Why Do All Of My Friends Eventually Ghost Me?

Why Do All Of My Friends Eventually Ghost Me?

Estimated reading time: 14 minutes

Dear Dr. NerdLove

This is a platonic letter, so I don’t know how into this you’ll be.

So the new girl started up at work. She was doing a similar job to me, and her desk was right next to mine, and I offered to walk her through everything she needed to know, and I asked her out to coffee — not as a date, but so she could ask questions in a non-office setting. She enthusiastically agreed, and that began a relationship where once a week, we’d do coffee. We exchanged phone numbers and texted like crazy, as well as IMing each other in the office. Mostly, she used me as a sounding board, and was a shoulder to cry on while she was dealing with an abusive boss, who was fired at the beginning of last month. During this, I found out she was literally twenty years younger than me, but this didn’t affect our relationship at all.

My cat of twenty years died late February, and I took some time off work to grieve. Between subsequent illnesses and her honeymoon, we didn’t see each other for most of March. When things settled down, she cancelled our usual coffee date so she could have lunch with women her own age. I get it. I’m pushing fifty, she’s not yet thirty, and we don’t really have a lot in common. With her boss gone, she probably doesn’t need me anymore. She’s the first close friend I’d made in years, and now we’re back to work acquaintances.

The specifics are different, but the rest of it is a pattern to me. I don’t make friends easily because I’m awkward. But I make the effort, and occasionally, I make a new friend. We experience friendly limerence, and in no time at all, the magic is gone. Even among my old friends, who all live far away, I text them, we have a chat, and then my texts go unanswered without warning. They probably have life things, like work or making dinner, to deal with, but they don’t get back to me until I poke them again. I’ve tried figuring out if I come across as desperate or creepy, and I can’t find evidence of that. If two texts go unanswered, I don’t send a third unless some time has passed (then the chat and chat-interruptus cycle begins anew). In the case of the new girl, she had a perfectly legitimate reason for wanting to hang out with other people, but so does everybody. The result is the same—a friendship dissolves, and I’m on my own.

I know that men in their thirties and forties have a difficult time making friends, but this is bananas.

It’s hard enough to meet people. I have a few interests that I can maybe find clubs for, such as writing and drawing. However, the only groups I can find in the city that cater to my interests are of the shut-up-and-write and drink-and-draw variety. These groups mostly exist for accountability, but I have no trouble writing and drawing on my own, and I’d rather do it in a café or at home than surrounded by people who aren’t even acknowledging me.

I’m single and plan to stay that way. And I’m not lonely. I wish I had more people to talk to, but aside from missing my cat, I’m not lonely at all. All my hobbies are solitary, and I don’t want to have to have a long discussion about what movies to watch. And yet, I went to an orphan’s Easter Party, and I got along with everyone there, even though they were all twenty years older or younger than me. I can function in social settings, but none of these relationships have any heft to them.

I don’t know what you can do to help, but I’m baffled and frustrated. Either people aren’t interested in being my friend at all, or they forget me when they can’t see me anymore. I’m really starting to relate to certain villains in Doctor Who.


The Casually Dressed Silence

First of, my sincerest condolences on the loss of your cat. 20 years is an astounding lifespan for a cat (Mr. Senior Kitty, who passed in 2021, was also 20 years old when I had to say goodbye) but it’s never enough time.

So let’s talk friendships for a moment. One of the things that leapt out at me from your letter is how quickly you seem to assume these friendships are deader than the dodo. Now, maybe this is just due to trying to keep the letter succinct and there’re periods of trying to reach out that get nothing, but it certainly reads like you are calling time of death the instant that the texting patterns shift.

This makes me wonder if there’re one of two things going on. The first is that you may have very different ideas of what you expect from friendship – especially from a new one – than your friends. The other is that maybe that, like a lot of folks who’re lonely or having a hard time making friends, you’re coming on stronger than you realize.

Based on your letter and some of the other details you share, I think it might be the former. I think there may be an expectation problem and you’re reacting to what is in your head rather than what’s actually happening in real world.

Here’s what I mean: friendships take time to develop and they take time for people to get close. One of the things that I’ve been hammering at in recent letters is that the key to building friendships is time and consistency. Both are important, but the former tends to be what trips people up. Folks who have a hard time making new friends or who are particularly lonely often tend to underestimate or misunderstand where they are on the friendship timeline. While there’s a little wiggle room on the exact numbers, it’s generally accepted that it takes around 50 or so hours to go from acquaintances to casual friends and around 200 hours or so to become close.

