Written by Annabel White
Illustrated by Thomas Jon Walker
I used to be a firm believer that in all realms of life and relationships, feelings tend to be mutual. The way that we feel about our friends, our coworkers or whoever helps us at the self-checkout machine most likely reflects the way that they feel about us. It’s the reason relationships that haven’t quite started yet can fizzle out so effortlessly.
The beauty of it is that there’s no actual rejection, just an unspoken agreement that neither party is hugely fussed by the other. Even the majority of long-term relationships that come to an end tend to be characterised by the words “it was coming for a while”, or “it was mutual”. Because most of the time, things are.
Yet, I’m not sure I feel that way anymore.
With the pace of modern life and the not-so-subtle push from dating apps, people move in and out of our lives quicker than they ever have before. With this arrival of ambiguous mini-relationships comes the unfortunate downside, figuring out how to end them.
I moved to Tokyo at the start of the year and, pre-coronavirus, I was meeting at least two or three new people a week. When you’re a young woman living alone in a foreign country people tend to be nice to you. The friendly women you meet invite you for drinks with a group of their friends. The friendly men you meet usually just invite you for drinks. The former is significantly more fun and easier to navigate than the latter.
I started off by accepting both types of invites. I had just arrived in Japan. There was a cruise ship brimming with corona cases in Yokohama and whispers that a global pandemic was on the horizon. It was a difficult time to have recently uprooted my entire life and I was eager to take any opportunity that kept me out of my bedroom in the evenings, panicking that this whole thing had been a mistake.
I used to feel tremendous guilt leaving anybody on read. I would add copious amounts of exclamation marks to every message I sent to ensure that absolutely zero animosity was ever misconstrued to whomever I happened to be texting. This was until someone pointed out to me that exclamation marks made you sound eager and pliable, then I stopped instantly.
There’s only one thing worse than not being liked and that’s not being respected. This may not necessarily be a female thing but I do think it relates to an ingrained need to accommodate, apologise and incessantly worry about how you come across, which unfortunately does sound a bit female to me.
At some point, I stopped with the “sorry, I have to work late”, “sorry, I’m not feeling well” or “sorry, I didn’t see this” and I stopped saying sorry altogether. Instead, I just started ghosting all the men I had no interest in meeting up with.
And I didn’t feel guilty. I actually felt quite empowered.
We are constantly told that ghosting is bad. That ghosting is emotionally manipulative. That ghosting is selfish and unnecessary and should never be done. And I’ve been on the flipside of it. I understand the frustration that comes from waiting for a message that never arrives. It is upsetting and it is unfair. But I do think sometimes it’s necessary.
I’m not trying to justify it outright. I appreciate it can be a heartless and cowardly way to end a relationship – if it is a real relationship in question. Twentyhood’s Is ‘ghosting’ men better for women’s mental health? explores the aggressive responses that men can make when they come face-to-face with rejection and it hit home with some of my own experiences.
In the past, I was a firm believer that any type of ghosting was cruel. But the lines become more blurred when we are simultaneously trying to shake this supposedly female ideology that we owe men something; whether that’s sex, a smile, a relationship or sometimes even an explanation.
One of the most fundamental misinterpreted beliefs regarding feminism is that women want to be superior to men. We don’t. I’m not trying to fight for one side of any divisive gender battle, whereby we can get a one-up on men if we treat them like sh*t. In general, there’s too much polarisation in the world particularly when it comes to gender, race and politics of any kind. Taken out of context, the “men are trash” ideology can be a counterproductive one and fundamentally if we’re moving towards equality, then all people need to be treated the same.
But I would argue that the problem is: men can’t stomach rejection in the same way that women can.
It’s a pride thing and it’s a toxic masculinity thing. Fourth wave feminism is teaching us that we can exist as women in a multitude of creeds and colours, none of which detract from our femininity. We can be emotionally ‘tough’ one day and vulnerable the next. We can be devoutly religious or completely atheist, we can be big or small, waxed or hairy, we can sleep with a different person every night or absolutely no one at all and it doesn’t make us any less female.
This freedom of expression doesn’t exist yet for men.
There is a single facet of manliness to which half the population appears forced to conform. You have to hide all emotions. You can never cry or be afraid of anything. You must be successful without trying too hard. You need to be sexually experienced. Ideally you should be muscular and probably have a large penis. If you fail at any of these seemingly easy tasks, you will be given the vague yet all-important instruction to ‘man-up’. Men have something to prove and a level of pride to maintain that we as women experience to a lesser extent. Rejection hits them harder.
