Relationship Dissolution Strategies:
Comparing the Psychological Consequences of Ghosting, Orbiting, and Rejection
Ghosting and orbiting occur when a relationship is ended unilaterally by suddenly withdrawing
from all communication and without explanation. However, in orbiting, the disengager still follows
the victims on social networking sites after the breakup. With the advent of the digital era, these
practices have become increasingly common, gaining attention from psychology research. Within
the theoretical framework of social exclusion, the present study (N = 176) investigated victims’
consequences of ghosting and orbiting, considering the two breakup strategies as instances of
ostracism. Participants were invited to fill an online survey and randomly assigned to recall an
episode of ghosting, orbiting, or rejection. Following the recall task, participants completed a series
of questionnaires to measure the typical outcomes threatened by ostracism (i.e., emotions, basic
psychological needs, breakup’s cognitive evaluation, and aggressive inclinations). The results
showed a consistent pattern across most of the constructs measured. Specifically, ghosting led to
worse outcomes than rejection, whereas the disengagers’ ambiguous signals characterizing orbiting
seemed to buffer the victims partially from the consequences of relationship dissolution. Results are
discussed in the light of social exclusion literature, adding to the growing research on ghosting.
Keywords: Ghosting, Orbiting, Social Exclusion, Ostracism, Digital Technologies.
Disclosure of interests: The authors do not have any conflicts of interest to report.
Humans connect (e.g., friendship and romantic relationships) and disconnect (e.g., breakups)
with each other through ways that are in constant evolution. Nowadays, many of our daily
interactions with other people occur on social media and, more precisely, on social networking sites
(SNSs). In 2020, 3.80 billion people (49% of the global population) were active SNS users and
spent, on average, 2 hours and 24 minutes a day using these platforms (We Are Social, 2020).
Researchers have investigated a broad set of antecedents and consequences of SNS use during the
last decade. So far, research has focused on, for instance, personality traits related to specific
behaviors on SNSs (Liu & Baumeister, 2016; Liu & Campbell, 2017), new phenomena originated
by the hyper-connection (e.g., the Fear of Missing Out; Przybylski et al., 2013), positive and
negative consequences deriving from SNS use (Nowland et al., 2018; Waytz & Gray, 2018), and
social dynamics that occur on these platforms (e.g., antisocial behavior, social comparison, self-
disclosure, social influence; Craker & March, 2016; Fox & Vendemia, 2016; Kim & Dindia, 2011;
Winter et al., 2015). Although SNSs were first created to facilitate social connections, these
platforms could also foster social disconnections. Meenagh (2015) found that young people accept
and are prone to use digital technologies to end relationships in the early stages. Texting the partner
that you are not interested in him/her anymore or reducing the SNSs interactions until disappearing
could be easier and safer than a face-to-face breakup strategy. Accordingly, the present contribution
aims to investigate the psychological consequences of two breakup strategies commonly enacted via
SNSs characterized by the sudden disappearance of one partner, namely “ghosting” and “orbiting.”
Ghosting and Orbiting: A Literature Review
The end of a relationship has been considered one of the most distressing and painful events
in humans’ life (L. A. Baxter, 1982; Kendler et al., 2003). Breakups often evoke emotional
reactions, such as sadness, anxiety, and anger. They could lead to physical consequences such as
losing appetite and trouble sleeping (J. Baxter & Hewitt, 2015; Morris & Reiber, 2011). However,
the effects of relational dissolution are influenced by many factors, such as the emotional
investment in the relationship and opportunities of alternative relationships (Rhoades et al., 2011;
Smart Richman & Leary, 2009). Also, how the breakup occurs might have a crucial role in
determining the psychological outcomes in whom is left. What happens when one of the partners
(from now on, the disengager) unilaterally decides to break up with the other partner (from now on,
the victim) without explanation and avoiding any further contact from the victim? Ghosting and
orbiting are two breakup strategies that share these features.
Specifically, one of the first definitions of ghosting appeared on Urban Dictionary (2016),
which described the dissolution strategy as “when a person cuts off all communication with their
friends or the person they’re dating, with zero warning or notice beforehand. You’ll mostly see
them avoiding friend’s phone calls, social media, and avoiding them in public”. Scientifically
speaking, ghosting can be defined as the practice of breaking up with a romantic partner or a friend
without providing any explanation and avoiding any communication attempt from the victim
(LeFebvre, 2017; LeFebvre et al., 2019). In other words, people enacting ghosting (i.e., ghosters)
simply disappear from their partners’ (i.e., ghostees’) lives.
This phenomenon is becoming increasingly frequent in the general population, as testified in
a sample of 554 American participants (mean age of 33.86, SD = 10.62; balanced for gender),
where 25.3% reported having experienced ghosting as victims and 21.7% as disengagers (Freedman
et al., 2019). Recent research by Powell et al. (2021) showed that ghosting experiences are even
more frequent among the American population. Across three adult samples (age range: 18-100
years old) balanced for gender (N = 165, 247, and 863, respectively), the authors found that
ghosting victims ranged between 28.5% and 47.0%, whereas ghosters ranged between 26.1% and
38.9%. This growth could be related to the spread of digital technologies, such as social networking
sites and dating apps that facilitate the enactment of ghosting. For instance, texting the partner that
you don’t want to date him/her anymore (i.e., rejection) or progressively reducing online
interactions until disappearing (i.e., ghosting) might be easier and safer than breaking up face-to-
face. Accordingly, Meenagh (2015) found that young people accept and are prone to use digital
technologies to end relationships in the early stages. Mobile dating apps represent a fertile ground
for this phenomenon. Timmermans et al. (2020) showed that enacting ghosting on these platforms
is not necessarily done with harmful intentions. Nevertheless, the authors also showed that being
ghosted on a dating app is a painful experience that decreases self-esteem and mental well-being.