It also requires a certain amount of regular contact to maintain those friendships at that level – managing the “relationship degradation mechanic” as some folks will put it.

Considering the timeline for when you two met and started hanging out, I’m guessing that you were only starting to get close to the point where you were moving into being casual friends with a lead off towards being closer. That, compared with what you said about falling into friend-limerence makes me think that perhaps you’re overestimating the level of closeness you have. You feel excited as hell about everything with this friendship equivalent of NRE, and that may lead to your thinking that perhaps you’re closer or more connected than you actually are.

Similarly, a month off – for very understandable reasons on both sides  – with no meaningful contact means that things may have backslid a bit. That’s hardly a crisis; it just means that things may feel a bit stiff at first before you get back into the swing of things. It also means that it’s not surprising that she’s made other plans that got in the way of your regular lunch together. You weren’t necessarily at the place where this slot was held in reserve with the same level of importance as, say, family traditions. If you two weren’t in a place to see each other for a month, it’s not unreasonable that she would’ve made plans that happened to fall on that particular day and time.

But if that’s literally all it took for you to decide that she was ditching you? That’s an overreaction on your part. Especially if you didn’t reach out again some other time to chat or hang out.

That same level of assumption goes with your other friends. Most conversations taper off at some point or another, especially over text or direct messages. Very, very few people have some sort of official sign-off; more often than not the conversation just reaches a stopping point and someone doesn’t reply. That’s pretty common and accepted as just part of texting etiquette.

What does it mean when this happens? Well, most of the time, it means that either the person who stops responding doesn’t have anything to add or that something else came up – work, a phone call, going to dinner, etc. What it doesn’t mean that your friends are ghosting you or that they decided they don’t want to talk to you any more.

As I said, based on what you’ve written, I suspect this is much more about how you’re interpreting things and what you’re expecting. I think part of the problem is that you’re seeing signs of rejection where most people would see normal behavior.

Some folks are prolific texters who think that rules about “double texting” are for fools. Others aren’t as wed to their phones or the messaging apps and will step away for hours or even days at a time, checking in sporadically.

Similarly, some folks just don’t think to reach out first or feel weird about doing so. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just it’s not a thing they think of doing. Some others feel weird because they want to reach out, but they get anxious about the idea that they may be bothering the other person.

I mean, shit, I have friends who I know like hearing from me when I reach out first – and who have the same anxiety about bothering people or presuming too much – and yet it’s still a struggle to be the one to make the first text to say “what’s up?”

As a general rule, it’s better to adjust your expectations to match who people are than to be upset when they don’t necessarily have the same communication habits you do. I think it would help immensely you immensely, especially when paired with not making automatic negative assumptions – like someone got all they needed from you and so you’re surplus to requirements. That’s the sort of belief that should also require a pretty significant level of proof before you accept it as “what obviously happened”.  

I also think that you would do well to dial your presumptions of behavior from your friendships back a little. It sounds like you get a little carried away and a little more reserve would do you some good. This doesn’t mean that you need to be counting out every word or trying to make sure you have a perfect 1-to-1 bubble ratio, nor does it mean you need to have a certificate that declares that you are now Officially Close Friends with all the privileges and rights therein. It just means recognizing that while you may be excited – and new friends are good reasons to be excited! – that you should make sure you’re not letting that excitement overwhelm things. As I’ve said elsewhere: sometimes you’re at a 10 and your buds would really prefer you to be at a 2.

And don’t write people off so quickly. If it is the case that you haven’t reached back out since she made other plans… well, that was more about you assuming the friendship was off, not her. I’d say reach out again, say “Hey, we haven’t hung out in a while. Want to grab coffee and catch up?” and see what happens. I suspect you’d be pleasantly surprised.

Good luck.

Hello Doc,

I know what not to do, but I don’t know what I SHOULD do. Pretty much all advice given on the Internet has so many “don’ts”, like, don’t attempt to approach when she’s working, don’t go too fast, don’t lead with anything sexual, etc… I can get all these don’ts, but what are the do’s?

Furthermore, the don’ts can be very specific, but when the do’s are given, they’re often very vague.

I know the don’ts, now I just need to know what the do’s are?

