Victoria Spratt explains what happened when she was ghosted by her ex-best friend.
I didn’t see it coming. Maybe I should have done. We’d been together for 15 years and, sure, towards the end things were a bit strained. There was no big row, no cheating, no specific event that ended it. Over time, she just started to seem kind of distant, uninterested, and even irritated by me. That my friends, is basically how you define ghosting.
What is ghosting?
We both tried to keep it going. We still went on nights out with our mutual friends, but it started to get awkward. We weren’t communicating properly. We tried to have lunch but there was so much going unsaid, the silence was deafening. We were drifting apart, but she refused to talk about it. She gradually stopped replying to my texts. I was slowly removed from group threads where next year’s festivals were being planned. And no I’m not talking about an ex. I’m talking about how my oldest friend, let’s call her Jenny, slowly but surely phased me out of her life.
We met when we were eight at primary school, we stayed friends through secondary school and even ended up at the same university. We grew up together. At the time I didn’t realise I was being phased out. She would suggest meeting up and would then never follow through with a date and time. Over time, she stopped getting in touch. I sent texts saying things like, “I know things are a bit weird right now, I’d like to talk about it” and got no response. And then, about a year after it happened I noticed she had unfriended me on Facebook. That was when the penny dropped. I stopped trying to reach out to her. I had been phased out in stages and eventually, ghosted.
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What is ghosting in relationships?
I do take some responsibility. It was a weird time. I had just graduated and returned home to find my parents hurtling towards a divorce. Life as I knew it had changed. This family drama combined with the typical post-university “who and what the hell am I?” existential crisis was taking up all my headspace. So I did the only sensible thing I could do: I picked up a completely unsuitable boyfriend to distract myself from reality.
She made it clear she didn’t like said boyfriend and I understood (because he was terrible), but I didn’t care because he lived in north London and that’s the opposite to south London, where we were from. This probably upset her and, to be fair, I didn’t explain my reasoning (if you can call it that) to her. When a sexual relationship ends, there’s protocol. You get dumped/or you do the dumping. There’s (normally) a villain and a victim. You become somebody’s ex which, painful as it is, is actually quite helpful. It’s a label you apply to officially signify to yourself and everyone you talk to that your relationship is no more.
When a friendship comes to an end, however, it’s a lot messier. Death and serious betrayal aside, it seems you’ve got two options. You can go with a slow fade phase out or opt to rip the plaster off and have a difficult conversation. Phasing out seems to be most people’s poison of choice.
Why would you ever start ghosting friends?
Today we live our lives on multiple social media platforms which exist solely to keep us all connected. It’s hard to lose touch with people. In the past – yes, a time before Facebook – you had to pick up the phone and call old friends, or write them a letter and hope they hadn’t moved house. You wouldn’t know that their sister’s boyfriend just got a tattoo or that their mum’s cat now had its own Facebook account. Because of this, even the best friendships could gently fade out in the most natural way.
Now it’s much harder to disconnect from people. Perhaps that’s why many of us, myself and my ex BFF included, make the conscious choice to phase people out. However you do it though, as with a break-up, the chances are that one party will want out of the relationship more than the other. Somebody’s always going to get hurt.
The reality of ghosting a friendship
Sometimes, when I think about Jenny, I wish she’d just bought me a card. One that said “I’m sorry” in Helvetica on the front with a little message inside saying something like “I know we’ve been friends since before we had boobs but we’ve both changed and I need to move on.” I would have understood that (probably).
When a romantic or sexual relationship ends we’re given a grace period to discuss, moan and cry about it. We have a free pass to call our mates in for forensic analysis of the evidence (texts and emails). You might argue that female friendships are actually more intimate than some sexual relationships. Certainly in your teens and early twenties anyway. And yet, when a friendship ends, we don’t really discuss it. For me, the hardest thing about being phased out was the lack of closure. Our friendship gradually slipped away and I was left alone to feel the loss.
The thing about the phase-out is that it’s methodical. The phaser has to plot and plan the phasing out of the phasee. The idea is that it happens without the phasee knowing – organically and, ideally, civilly. The theory is that doing something slowly is less painful and dramatic – like the old science experiment where a frog that is thrown into hot water goes into shock while the frog left in a pot that is gradually brought to the boil is calmly oblivious of its own demise. So, like the frog, when the break up actually reaches a boiling point, the phasee is supposed to feel like things were naturally going that way all along.
I confess, I too have phased people out so I can understand why she did it. But the truth is it’s much harder to be the phasee than the phaser. Years on it still feels raw. When I bump into mutual friends who were more hers than mine I’m awkward, I don’t really know what to say. Do I ask how she is? My pride is still hurt by the fact that I was phased out and I still feel shame like I must have failed as a friend.
On the one hand, slowly phasing someone out might seem like a kind way of letting down someone you’ve been close to for a long time. Certainly, this is how I’ve justified it to myself when I’ve been the phaser and, perhaps under some circumstances, it is kind. However, on the other hand, when you’re the one who got phased out it feels cowardly. I wish I’d just been dumped properly and, if I was really being that annoying, I wish she had just called me out on it. That’s what friends are for.
Is there a ghosting test? How do you know if you’ve been ghosted?
As with dumping a partner, breaking up with a friend takes courage and honesty (if you do it right). I like to think I would have responded with dignity and composure if Jenny had said: “Thanks so much for your message, I just think we should see each other less”. But it’s possible that I would have tried to save a relationship that wasn’t really working for either of us. The phase-out might be a bit cowardly, but it’s certainly non-confrontational.
I guess the truth is that some friendships, even the really old ones and sometimes even the really good ones, don’t last forever. As women, particularly, we’re raised with the romanticised idea of a BFF. I’ve often felt that I’m judged by my ability to make and keep female friends. And that’s probably because I am being judged by it. I took being phased out as a sign of personal failure. It hurt because somebody I loved was moving on and I felt like I was being left behind in the cold but, more than that, I felt like it was a comment on my own character.
The reality is that we all grow up and move on, to new places or even new countries. When Jenny phased me out it was probably one of the most significant break-ups of my life. I was 22. She had been there through everything. The coming to an end of one important relationship that had become more about a duty to the past than forging a future did make space for new relationships. But to this day, it has left a void. I didn’t get to say my bit but I’d certainly think twice about reaching out to her.
How to respond to ghosting
I would caution against the phase-out. It’s not to be taken lightly. A kind and honest conversation would have left us both feeling better about things, I think. Life isn’t static, it keeps moving where you like it or not and, as a result, some relationships need to be fluid too.
Now I’m 27 and since I lost Jenny, other relationships have blossomed, friends have come and gone and I’ve gained some pretty awesome new BFFs. I love them and I hope they’re around when I’m old and grey but things will inevitably change. I’m watching close friends get married, move city and even country, starting new phases of their lives once again.
You might be really close to a friend at a particular point in your life but not another because of decisions you make and paths you do or, indeed, don’t take. However, unless somebody does something really truly unforgivable, I’d like to think you can always keep the door open, even just a little bit. Someone might move away, but they might also come back.