Despite its spread, this phenomenon has gained empirical attention only recently. A
qualitative study by LeFebvre et al. (2019) aimed to clarify the phenomenon of ghosting both from
victims’ (i.e., ghostees’) and disengagers’ (i.e., ghosters’) perspectives. This qualitative analysis
helped create a definition of this practice, positioning ghosting among indirect breakup strategies. In
ghosting, the ghoster avoids a direct and explicit communication of their intentions, preferring an
implicit and indirect way out in which the ghostee is not involved. Frequently, the ghostees are not
aware of what is happening and have to interpret by themselves the reasons for the interruption of
communication (Freedman et al., 2019). The lack of discussion with the disengager leaves the
victim without justification for the dissolution, leading to an aura of ambiguity and uncertainty that
might induce ghostees’ self-blame for the separation (LeFebvre, 2017). Ghostees’ difficulties in the
breakup’s rationalization were confirmed in recent research by LeFebvre, Rasner, and Allen (2020).
The authors asked participants to provide reasons for the ghosting episode they were subject to,
observing great difficulty in account-making, which, in turn, might increase psychological distress.
LeFebvre and Fan (2020) have recently identified seven effective and ineffective strategies
employed by ghosting victims to reduce the uncertainty of the breakup experience. The most
common effective strategy was the “future-focused,” which entails the acceptance of the situation
and the readiness to move forward and initiate alternative relationships. The most common
ineffective strategy was the “no effects,” meaning that no actions were taken and the ghosting
experience did not alter the victims’ feelings.
Consistent with the research on difficulties in account-making, Koessler (2018) observed
that ghosting could have more detrimental effects on victims’ post-breakup personal growth than
direct dissolution techniques (e.g., motivated rejection). Moreover, individual differences related to
attachment style and the dark triad of personality (i.e., Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and
narcissism) were associated with different ghosting experiences. Specifically, individuals with an
anxious attachment style were more likely victims of ghosting, whereas machiavellian and
psychopathological individuals were more likely to ghost other people (Koessler, 2018). Recent
multi-study research deepens the link between attachment and ghosting, showing that ghostees were
characterized by higher attachment anxiety, whereas ghosters by attachment avoidance (Powell et
al., 2021). Similarly, Navarro et al. (2021) examined the link between a series of individual,
interpersonal, and relationship factors (e.g., self-esteem, moral disengagement, assertiveness, and
conflict resolution styles) and ghosting behavior and intention. The authors found weak to no
associations for most of the considered relationships, even though they detected an association (r =
.50) between being ghosted and enacting ghosting.
Concerning orbiting, the scientific literature is exceptionally scarce. Indeed, to our
knowledge, we conducted the only empirical study on orbiting so far (AUTHOR, 2021), namely a
qualitative research on ghosting and orbiting, comparing these breakup strategies with motivated
rejection. We considered ghosting and orbiting as mostly overlapping, but found that the latter is
characterized by a different dynamic that strictly requires digital technologies. Once the breakup
occurs, the disengagers (i.e., orbiters) still visibly orbit in the victims’ (i.e., orbitees) SNS life.
Orbiters view orbitees’ stories on social networking sites, share their contents, and like their posts,
producing notifications that make orbitees aware of orbiters’ behavior. Accordingly, this awareness
might increase orbitees’ confusion, leaving them in an even more ambiguous situation than
ghosting. For instance, orbitees might interpret orbiters’ behavior as an attempt of relational repair,
preventing a complete closure of the relationship, which can have either good (e.g., s/he misses me)
or bad (e.g., s/he bothers me) implications for orbitees’ psychological well-being.
Although disengagers’ unwanted contacts characterize both orbiting and cyberstalking, the
latter is considered a crime that involves highly repetitive intrusive communications that often result
in fear of being victimized by those who receive the stalker’s attention (for a review, see Kaur et al.,
2021). Conversely, orbiting consists of periodically following the victims on SNSs, without starting
any direct communication with them.
Using thematic content analysis, we identified three stages through which ghosting and
orbiting victims elaborate on the relationship dissolution (AUTHOR, 2021). Each stage was
characterized by peculiar psychological reactions: surprise and confusion for the first stage, guilt,
anger, and sadness for the second one, and acceptance, disengagement, and investments in new
relationships for the last one. We identified these stages applying a theoretical framework that is not
commonly used to investigate relationship dissolution, namely social exclusion.
Looking at Ghosting and Orbiting through the Lenses of Social Exclusion Frameworks
Both ghosting and orbiting represent relational dissolution practices classifiable as
avoidance strategies. Indeed, these phenomena core feature is avoiding contact with the victims,
which recalls the classical withdrawal/avoidance dissolution strategy (L. A. Baxter, 1982).
Accordingly, the literature on ghosting has mainly contextualized this phenomenon under the
theoretical framework of relational dissolution strategies. Specifically, LeFebvre et al. (2019) have
conceptualized ghosting as an indirect, self-oriented (i.e., the ghoster is concerned only about
him/herself, without considering the partner) strategy to disengage from an unwanted relationship.
