Ghosting Is Bad For You
Avoiding conflict makes us more rigid, limits our access to honest, intimate relationships, and causes many to choose the safety of ideology over the awkwardness of deeper human connections
Summer Days (1936) by Georgia O’Keeffe
I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict avoidance since my last post, so I want to add to my thoughts on the wide-reaching negative effects of avoidance and ghosting, which have become the new normal for so many.
It makes simple sense that social media has caused avoidance to become almost reflexive. But it’s so important that in our face to face interactions, we learn how to navigate conflict and manage each other’s intense emotions instead of avoiding, blaming, stigmatizing honesty, and ghosting each other.
Allowing avoidance and ghosting to be embraced as the dominant, so-called 'healthy' mode of interacting in real life has a number of negative side effects:
Avoidance of conflict in real life privileges those who can maintain power by quietly enforcing the status quo.
Avoidance of conflict prevents us from being exposed to different emotional experiences and opinions that might challenge our beliefs, expand our world views, and inspire us to grow in unforeseen ways.
Avoiding uncomfortable or awkward interactions and backing away from all conflict gives us the false impression that honest, intimate connections are usually an inconvenience or a liability.
Painting people who avoid all conflict and/or ghost their friends in real life as tough or powerful makes us view vulnerability, authenticity, and deep connections as the fraught territory of weak or unstable people.
The more we insist on so-called healthy, conflict-free relationships, the shallower and more transactional our relationships become, which leads to dissatisfaction and addictive behaviors.
Avoidance of conflict makes us more rigid in our beliefs, less honest and trusting, and more isolated from each other.
The more isolated we become, the more we turn to ideologies and identities in order to make us feel that deep sense of connection that we, as humans, crave.
The more intimate and intense those ideologies and identities are, the more easily they replace real intimacy. The political consequences of this are obvious!
So the stakes of treating avoidance/ghosting as normal in real-life relationships are very high. By painting conflict or ‘negative’ emotions as a by-product of bad relationships, we block our access to honest connections and isolate ourselves around ideologies and identities instead of felt kinship to others.
Building intimate relationships takes time and patience. Every human being alive is deeply flawed and different from us in countless — sometimes bewildering — ways. And because people are more connected than ever yet more emotionally isolated than ever (thanks in part to social media), there are always intense bumps in the road to becoming close and learning to trust someone enough to support them and tell them the truth.
Honest, intimate relationships aren’t easy. That’s part of the reason we learn so much from them, and grow so much from returning to them at times when our most fearful, defensive selves would prefer to isolate in a dark cave where we’re always right instead. The more you care about someone, the stronger your fear and urge to stigmatize them or close yourself off from them can be. Keeping your heart open takes hard work, particularly when so many messages from the outside world treat independence, indifference, and dogmatic allegiance as the triumphant realm of life’s true winners. Learning from conflict sometimes requires vulnerably letting go of some of your most rigid beliefs in order to allow someone else’s emotional experience to guide you to a new understanding of the world.
Social media arguably makes *all of us* anxious and avoidant, antsy and dissatisfied, obsessive and addictive. As a result, we’re becoming less relaxed about normal human behaviors and desires, and more fixated on ways to “cleanse” ourselves of imperfections and purge our lives of conflict.
Noticing these sociocultural shifts and paying attention to how they play out among our kids, at school, at work, in our politics is so important. So is reminding each other that all humans are imperfect and conflict is natural and even helpful. Cultivating curiosity, enjoying difference, and accepting flaws in ourselves and others are all building blocks to forming solid, healthy friendships, professional alliances, and romantic relationships.
We can’t let our interactions on social media warp our understanding of each other in real life. We have to slow down, ground ourselves in the moment, and invest a different kind of focus and energy in the people around us in order to build strong, trusting relationships with them.
Try to remind yourself often that what you see on social media is a distortion. Remember that behind our scoldy exteriors, we’re *all* fumbling along looking for more love and connection – often without recognizing it consciously. We’re *all* trying to feel less powerless, more seen, more heard, and more connected in a world that pretends to give us these things, but delivers them in superficial ways that leave us even more jittery, lonely, and unmoored.
Refusing to engage on social media makes perfect sense. But don’t let it make you shy away from conflict and intense emotions in real life. We have so much to learn from every awkward or fragile connection we make to other flawed humans. Remember that people with strong, healthy boundaries don’t flee from the first sign of trouble. They hold their ground with an open heart and an open mind, and let their curiosity lead them forward.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! My book of essays What If This Were Enough? explores the ways our culture renders us dissatisfied and isolated, and my marriage memoir Foreverland is about learning to accept yourself (and your strong emotions!) within a committed relationship. Ask Polly publishes twice a week for subscribers so:
Thank you, Polly. I needed this reminder. Perfect timing.
You have articulated things I’ve been feeling, but didn’t have the words for. Thank you. Sometimes things are really hard even in good relationships, and more and more we are being encouraged to leave as soon as things get hard. I really don’t think this is healthy.