(Basically, the patriarchy sh*ts on all of us.)
As a result, the male aversion to rejection can be emotionally exhausting for those dealt with the task of letting them down gently. When I think about my own experiences of turning men down, some have been easy and amicable but some have been downright traumatic.
Case study 1.
The year was 2018. We had been on two dates and plans for the third were set in stone when I realised I wasn’t all that interested in him. I bit the bullet. I drafted a sensitive and rather wordy message outlining my feelings and desire to respectfully cut all ties. I had a minor panic attack when I pressed send. He read it immediately and wanted to speak on the phone.
We spoke on the phone for a gruelling half hour and I effectively just repeated the contents of the text message sprinkled in with far more I’m really sorry’s than necessary. He was confused. He was keen to go ahead with the third date anyway. It didn’t matter that I wanted to end it. He thought we got on well and he didn’t understand why I didn’t.
I don’t want to completely label it as a fragile male ego thing because I don’t think anyone likes to be turned down. The pain that comes from rejection is universal. It’s universal and it’s really shit. But so are the draining conversations that people claim to value instead. Repeatedly telling someone that you’re not interested and listening to them bargain with you is not fun or worthwhile for anyone involved.
By the time I hung up the phone, I had hives all over my hot and rashy body. I had one thought on my mind… ghosting him would have been so much easier.
Case study 2.
Like seemingly every other young British female, I recently read Florence Given’s best-selling book, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty. In chapter 9, she tells an inspiring anecdote whereby she was on a date with a boy who said something offensive about his ex. Later on, he announced that the gender pay gap was a myth. Florence wasted no time in thanking him for the drink, telling him they weren’t well-suited and getting the hell out of there.
I obviously found this inspirational.
Fast forward three hours and I am on the worst date of my whole entire life. I am sitting opposite a man who is monologuing about the science of soil, why Brexit needs to happen and the benefits of colonialism. On the rare occasion that I take my head out of my hands to disagree with him, he smiles affectionately and says: “I love how passionate you are.”
Florence’s voice was ringing in my ears and she had made it look so easy. As soon as the bill was on the table, I told him I’d had a good time but I didn’t feel that we needed to do this again. I appreciate that this was blunt of me but for my own sanity I could not spend another second with this man.
It didn’t matter who I was. I just had to be female, sit opposite him and silently nod along to his dreary conversation. We left the restaurant and subsequently spent thirty minutes on the street, arguing over this.
Again, there was a pattern here. Stage one: confusion. He didn’t understand. He’d had a great time so automatically I must have as well. People want explanations and I get that, but there is a fine line between being upfront and causing unnecessary upset. It’s one that I am yet to figure out. Stage two: bargaining. He tells me I’m making a brash decision. I’m making assumptions about who he is and if we spent more time together, I would grow to like him. He wants to meet up again even though I have made it crystal clear that this is not what I want.
The third and final stage is deflated acceptance. He gets the message. You go your separate ways and it’s finally over. It doesn’t feel good though. None of it feels good because you are so exhausted and guilt-ridden and confused about whether or not it was the right thing to do.
I wish I had ghosted him. Even he wishes I had ghosted him. He wasn’t happy with my frankness, which he made abundantly clear in the lengthy text message I received later that afternoon. From that day forward, I decided that being upfront with my feelings was not worth the fallout that followed.
I now have a rule. If you’ve been on more than three dates, you can’t ghost. Two or less and it’s completely fine. The cosplay otaku who sends me daily pictures of his bento box doesn’t get a reply. He will instead eventually get the message. The bouncer whose number somehow ended up in my phone after a night out in August will also never hear from me again. He occasionally calls me and I never pick up. He will be just as well for it.
Does it make my skin crawl when 33 year-old Marcos sends me messages saying “you, me, alcohol, tonight”? Yes, absolutely. But does it warrant a response? No. Marcos has since given up with the creepy-sounding messages and I’m sure his life has been unaffected for the most part.
There may be seven days in the week but there are none that I wish to spend with any of these men, and there is no reason why I have to explain this to them. Sometimes feelings just aren’t mutual. When we still live in a world where our children are conditioned differently and where men are taught to act and women to react, we can’t be blamed for checking out in favour of our own emotional sanity.
I’m not losing any sleep feeling guilty about this one.
Annabel is a graduate from Leeds Uni, currently working as an English teacher and freelance writer in Tokyo. Her hobbies include drunk crying, documenting her love life in excruciating detail and planning her birthday. She also writes a highly entertaining blog about her time in Japan, which you can read here.
Edited by Stephanie Kleanthous