Although relational dissolution literature is fundamental in describing both ghosting and orbiting,
we proposed a different approach that might give new insights into these two phenomena, namely
the social exclusion framework (AUTHOR, 2021). According to Riva and Eck (2016), being
socially excluded means being kept apart from other people. This condition may occur in one of
two main ways: excluded individuals can be explicitly told that they are not wanted, or they can be
ignored. The former instance is called rejection, whereas the latter is called ostracism (Riva & Eck,
2016). Ostracism is the act of voluntarily excluding and ignoring a person (Williams, 2009). This
definition perfectly fits the behavior of ghosters, who stop interacting with their counterparts and
ignore every communication attempt coming from them. The overlap between ghosting and
ostracism was also acknowledged by Freedman et al. (2019), who hypothesized that the two
phenomena might have similar consequences for individuals’ well-being. Similarly, orbiters ignore
direct communication attempts of orbitees, even though their occasional and unilateral actions on
SNSs might moderate the victims’ perception of ostracism.
The literature on social exclusion mainly refers to two theoretical models: the Temporal
Need-Threat Model, proposed by Williams (2009), and the Multi-Motive Model of responses to
rejection, proposed by Smart Richman and Leary (2009). According to the Temporal Need-Threat
Model, an exclusionary event leads to three consecutive phases: reflexive, reflective, and
resignation stages. In the reflexive stage, the individual detects ostracism, which evokes feelings of
social pain and other negative emotions (e.g., sadness and anger). At the same time, exclusion
jeopardizes an individual’s basic needs, including the need to (1) connect with others in a stable and
significant way (i.e., need to belong; Baumeister & Leary, 1995), (2) maintain an adequate level of
self-esteem, (3) perceive being in control of his/her own life, and (4) have a meaningful and worthy
existence. Only in the second stage (reflective), the individual tries to restore their threatened needs
by coping with the exclusionary situation. The last stage is called resignation and occurs when the
exclusionary status persists over time. In this detrimental condition, the individual is resigned and
gives up any attempt to restore his/her own needs. Consistent with Williams’ theory (2009), the
Multi-Motive Model (Smart Richman & Leary, 2009) theorizes that exclusion has an immediate
negative impact on victims’ self-esteem and emotions. However, this model focuses on the factors
(i.e., construals) that determine different reactions to exclusionary events. The construals theorized
by the authors represent victim’s cognitive evaluations following the rejection episode. Specifically,
the individual evaluates the rejection experience, weighing the separation costs, the perpetrator’s
importance, and the likelihood of a possible relationship repair. Moreover, the perceived fairness of
the episode and its chronicity might influence excluded individual’s reactions. Finally, the
perceived opportunity to develop alternative relationships represents a further factor that might
soften the adverse effects of rejection. Among these effects, being excluded or rejected reduces self-
regulation (Baumeister et al., 2005; Stenseng et al., 2015), often eliciting aggressive behaviors
towards the perpetrator of exclusion (Warburton et al., 2006). Overall, the Temporal Need-Threat
Model and the Multi-Motive Model offer predictions that complement each other and, in our
opinion, are both relevant for investigating ghosting and orbiting.
The present research
The present study investigated the psychological consequences of ghosting and orbiting
victims. Specifically, we explored whether and how the typical psychological impacts of social
exclusion (i.e., negative emotions, basic needs threat, construals of the event, and aggressiveness)
are experienced by ghosting and orbiting victims. To do so, we compared these breakup strategies
with an explicit relationship dissolution strategy (from now on, rejection) in which disengagers
communicate their decision to break up, providing their reasons to do so. The present study
originated from a previously published work (AUTHOR, 2021) and employed a similar
methodology, namely a recall task in which participants were asked to recall an episode that
occurred to them as victims of ghosting, orbiting, or rejection (see the measures section for further
details). In contrast with AUTHOR (2021), present study participants were then asked to complete a
survey measuring the primary outcomes of social exclusion (i.e., emotions, the threat of basic
psychological needs, construals, and aggressive inclinations).
Given the limited literature, we advanced a general hypothesis about possible differences
between ghosting and rejection. Prior studies showed that people prefer to receive negative attention
than no attention (Zadro, 2004; Zadro et al., 2005). Consistently, we expected that ghosted
individuals would report more negative emotions and a higher threat of psychological needs than
rejected ones. Moreover, ghosting should be perceived as more unexpected and unfair than rejection
given its intrinsic characteristics. Indeed, ghosting generally occurs suddenly, without prior notice,
and it is perceived as highly unfair given the lack of ghosters’ communication of intention to break
up (AUTHOR, 2021). We did not advance specific hypotheses concerning orbiting due to the lack
of prior studies on this phenomenon.
Participants and Procedure
Two hundred and seventy-eight individuals were enrolled via the pool management software
Sona Systems (http://www.sona-systems.com/). The only inclusion criterion was to be of legal age.
Participants were initially asked to read and sign the consent form approved by the ethical
committee of a large Italian university. Once signed, participants were redirected to an online
survey on Qualtrics (Provo, UT, USA). The majority of the sample was composed of Italians
(98.9%; 66.9% females, 21.9% males, 11.2% did not answer) with ages between 18 and 36 years
(M = 23.22; SD = 2.75). Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions (i.e.,
ghosting, orbiting, or rejection), asking to recall and describe an episode in which they have been
victims of the specific breakup strategy associated with their condition. Throughout the present
paper, we will refer to ghosting victims (or ghostees), orbiting victims (or orbitees), and rejected
individuals based on the experimental condition the participants were assigned to, without any
assumption about the frequency by which they have been victims of these breakup strategies in their
lives. Following the recall task, participants were presented with a questionnaire measuring a set of
constructs related to social exclusion and aggressiveness inclinations towards the disengager. The
order of presentation of these measures was not randomized, and it followed the order in which the
scales are described in the following section.
The present study adopted the same recall task developed in our previous study (AUTHOR,
2021). Participants were asked to recall an episode that occurred in the last five years in which they
were victims of one of the three breakup strategies (i.e., ghosting, orbiting, or rejection). If they did
not have any direct experience of the specific strategy, they were asked to imagine themselves in
that situation. Then, they were asked to describe the experience they lived (or imagined), describing
their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. No time or word limits were given for the task.