Do Or Do Not

If I’m being honest, I’m torn between asking if you’ve, y’know, read through my archives where I’ve got years of material talking about the dos and just replying with “These are more of what you might call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

But that’s not actually helpful, so instead I have a question for you, DoDN – you say that you know all don’ts… but do you understand them? As in: do you understand why these are considered to be best practices and why folks would prefer that you follow them?

I ask because a lot of folks who have the same complaint you do “that all the don’ts are so specific but nobody talks about the do’s” often are ultimately looking at these “rules” like they’re code in a computer; do X, Y and Z in this order and you will get AB results. Then they get upset when they see people who seem to break the rules and declare that clearly those rules only apply to some people, not others.

The problem with this outlook is: people aren’t computers or robots. There is no perfect ruleset that you can follow and get guaranteed results. Some people can and do break these supposed rules and succeed. Some folks will follow the “rules” to the letter and still have no luck. This doesn’t mean that they’re uniquely fucked or that they’re the “unlucky 80” from the increasingly misapplied 80/20 rule. You can – as the man said – commit no mistakes and still lose. And if you’re assuming that those rules are hard, fast and universal, this would give the unwarranted feeling that you’re somehow being “cheated”; after all, you followed the rules.

So what’s the point of having these guidelines in the first place if some folks can break them and following them isn’t a guarantee?

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “if you want to break the rules, first you have to learn the rules”. What this means is that by learning the rules, you understand why they’re in place; they create a structure of best practices, that are generally agreed upon for reasons. Once you understand them and the underlying principles, you’re in a position to make conscious and considered choices about when those rules may not necessarily apply or whether you’re socially skilled enough to understand that you could break them in a way that isn’t going to harm or upset people.

This is why part of social calibration is about understanding the why of it all. Why should you not hit on people at work? Well, because they’re frequently at a disadvantage; they’re restricted in how they’re allowed to behave, management may not have their back even when the customer or client is being egregious, hitting on them would be a distraction from their responsibilities, and so on. Why don’t lead with being overtly sexual? Because it can make a lot of people uncomfortable, it’s often incredibly inappropriate or presumptive to do to a stranger, it’s not congruent or part of the accepted behavior for the interaction or venue and so on.

The same goes with the “do’s”. Things like “look for indications that someone wants to talk to you” are as much about making sure that you’re reading the room properly and making sure that you’re not constantly hitting on people who aren’t interested. You’re taking a moment to make sure you’re respecting people’s time or not bothering someone who doesn’t want to be hit on. “Offer your number first” is letting the other person decide whether they’d like to contact you, instead of giving a stranger access to them. “Make sure you’re clear about asking them on a date” is as much about clarity and setting expectations as it is folks who try to surf the ambiguity wave so that they can functionally “trick” someone into a date.

As you understand the “why” of it all and get more experience under your belt, you start being more capable of recognizing when the rules may not necessarily apply in a specific situation, or how to thread the needle so that you can approach someone at times or in ways that other people might not be able to.

So, someone who leads off their flirting with someone by being profoundly sexual and succeeds isn’t doing so because they’re part of some “elite” that the rules don’t apply to, it’s because they’re skilled at reading the room. They’ve observed enough to know that this person, specifically, is more likely to respond positively to that kind of flirting. Or they may be socially calibrated enough to know that the bartender or waiter is flirting with intent rather than being professionally nice or flirting for tips.

Now obviously this takes time and experience. Some folks will have a harder time reading the room and being as skilled at picking up on social cues. And so, in the name of asking people not to be giant dicks to others and providing some helpful guides and guardrails for folks who are still learning, we have these best practices.

The line about how “safety rules were written in blood” applies here; most of the “don’ts” were drafted because of other people’s shitty behavior – behavior that affects not just the people being hit on, but also the people who’re trying to meet, mingle and mate in good faith.

The “do’s” are frequently about clarity, understanding and making sure you’re presenting yourself in the best possible light. The “don’ts” are responses to bad behavior from others that makes things worse for everyone. There’s more focus on the “don’ts” in no small part because you can’t guarantee success by following the “dos” but you sure as shit can ensure failure by ignoring the “don’ts” – and make things worse for everyone else.

So while learning the “rules” is important, it’s not about dogmatically following them like a robot. It’s a starting point for understanding the whys and wherefores of social interaction. As you gain more social fluency and experience, you start to recognize which do’s and don’ts apply to you and when, which do not and why, and – importantly – how to respond if and when you mess up.

Good luck.