But in the case of ghostlighting (a portmanteau of ghosting and gaslighting), you’d get none of the above. Different from a standard-issue ghoster, a ghostlighter will disappear but then return only to deny ever ghosting you or flip the situation on its head.
What is ghostlighting?
Just as its name implies, the emerging dating trend of ghostlighting combines the worst parts of ghosting and gaslighting, in that it involves someone first ditching you without explanation, and then later, making you feel as if you actually made the whole thing up, they never left you in the first place, or you have no reason to be upset at them (that’s the gaslighting part).
In some cases, a ghostlighter won’t even acknowledge that they ceased contact at all. Cue: “What do you mean I ghosted you? What are you talking about?” And in others, the ghostlighter will concede the fact that they weren’t in touch for awhile but will do everything in their power to avoid taking responsibility for that reality. This is the former lover who randomly pops back into your life and tries to convince you that they were just on a long-haul trip to Japan without cell service (… for weeks), and then also tries to convince you that you shouldn’t be upset about their lack of outreach, and everything is just fine.
“Ghostlighting is a way to mislead someone into thinking that the relationship still might have some life to it.”—Angela M. Corbo, PhD, communication expert
The contradictory behavior and resulting lack of clarity leave a lot of space for hurt, confusion, and misunderstanding. “Ghostlighting is a way to mislead someone into thinking that the relationship still might have some life to it,” says Angela M. Corbo, PhD, associate professor and chair of communication studies at Widener University. “In ghosting, there’s a final end to the relationship [even if there isn’t closure], but with ghostlighting, it’s a manipulative form of communication where the person doing the ghostlighting is coming back and allowing the vulnerable person to think that there’s still a chance.”
Why would someone ghostlight in the first place?
1. They lack effective communication skills
On the less insidious side of the ghostlighting spectrum is the ghostlighter who is just making a very clumsy attempt to excuse their bad behavior, says Dr. Corbo. This person may be oblivious to the fact that in trying to brush aside their ghosting behavior or pretend as if it didn’t happen, they’re doing something very hurtful. Perhaps they just struggle to have open and clear conversations, so the apology and explanation they owe you for why they disappeared is getting lost in the shuffle.
There are also two sides to every story, so it’s possible that a person with poor communication skills may have initially vanished from your relationship because of problems they were having within it—but just failed to communicate. In this case, they may not think they ghosted you or that they’re to blame for their absence, but perhaps they just don’t know how to express that, says Dr. Corbo. Instead, they resort to acting like everything should be just fine upon their return.
2. They fear vulnerability, honesty, and conflict
It’s also possible that relaying the real, honest truth about why they initially vanished (and taking ownership for that) would require a person to get vulnerable and open up the door for conflict—so they ghostlight in an effort to avoid that. For example, consider the scenario where someone was dating you and others at the same time and just fizzled your relationship for a bit to further pursue someone else. After hitting a dead end, they might pop back in to see if you’re still around. And when you question why they left, it may feel easier for them to minimize those questions than to be honest.
In this case, ghostlighting can be “a mechanism by which to diminish someone blowing up at you or making you uncomfortable,” says relationship expert Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist for the dating apps Tinder and Bumble.
After all, most people are “inherently averse to conflict” in relationships, adds Dr. Carbino, so it’s feasible that someone might just try to skirt around any direct confrontations (like someone asking where exactly they went and why they ghosted) by claiming, instead, that they never ghosted at all, and you’re just making all of that up in your head. (These types of claims make it virtually impossible for you to be mad at them, which ostensibly spares them the potential conflict.)
3. They’re emotionally manipulative
Sometimes, the act of ghostlighting is purposefully deceitful—which is when it veers toward manipulative territory, says Dr. Corbo. This looks like someone using ghostlighting as a means to string you along while trying to make you think that you’re the problem or the reason why they ghosted you, or that your expectations of them are unreasonable.
For instance, consider the scenario where you are just one of the people that someone is seeing, and they continue to “bench” you or relegate you to the back of their queue of dating prospects, while periodically returning and claiming that there’s nothing wrong. This behavior entails using you as a dating partner only when it’s convenient for them—but not admitting to having a rotating roster, so that you continue to stick around and retain hope in the potential partnership.
“It’s like, ‘This person is more into me than I am into them, so I’ll ghost them for a while and see if there are other options, and if there’s not, I’ll just pop back in,'” says Dr. Corbo. Over time, this creates a harmful dynamic of emotional manipulation on the part of the ghostlighter. “This is a more problematic kind of ghostlighting because there’s the intention to deceive, whereas the other scenarios reflect a lack of skills and just not knowing what to do,” she says.
It’s that extra piece of trying to make you doubt yourself and your worth—or second-guess your expectations for how a partner should treat you—that tips this over into emotional manipulation, adds Dr. Corbo.
How to deal with being ghostlit
If you’re in the midst of communicating with a ghostlighter, it’s important to trust your judgement and your feelings about the situation—no matter how much self-doubt you may feel.
Remember: The key component of true gaslighting is the aim to cause confusion about the events happening in your life. “The gaslighter intends to sow seeds of doubt in the person they are gaslighting, hoping to make them question their memory, their sanity, their perception, their reality,” psychoanalyst Robin Stern, PhD, previously told Well+Good. So, if you begin to question whether you were actually ghosted or if the ghoster is actually to blame after they suddenly reappear in your life, it’s important to remember that they may be trying to confuse you, and that you should stick to what you know to be true.
Both Dr. Carbino and Dr. Corbo say that you can set your own terms of engagement with this person. On one hand, you can choose not to let them back into your life, which is likely a good call. After all, ghostlighting is a red flag, pointing to either, at best, poor communication skills or, at worst, manipulative dating tactics. On the other hand, you can also confront the ghostlighter directly by asking for a specific answer as to why they ghosted… but given their tendency for gaslighting, you’re unlikely to get a satisfying response in which they actually take ownership of their poor behavior.
If you feel the desire to continue a relationship with the ghostlighter regardless, it may be time to do some introspection and get honest with yourself, says Dr. Corbo. Part of this is identifying what you will and won’t accept in terms of a potential partner’s behavior and keeping yourself accountable to those standards. “It’s about saying, ‘I am worth having a partner who makes me feel good about myself,'” says Dr. Corbo. And just as that won’t include someone who disappears on you or makes you doubt your reality, it most definitely won’t include someone who does both.
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