Participants were initially presented with a short description of the breakup strategy
associated with the experimental condition they were in (i.e., ghosting, orbiting, or rejection) to
ensure that the definition of the three strategies was the same. Ghosting was defined as a practice in
which, in a romantic or friendship relationship between two persons, one of the partners (i.e., the
disengager) decides to quit without explaining and ignoring any communication attempts from the
other person. The same definition was provided for orbiting, further specifying that, after the
breakup, the disengager still visibly follows the former partner’s social networking activities,
occasionally reacting to his/her multimedia contents (e.g., liking posts). In contrast with ghosting,
rejection was described as a practice in which the disengager directly communicates the decision to
quit the romantic or friendship relationship, providing explicit explanations.
The Rejected-Related Emotion Scale (Buckley et al., 2004) was adapted to measure the
following clusters of feelings: exclusion (e.g., “I felt excluded”; Cronbach’ α = .71), anger (e.g., “I
felt angry”; Cronbach’s α = .88), pain (e.g., “I felt hurt”; Cronbach’s α = .91), anxiety (e.g., “I felt
tense”; Cronbach’s α = .80), sadness (e.g., “I felt depressed”; Cronbach’s α = .87), guilt (e.g., “I felt
responsible”; Cronbach’s α = .80), shame (e.g., “I was ashamed”; Cronbach’s α = .75), and
happiness (e.g., “I felt happy”; Cronbach’s α = .91). The 24 items (three for each cluster) were rated
on a 7-point Likert scale (from 1 = not at all to 7 = extremely). Higher scores indicate higher levels
The Need-Threat Scale (Williams, 2009) assesses the general satisfaction of the four
fundamental human needs defined by Williams (2009): belonging (e.g., “I felt rejected”;
Cronbach’s α = .61), self-esteem (e.g., “My self-esteem was high” [reverse-scored item];
Cronbach’s α = .80), meaningful existence (e.g., “I felt useless”; Cronbach’s α= .77), and control
(e.g., “I felt I was unable to influence the actions of others”; Cronbach’s α = .71). The 20 items (five
for each need) were rated on a 7-point Likert scale (from 1 = not at all to 7 = extremely), with high
scores indicating a lower fulfillment of basic needs (i.e., higher threat).
Based on the Multi-Motive model of Smart Richman and Leary (2009), we created an ad-
hoc scale to assess how participants evaluated the exclusionary event, the source of rejection, and
the context of rejection. From the original model, we selected the more adequate construals for our
investigation. Given that the exclusionary event concerned a specific relationship, the chronicity of
the exclusion was considered irrelevant for our purposes; thus, no questions on this dimension were
asked. Moreover, we added a measure of expectancy (which was not included among the original
construals of Smart Richman and Leary, 2009) because the predictability of the exclusion (i.e.,
breakup) could influence the victim’s experience of the event. Six items (one per construal) were
presented on a 7-point Likert scale to the participants. The question stem was: “Think about the
recalled event and rate how you perceive it on the following continuums.” The items measured: (1)
expectancy of the event (The event was: 1 = completely unexpected to 7 = completely expected), (2)
value of the relationship (The relationship was: 1 = not important to me at all to 7 = very important
to me), (3) perceived fairness (The event was: 1 = completely unfair to 7 = completely fair), (4)
perceived cost of the breakup (The breakup was: 1 = a big gain to 7 = a big loss), (5) expectation of
relational repair (1 = I won’t be able to maintain the relationship to 7 = I will be able to maintain
the relationship), and (6) possibility of alternative relationships (1 = There were no other people to
turn to to 7 = There were many other people to turn to).
Aggressive inclination towards the disengager was measured using the voodoo doll task
(VDT; DeWall et al., 2013). Specifically, a doll image was presented to participants using the “heat
map” option on Qualtrics. Participants were asked to imagine the doll as representing the
disengager and were then asked to stab 0 to 10 pins by clicking with the mouse wherever they
wished on the doll’s body, supposing that each pin would have inflicted harm to the disengager.
Participants were asked to provide sociodemographic information, namely gender, age,
marital status (single vs. in a relationship), and nationality (Italian vs. not Italian). Finally,
participants were asked some details about the recalled event: (1) whether the event was real or
imagined, (2) the length of the recalled relationship (in months), (3) how much time (in months)
passed from the breakup, and (4) the type of relationship (i.e., romantic or friendly).
A set of one-way ANOVAs was conducted to test whether the three breakup strategies were
associated with different outcomes for the victims in terms of emotions, threatened basic needs, and
construals related to the exclusionary event. Bonferroni-corrected post-hoc tests were used to detect
significant differences among pairs of conditions. Based on these analyses, we ran an a priori
power analysis using the software G*Power, version 3.0 (Faul et al., 2007). The required sample
size to find a medium effect size (f = .25) with an alpha level equal to .05 and a power of .80 is N =
159; thus, we planned to involve a minimum of 53 individuals per condition.
Concerning aggressive inclination towards the disengager, considering the count nature of
the dependent variable (i.e., number of clicks) and the high number of observations with a zero
frequency (i.e., participants who did not click at all), we opted for a zero-inflated Poisson (ZIP)
model. Specifically, the ZIP combines two regression models. The inflated model consists of a logit
regression that estimates the cases’ probability of being a so-called “certain zero” or, in other
words, the cases’ probability of being in the group of those who did not stab any pin on the doll.
