — at least not in my mind. We were just “platonic friends”.

And then one day we weren’t.

They’ve ghosted you

Despite thinking (well, hoping) that I’m pretty good at reading people, it took me a while to realize what was going on. One week, this friend and I were chatting as normal, going for a walk at lunchtime and sharing the odd text as friends do. The following week, it all stopped.

Over a period of weeks, the conversations dried up. She was ignoring the questions I asked from a point of interest and concern on the topics she had once talked to me about, or just batting them away. Excuses not to meet up and go for a walk as we often did became more frequent, and slowly she put distance between us.

Does this sound familiar? Have you experienced this?

Unsure whether I had offended her somehow, which would explain the coolness I was now experiencing, I finally asked her outright what was going on. The first response was she was busy and had other things going on. Not an unreasonable explanation, until this behavior continued and the distance in our friendship grew further. My previous friend and confidant made it clear things had changed.

After a second time of raising the question of why she was now barely talking to me at all, given how close we had been only weeks earlier, I still didn’t receive a proper explanation for why we were clearly no longer the friends we had once been. Instead, I was told there were topics she no longer wanted to talk about, and she would only meet me for a walk and a chat every few weeks.

One of my major failings is I am stubborn — I realize this! For me, friendship is unconditional in what it looks like, or it’s not a friendship at all. No one else I call a friend has ever tried to impose limits on what we could talk about or when I could contact them. I politely declined the offer of a continued “friendship” on this basis. We have not spoken since that conversation.

Compared to some instances of “ghosting” maybe I was fortunate I had a conversation of sorts about what had happened. For many, this opportunity never arises as the person “ghosting” heads off into the proverbial sunset with even less of an explanation than I received.

Why do people “ghost”?

Despite the misconceptions that “ghosting” is a dating tactic to skip out on a liaison, recent research shows other forms of this are just as prevalent. A 2018 research paper from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that 31.7% of people surveyed had ghosted a friend with 38.6% experiencing it being done to them.

There are many theories and research on why someone ghosts a partner or a friend, including:

  • convenience
  • having had a negative interaction with a dating partner
  • lost interest
  • relationship state (i.e., how close you are with the person)
  • safety

If we take “safety” out of the equation, as any risk of domestic abuse or some form of violent response has to be prevented, then there are still a wide range of motives.

That said, for anyone who ghosts, or who is thinking about it, any idea that avoiding the confrontation of walking away from any type of relationship to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings is a delusion. From my experience, the lack of explanation hurt me for a long time after and I’m sure affected my mental health.

There is a growing body of research into the mental health effects of ghosting behaviors, and while there is some disagreement on the direct link, areas of concern include:

  • fostering emotional immaturity
  • lowering of personal resilience
  • damaging self-esteem

I can only talk from my experience — being ghosted was not a pleasant thing to happen.

Can men and women ever really be friends?

The remaining question then links to a famous quote from the film When Harry Met Sally. Sally informs Harry they can never be friends because other things always get in the way and the movie explores this theme throughout.

I imagine some of you reading this may have been wondering if that’s why the friendship with my female friend skidded to a sharp halt.

I don’t think so. Not in that case, and not overall. I have many female friends who I get on with just as well. Maybe I’m in a minority of one — who knows? But that’s just me.

My “friend” may have ghosted me, and it wasn’t good for my mental health. But it hasn’t shaken my conviction that men and women can be friends without other things getting in the way.

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