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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Vail

Ghosts, and Zombies, and Breadcrumbs - Oh My!

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Dating comes up a lot in my office as a source of grief and anxiety - from teens to retirees. People embark on a perilous journey to find connection and intimacy (of widely varying degrees), and invariably experience the disappointment that comes with incompatibility. There is a rise in the use of slang to describe unfortunately common dating behaviors like breadcrumbing, ghosting, haunting, oribiting, and zombieing. Essentially, these terms describe avoidant behaviors that people may choose, instead of exercising self-awareness and assertively communicating differences (which can also be disappointing, sure, but also communicate emotional maturity and respect). Typically, these avoidant behaviors betray that the person engaging in them is simply not invested in the same depth of relationship sought by the recipient, and this can come as a disappointment to someone with expectations of "more" or who absorbs this disappointment as a "rejection" rather than just a "difference."

These terms we invent to describe such behaviors are simply derogatory slang for avoidant attachment behaviors that have existed for all time, but have taken on a new appearance since the advent of social media and dating apps. Many people don't notice they do these behaviors, or don't feel responsible for the impact of these behaviors, and a few rare gems do them on purpose (but that's a topic for another post). One of my wise former supervisors often reminded people that we are responsible for our impact: if you accidentally hurt someone by bumping into them on the street, you still apologize, right? People receiving these avoidant behaviors often resist their disappointed feelings by trying to change the avoidant person, trying to tolerate the avoidant behavior, or attempting to repress their attachment needs. And while this is not an impossible dream in small degrees, it may also be a futile effort that harms both parties.

Attachment needs for responsiveness, attentiveness, reciprocation and security are natural, healthy parts of us - just like our need for sleep or our need for food. Some people shun these needs, some people need less, some people need more, some people prefer to concentrate these needs in one person, some people meet these needs with more than one person. There exists so much stigma around these differences in attachment and certain self-serving forces in our culture try to narrow our concept of "normal" to the exclusion of most of humanity. It is clear that some variation within attachment is natural. I suspect some of this stigma comes from the suffering felt when people discover this disappointing incompatibility and try to force a relationship to exist in spite of the mismatch. This "forcing" can look like an avoidant person dismissing the painful impact of their behaviors on the other (you're too needy or sensitive), or it can look like the higher needs person attacking the avoidant for wanting "less" attachment than they would like (you're insensitive or selfish), or it can look like either party betraying themselves and engaging while filled with resentment. Meditation teacher, Shinzen Young explains that Suffering = Pain x Resistance. When we feel negative feelings, and resist them, it often actually amplifies them.

I have been on the receiving end of these behaviors (and resisted and suffered), and probably unintentionally engaged in them and disappointed others. There is a more humane way to behave, yet, the shaming language people use to describe both these avoidant behaviors and the common vitriolic responses to them won't help anyone adopt improved dating behaviors. Instead, if we took a more compassionate stance toward our attachment differences, it makes sense that the behaviors that follow would be more healing and helpful.

I wonder how the dating world would look if we could notice these differences between us, maturely advocate for ourselves, and simply walk away from incompatibility, rather than berate ourselves (I'm not enough) or berate the other person (you're too unavailable or needy). I imagine I'd see a lot less dating grief on my couch, and fewer long-term relationships with miserably mismatched partners. I suspect that dropping this "othering" language in dating will enable more people to take responsibility for their differences, better tolerate disappointment, and engage in more humane behaviors that serve everyone involved. Dating is a risk, and the fact we feel disappointment sometimes isn't necessarily a sign we are doing it wrong.

Twenty years ago, a wise counselor once advised me, "You're doing dating right as long as you can walk away when your good sense says it's time to go." I would add to that: it is much easier to walk away when we can view evidence of incompatibility as mere differences rather than evidence of character defect in ourselves or others.

If you want to learn more about attachment and better dating, counseling can help, as can bibliotherapy with books like "Attached" by Levine & Heller. Sending my best wishes that 2021 brings you the courage to walk away from incompatibility and the strength to remain detached from disappointing differences.

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