The Poisson model aims to predict the counts (i.e., number of clicks) for the cases not classified as
certain zeros, that is, the number of pins stabbed by those who stabbed at least one pin. The ZIP
model’s dependent variable was the total number of clicks on the target (i.e., excluding all the clicks
outside the doll’s body). The condition was the only predictor, and it was dummy coded into two
binary variables, considering rejection as the reference group. A further complementary ZIP model
was run, setting ghosting as the reference group to test differences between ghosting and orbiting.
SPSS, version 26.0 (IBM Corp., 2018), and Mplus, version 7 (Muthén & Muthén, 2015),
were used to conduct the ANOVAs and the ZIP models, respectively.
None of the participants left the recall task question blank. The texts' length varied between
5 and 344 words (M = 101.15, SD = 78.04). The amount of time spent by participants in completing
the survey ranged between 7 minutes and 25 seconds and 57 minutes and 42 seconds (average time:
22 minutes and 55 seconds). We conducted a preliminary qualitative analysis of the texts produced
by participants. This first step aimed at selecting the sample on which to conduct the main analysis
by dropping all the participants who met at least one of the two following exclusion criteria: (1) the
event described was imagined or reported the experience of an acquaintance, (2) the event described
was different from the one defined by the experimental condition, and (3) the participant was not
the victim of the breakup. From the initial sample size (N = 278), we dropped 43 participants who
reported never having experienced the requested event (e.g., orbiting). From those who described a
real event, we dropped 36 participants based on criterion 2, 16 based on criterion 3, and 7 based on
criteria 2 and 3. Thus, the final sample was composed of 176 participants (69.3% females, 21.6%
males, 9.1% did not answer), with an age range between 18 and 36 years (M = 23.39; SD = 2.78),
divided into the three conditions: 59 (33.5%) rejection, 63 (35.8%) ghosting, and 54 (30.7%)
orbiting. The number of participants in each condition was in line with the required sample size
calculated with the a priori power analysis. Descriptive statistics of each condition are reported in
The three conditions did not differ on age, F(2,173) = 1.11, p = .33, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .013, gender, χ2(2)
= 1.21, p = .55, φ = .087, marital status, χ2(2) = 1.89, p = .390, φ = .103, nationality, χ2(2) = 4.01, p
= .135, φ = .151, length of relationship, F(2,146) = 0.01, p = .99, 𝜂𝑝
2 < .001, and time from breakup,
F(2,148) = 0.44, p = .64, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .006. We found a significant difference only in the type of
relationship, χ2(2) = 7.33, p = .026, φ = .204. Based on adjusted standardized residuals (asr),
participants in the ghosting condition were more likely to recall friendship (vs. romantic) breakups
(asr = |2.6|), whereas participants in the rejection condition were more likely to recall romantic (vs.
friendship) breakups (asr = |2.0|) compared to what was expected from a random distribution.
Therefore, the type of relationship was included among predictors in both the ANOVAs and the ZIP
models to control for a possible confounding effect.
Table 1. Sociodemographic and event characteristics for the three conditions: mean (and standard
deviation) were reported for continuous variables, frequency (and percentage) for binary ones.
In a relationship
Length of relationship in months
Time from breakup in months
Type of relationship
Breakup strategies’ outcomes
Means, standard deviations, and results of the Bonferroni-corrected post-hoc tests for each
outcome are reported in Table 2.
The analysis revealed that only one cluster of emotions significantly differed among
conditions, namely feeling of exclusion, F(2,172) = 5.93, p = .003, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .065. Specifically, the
Bonferroni post-hoc test showed that participants in the ghosting condition reported more intense
feelings of exclusion than did those in the rejection condition. In contrast, participants in the
orbiting condition did not differ from others. The three conditions did not differ in the level of the
remaining negative emotions: anger, F(2,172) = 0.72, p = .49, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .008, pain, F(2,172) = 0.22, p =
2 = .003, anxiety, F(2,172) = 1.09, p = .34, 𝜂𝑝
2= .013, sadness, F(2,172) = 0.46, p = .86, 𝜂𝑝
.002, guilt, F(2,172) = 0.54, p = .58, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .006, shame, F(2,172) = 0.48, p = .62, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .006, and
happiness, F(2,172) = 2.25, p = .11, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .026. The type of relationship did not influence any of the
emotions: exclusion, F(1,172) = 1.53, p = .22, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .009, anger, F(1,172) = 0.28, p = .60, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .002,
pain, F(1,172) = 0.52, p = .47, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .003, anxiety, F(1,172) = 0.77, p = .38, 𝜂𝑝
2= .004, sadness,
F(1,172) = 0.67, p = .41, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .004, guilt, F(1,172) = 0.96, p = .33, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .006, shame, F(1,172) =
2.20, p = .14, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .013, and happiness, F(1,172) = 1.75, p = .19, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .010.
The ANOVAs showed significant results for belonging, F(2,172) = 3.53, p = .032, 𝜂𝑝
.039, and control, F(2,172) = 5.50, p = .005, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .060, whereas self-esteem, F(2,172) = 1.06, p =
2 = .012, and meaningful existence, F(2,172) = 2.00, p = .14, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .023 did not differ among
conditions. Specifically, belonging and control were more threatened in the ghosting condition
compared to the rejection one, whereas orbiting did not differ from both other conditions. As for
emotion, the type of relationship did not influence the threat to any of the needs: belonging,
F(1,172) = 2.00, p = .16, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .011, self-esteem, F(1,172) = 0.64, p = .43, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .004, meaningful
existence, F(1,172) = 1.15, p = .28, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .007, control, F(1,172) = 0.77, p = .38, 𝜂𝑝
The ANOVAs showed significant differences in three construals. Specifically, differences
were found for event expectancy, F(2,172) = 4.33, p = .015, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .048, value of relationship,
F(2,172) = 4.16, p = .017, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .046, and perceived fairness, F(2,172) = 3.98, p = .020, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .044.
