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Avoiding Toxic Breakups – Here is the Worst Way to be Broken Up With: Research

Man and woman sitting on opposite sides of a bed looking sad

Breaking up with someone is never easy, but there are ways to do it with care. If you’re looking to avoid toxic breakups, a new study published in Cyberpsychology looks at the worst ways to be dumped in the world of online dating.

Led by The University of Milano-Bicocca’s Luca Pancani, the study analyzes two forms of breakups that have come out of online dating: ghosting and “orbiting.”

What is orbiting?

“Ghosting and orbiting occur when a relationship is ended unilaterally by suddenly withdrawing from all communication and without explanation,” Pancani and the other authors of the study explain, according to Forbes. “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 the attention of researchers.”

Related: Mismatches in support? Why trying to help your partner can cause relationship conflicts: research.

In the study, researchers looked to understand the psychological effects of ghosting and orbiting. Pancani and co. recruited 176 adults aged 18 to 34 and got them to participate in an online survey, where they asked the participants to reflect on a time that they were either ghosted, orbited or rejected.

We’ve already gone through what it means to be ghosted and orbited, but let’s take a second to understand straight-up rejection. According to the study, being rejected means that the disengager directly communicates their choice to end the relationship or friendship with a concrete explanation.

After learning about either ghosting, orbiting or rejection, the participants responded to a series of psychological questions that encouraged them to reflect on how the experience made them feel. In many of the questions, researchers would get participants to rate how much they agreed based on emotional statements like “I felt hurt” or “I felt angry.”

During the survey, participants also revealed how unexpected and significant the breakup was, and whether or not the breakup made them feel hostile toward their former partner or friend.


Related: Eating snacks in bed might be ruining your relationship: survey.

Woman texting in bed

What is the worst way to break up with someone?

Results from the study concluded that – even though each of the three breakup strategies caused people to feel rejected – ghosting caused the most psychological harm, followed by orbiting.

“This result suggests that ghosting represents a more threatening exclusionary experience,” the authors continued. “Concerning orbiting, victims’ level of exclusion was in between those felt by ghostees and rejected individuals.”

Researchers believe that orbiting may be a softer breakup than ghosting due to the orbiter’s cryptic signals. Due to the conflicting behaviour from the orbiter, the “orbitee” will often think that there is potential for the relationship to be ignited once again. The biggest downfall with orbiting is that it often inhibits “orbitees” from moving on after the ambiguous breakup.

See also: Men have an increased risk of mental illness after a breakup: study

Despite this downfall, participants saw ghosting as more unfair than orbiting or rejection. Interestingly enough, rejection can actually make someone feel the most aggressive or hostile toward their former partner compared to orbiting or ghosting.

“Not every breakup strategy hurts the same way,” the researchers concluded. “Compared to rejection, ghosting generally leads to worse outcomes.”

So, next time you’re breaking up with someone, remember that there’s no “good” or “easy” way to do so – but there are ways to do it gently by leaving your partner with an understanding of why a relationship may be coming to an end. It may feel easier to ghost someone instead of addressing the situation directly, but proper communication ultimately offers much more closure during a difficult transition with someone you care about.


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