Bonferroni post-hoc tests showed that, compared to those in the rejection condition, participants in
the ghosting condition reported a significantly lower expectancy of relationship dissolution,
perceived the relationship as less valuable, and the breakup as less fair. In contrast, the orbiting
condition did not differ from the other conditions. No significant differences were found for the
perceived cost of the breakup, F(2,172) = 2.96, p = .054, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .033, the expectancy of relational
repair, F(2,172) = 0.86, p = .42, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .010, and the possibility of alternative relationship, F(2,172) =
1.82, p = .17, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .021. The type of relationship showed a significant effect for fairness, F(1,172) =
4.36, p = .038, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .025, indicating that the breakup was perceived as less fair in friendship, M =
2.61, SD = 1.61, than romantic relationships, M = 3.34, SD = 1.86. However, the general prevalence
of romantic breakups and the limited sample size did not allow to deepen this effect (e.g., by
including interaction terms with the experimental conditions). No other significant effects of the
type of relationship were found: event expectancy, F(1,172) = 0.86, p = .36, 𝜂𝑝
2= .005, value of
relationship, F(1,172) = 0.51, p = .48, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .003, perceived cost of the breakup, F(1,172) = 3.81, p =
2 = .022, expectancy of relational repair, F(1,172) = 0.34, p = .56, 𝜂𝑝
2 = .002, and possibility
of alternative relationship, F(1,172) = 0.02, p = .90, 𝜂𝑝
2 ≈ .000.
Table 2. Differences among the three conditions: means, standard deviation (in brackets), and results
of Bonferroni-corrected post-hoc tests are reported.
G > R
Threat to basic needs
G > R
G > R
G < R
Value of the Relationship
G < R
G < R
Perceived Cost of the Breakup
G > R
Expectation of Relational Repair
Possibility of Alternative
Note. R = Rejection; G = Ghosting; O = Orbiting.
The total number of clicks on the target ranged between 0 and 10, with 0 clicks representing
the mode of both the whole sample (42.6%) and each of the three conditions (rejection: 50.8%;
orbiting: 42.6%; ghosting: 34.9%). Figure 1 displays the heat maps regarding the pins stabbed in
each condition, and Table 3 reports the results of the two complementary ZIP models. Concerning
the inflated portion, the probability of stabbing at least one pin was almost identical to that of not
stabbing any pin (i.e., being a “certain zero”) in the rejection condition. The chance of stabbing at
least one pin (vs. no pins) in the ghosting condition significantly differed from rejection, and its
probability was about twice that observed in rejection. As for most of the other outcomes, orbitees
probability of stabbing at least one pin did not significantly differ from what was observed in the
other two conditions, although it was 1.44 times higher than that of rejected participants.
Concerning the Poisson portion, namely the part of the model that referred to those who were not
classified as certain zeros, participants in the rejection condition stabbed about five pins on average.
According to the Poisson model, participants in the rejection condition stabbed significantly more
pins than those in the ghosting condition (about 3.9 pins on average). Once again, orbiting (about
4.6 pins on average) did not differ from the other two conditions.
Table 3. The results of the two complementary ZIP models.
Ghosting vs. Rejection
Orbiting vs. Rejection
Orbiting vs. Ghosting
Type of Relationship
Ghosting vs. Rejection
Orbiting vs. Rejection
Orbiting vs. Ghosting
Type of Relationship
Note. The type of relationship was coded as 0 = friendship, 1 = romantic.
Figure 1. The heat maps of the pins stabbed in the three conditions.
Nowadays, a great deal of our sociality occurs on SNSs. Digital platforms, such as Facebook
and WhatsApp, are commonly used to communicate with friends and relatives, share content with
known and unknown users, find a partner, make new friendships, and strengthen existing
relationships. However, research has recently become aware that SNSs might also have a role in
breaking up relationships. Ghosting and orbiting are paradigmatic examples of relationship
dissolution via SNSs. However, research on these breakup strategies is still at its early stages.
Therefore, based on the theoretical models of rejection and ostracism (Smart Richman & Leary,
2009; Williams, 2009), the present study investigated the psychological consequences of ghosting
and orbiting, two increasingly frequent relationship dissolution strategies (Freedman et al., 2019)
typically enacted through SNSs. Specifically, we compared ghosting, orbiting, and rejection victims
on the typical reactions to social exclusion, namely the threat of basic psychological needs,
rejection-related emotions, construals, and aggressive inclination. Our findings highlighted both
similarities and differences among the three breakup strategies, adding to the recent growing but
still limited literature.
The main similarity among the three strategies concerns the outcomes related to the
emotional reactions to the breakup. The results showed that levels of rejection-related emotions
commonly observed after an exclusionary event (Buckley et al., 2004; Smart Richman & Leary,
2009; Williams, 2009) did not vary across conditions. This result might indicate that the end of a
relationship hurts irrespectively from the breakup’s specific characteristics. Our finding is also
consistent with the literature on relationship dissolution, which considers breakups among the most
distressing events in humans’ life (L. A. Baxter, 1982; Kendler et al., 2003). Results also align with
theoretical models of rejection and ostracism, both of which are thought to induce negative feelings
(Smart Richman & Leary, 2009; Williams, 2009).
However, we found that feelings of exclusion were stronger for ghosted than rejected
participants. This result might suggest that ghosting represents a more threatening exclusionary
experience. This would be in line with our initial hypothesis, according to which receiving negative
attention (i.e., being rejected) should be less harmful than not receiving attention at all (i.e., being
ostracized as in ghosting). Consistently, studies on silent treatment have shown that the victims
usually prefer negative attention (i.e., being insulted and even being the target of physical violence)
than being ignored entirely (Zadro, 2004; Zadro et al., 2005). As observed by Sommer et al. (2001),
this difference might be due to the victims’ difficulty attributing ostracism to a specific cause,
which is instead communicated in a rejection episode. According to the authors, not finding reasons
for ostracism causes greater pain than attributing the exclusionary event to a specific cause.
Similarly, the account-making process (i.e., identifying reasons underlying the disengager’s
behavior) is crucial in relationship dissolution because it helps individuals interpret the event and
recover from it (Blackburn et al., 2015; Rollie & Duck, 2006). The lack of communication that
characterizes ghosting makes this process extremely complex, generating confusion and uncertainty
in victims and making them less able to overcome the breakup (LeFebvre, 2017). Thus, difficulties
in account-making might explain why ghosting victims felt more excluded than rejected ones.
Concerning orbiting, victims’ level of exclusion was in-between those felt by ghostees and
rejected individuals. However, this pattern was not statistically significant. This might mean that the
effect is not there, thus orbiting is not different from rejection and not from ghosting, while
rejection and ghosting are different from each other. Another possibility is linked with the
dimension of the effects that could have been too small to be detected in our study. In this case,
future studies capable of testing even very small effects should explore this option. Finally, future
studies should adopt different paradigms than recall to explore the potential differences among
rejection, orbiting, and ghosting. Accordingly, speculating about this tendency is relevant for laying
the foundations for future research. In line with the literature mentioned above on silent treatment,
the sporadic attention received online by orbitees could be sufficient to reduce their feeling of
exclusion compared to ghosting. Although receiving occasional likes on social networking sites or
having some stories viewed do not help the account-making process, the orbiters’ behaviors reveal a
sort of residual interest in victims. Orbitees might interpret these behaviors in various ways (e.g.,
“s/he is still interested in me,” “s/he want to come back,” or “s/he is spying on me”) and might react
differently, from hoping to start over the relationship to blocking the orbiters on SNSs (AUTHOR,
2021). Irrespective of whether orbiters’ behaviors are perceived as positive or negative, they still
represent a form of attention. Thus, contrary to what occurs in ghosting, orbiting victims still
receive some attention following the ostracism episode, which could soften to some extent feelings
of exclusion. At the same time, the sporadic attention received online prevents orbitees from
definitely closing the relationship, which might lead them to long-lasting feelings of exclusion.
A similar pattern of results was observed for most of the other outcomes, even though
results reached significance only for some. Among the basic needs, belonging and control were
more threatened in ghosting than rejection, whereas orbiting did not significantly differ from these
two conditions. The sense of control deserves particular attention, as it was the need most affected
by our manipulation, and it was associated with medium effect size. This result emphasizes the
crucial characteristic of ghosting (and orbiting), namely the disengager’s disappearance. Indeed, the
lack of confrontation leaves the victims at the total mercy of the disengagers’ decision to break up,
significantly reducing the victims’ possibility of perceived control of the situation.
As hypothesized, ghosting was perceived as more unexpected and unfair than rejection. In
line with extant research (LeFebvre, 2017), the unexpectedness likely derived from the sudden
disappearance of the ghosters. Moreover, the lack of clear and satisfying reasons could represent the
primary source of unfairness perceived by ghostees, increasing the perceived unfairness of the
former partner. Although reasons might be absent also in rejection (e.g., the disengager could
simply say: “I don’t want to date you anymore”), the disengagers explicitly state their intention to
break up. Direct communication might be seen as an assumption of responsibility that reduces
victims’ negative construals related to the event. Orbitees’ perception of unexpectedness and
unfairness fell in between those of ghostees and rejected individuals, although it did not
significantly differ from them. Following the same reasoning proposed about feelings of exclusion,
this non-significant tendency could suggest that the sporadic unilateral online contacts might reduce
orbitees’ adverse reactions to the partner’s disappearance. Once again, the same pattern was
observed for a further construal, namely the relationship’s value. At first glance, this result seems
contradictory. If ghostees perceived the breakup as more unexpected and unfair, they would have
likely considered the past relationship more valuable. However, the low value attributed by
ghostees to the past relationship might represent a reasonable outcome of adopting either a
reciprocal behavior or a coping strategy. Reciprocity is a process that rules people’s interactions
(Cialdini, 1993; Falk & Fischbacher, 2006) that implies mirroring other people’s behaviors.
Devaluing the past relationship might be perceived as a reasonable response to the ghosters’
disappearance, the most viable way ghostees can reciprocate the ostracism experienced. The
devaluation could also derive from a specific coping strategy, namely the cognitive reappraisal of
the past relationship. Literature about cognitive reappraisal showed that reframing the event helps
individuals reinterpret their emotional reactions, reducing the distress (Gross, 1998; Troy et al.,
2010), even in the relationship dissolution context (Finkel et al., 2013). The lack of information and
the uncertainty in which ghostees are in pushes them to look for possible reasons underlying the
ghosters’ decision to break up (Freedman et al., 2019; LeFebvre, 2017; LeFebvre et al., 2020).
Therefore, rationalizing the past relationship, ghostees might have increased their emotional
distance, overcoming the adverse consequences of the breakup (Denson et al., 2012; Richards et al.,
Concerning aggressiveness, we observed that both the probability of hostile intention
(stabbing at least one pin vs. no pins) and aggressiveness intensity (i.e., the number of pins stabbed
on the doll) were significantly higher for rejected individuals than for ghostees. Aggressive
behaviors manifest emotions such as anger and shame directed towards a target (Baumeister &
Bushman, 2007). In our study, these emotions did not differ among conditions; thus, victims’
feelings did not seem responsible for different aggressive intentions. Again, the difference that
distinguishes rejection from ghosting was the presence of an explicit breakup reason or, at least,
direct communication of the disengager’s intentions. Being told why disengagers left them offers
the victims specific motives and a target to direct their aggressiveness. Similarly, being told that
disengagers want to break up reduces the uncertainty and ambiguity of the situation, offering a
specific episode (i.e., the communication of disengagers’ intention) to direct aggressiveness.
Conversely, the uncertainty generated by the lack of information might have made it challenging to
identify motives for hostility and, consequently, a specific target of aggressiveness. However, this is
only a possible explanation of victims’ aggressiveness in ghosting and rejection, and further studies
are needed to deepen this phenomenon. Once again, compared to rejected participants and ghostees,
orbitees showed medium levels of probability and intention of aggressive behaviors, reinforcing the
speculation that the sporadic attention on SNSs could buffer the adverse effects related to the
Limitations and Future Directions
Concerning the present study’s limitations, the first pertains to the difference in the type of
relationship recalled among the three conditions. The majority of our sample recalled a romantic
relationship, but the number of participants recalling friendship in ghosting was higher than
expected by chance. However, our data align with Powell et al. (2021), who observed that 44.8% of
their sample was ghosted by a friend. According to these data, ghosting might represent a common
breakup strategy in friendship. Thus, although almost neglected so far, future studies should focus
on investigating possible differences compared to ghosting in romantic relationships. Conversely,
romantic relationships were recalled more likely to be recalled in the rejection condition. Given the
different distribution of the two types of relationship among conditions, this variable was included
among predictors in our analyses, showing a significant effect only for the perceived breakup
fairness. Specifically, the breakup was perceived as less fair when the disengager was a friend
rather than a romantic partner. This result contrasts with (Freedman et al., 2019), who found that
ghosting in friendship was perceived as more acceptable than in romantic relationships. However,
differently from Freedman and colleagues, we asked participants to think deeply about a specific
breakup that occurred to them. The task has likely induced participants to recall the most significant
breakup in the last five years, the most emotionally salient, irrespectively of whether it concerned a
friendship or romantic relationship. Indeed, except for fairness perception, the outcomes were not
influenced by the type of relationship, indicating similar levels of negative consequences for both
types of relationship. However, caution is warranted in interpreting these effects, and further studies
are needed to investigate a possible role of the type of relationship.
Second, the time passed from the breakup was quite long (two years on average), and it
could have softened the psychological consequences of the event. However, the temporal distance
was statistically similar across conditions, reducing its confounding role. Moreover, the end of a
relationship is highly distressful (L. A. Baxter, 1982; Kendler et al., 2003). Its recalling could be
sufficient to evoke feelings similar to what was experienced during the event.
Third, our sample consisted of young people, and women were overrepresented. Therefore,
our findings should be interpreted with caution and cannot be generalized to other populations. For
instance, older individuals might be less exposed to ghosting and orbiting and might react to them
differently compared to younger people. Future research might consider more varied sample
compositions to check whether our results are confirmed.
Fourth, we did not measure factors that could have a role in determining the likelihood and
frequency of experiencing ghosting and orbiting, such as technology and social networking sites
use. For instance, the frequency of SNSs usage might increase the opportunity to be victims of
ghosting and orbiting and the victims’ awareness about the disengagers’ orbiting behavior.
Although we did not measure these constructs, the similarities of participants’ characteristics in the
three conditions (especially in terms of age and gender) should have limited possible confounding
effects due to the different use of digital devices and platforms. Similarly, we did not investigate
individual differences, such as emotion regulation, coping strategies, and relational patterns, that
could moderate reactions to different breakup strategies. Finally, future studies should investigate
how ghosting, orbiting, and rejection are experienced by disengagers, asking participants to recall
an event in which they ended up a relationship using one of these strategies.
Fifth, our sample mainly reported breakups of long-term relationships. Indeed, although we
observed high variability, the average relationship length was about three years in all the conditions.
Although ghosting is commonly thought of as a breakup strategy of short-term relationships, the
literature on this phenomenon showed that it could occur even in long-term relationships. Indeed,
LeFebvre (2017) conceptualized ghosting characteristics along two axes, one representing the
sudden vs. gradual disappearance of the disengager and the other representing the length of the
relationship (short- vs. long-term). Moreover, Freedman et al. (2019) investigated the acceptability
of ghosting as a breakup strategy, showing that individuals with stronger (vs. weaker) destiny
beliefs have stronger intentions to use ghosting to end a long-term relationship. Nevertheless, our
findings primarily refer to the breakup of long-term relationships and should not be generalized to
victims of ghosting and orbiting in emerging relationships or what might occur on dating apps after
a few days (or less) of messaging.
The present research adds to recent literature that interprets ghosting and orbiting as forms
of ostracism. The findings indicated that not every breakup strategy hurts the same way, showing
that, compared to rejection, ghosting generally leads to worse outcomes, such as a higher threat to
basic needs and feelings of exclusion. Breakup’s negative effects seemed to be attenuated in
orbiting, where the disengager’s ambiguous signals might protect the victim from worse
experiences of sudden separation. However, we could not exclude that sporadic attention received
online might be mitigated only because orbiting’s negative effects are dragged out for a long time.
Our findings represent only a first step in this field, and future research is needed to overcome the
limitations of our study and better address similarities and differences between ghosting, orbiting,
and rejection. Research on this topic is paramount to broaden knowledge about how digital
technologies (i.e., SNSs) might be used to undermine face-to-face relationships.
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