I could really use some advice on how to ethically ghost someone. A few months ago, I started hooking up with a guy I met on Grindr. We decided together that we wouldn’t use condoms consistently during our hookups. Just for context: in my teens and early 20s, I had a lot of sex with a lot of people, and almost always used protection. At 25, I met a man who eventually became my husband, and we were together for 10 years before divorcing. I started using apps for the first time in 2021, and because it seems that everyone is on PrEP, I decided to not use condoms as consistently as I did in my younger years.
The guy I recently met on Grindr told me he was on PrEP and we had sex several times over the course of two months. He frequently told me that I was the only person he was hooking up with and expressed an interest in a relationship. I am not interested in a relationship at this time, but I was open to being exclusive, so I didn’t hook up with anyone else either.
A few weeks ago, we hooked up for the last time. Two days later, I started exhibiting symptoms of an STI. I got tested and was positive for gonorrhea. I was very disappointed in myself and frustrated with him because he had obviously lied to me. I had planned to confront him, but before I got a chance to, he sent me a message that he had tested positive for HIV. I suspect this, coupled with my STI diagnosis, means he was lying to me about his PrEP use and about exclusivity. I think I did a good job of masking my anger about the STI, but I am also scared that I might have played with fire and got burned. In my final message, I thanked him for letting me know about his diagnosis and I wished him well. I thought it was clear that I wanted things to end there.
Yesterday, he sent me a text message asking how I’m doing. I am concerned that he does not realize I do not want to ever see him again. I thought about writing back to tell him I didn’t think he had been honest about his other sexual partners or PrEP use. Instead, I decided to ignore him and hope that he gets the hint. The thing is, I don’t want him to think that I am ignoring him because of his HIV status.
Do you have any recommendations for how to ethically ghost someone? Is it worth it for me to chide him about an STI that has already cleared up when he has more pressing health concerns?
Distressed in D.C.
What painful complexity you are holding in this situation! On the one hand, it sounds like you are feeling justifiably betrayed and angry with your Grindr guy. You trusted him with your body, you took him at his word and it seems he has been careless with that trust. One of the most painful effects of having our trust broken by another person is that it can also cause us to lose trust in ourselves and our ability to make good relational choices. So we are hurt and disappointed by the other, and we are hurt and disappointed in ourselves and the world overall feels a little less safe, a little less okay to be in.
On the other hand, I can see that you are also feeling empathy and care for this person. He has just received some enormous and likely painful, frightening news. Fortunately, an HIV diagnosis today often comes with a hopeful prognosis, provided that the positive individual has access to appropriate medical care. As you probably know, DID, HIV can be managed over the course of a normal human lifespan with the use of antiretroviral medication; recent clinical trials of experimental treatments have even begun to show promising signs that a permanent cure might be possible. Yet even so, receiving a positive diagnosis of HIV comes with serious life changes, health considerations and potential stigma and shame. It speaks well of your character that you have tried so hard to avoid causing or intensifying his suffering.
You didn’t mention whether the two of you had discussed STI testing prior to beginning your relationship. Gonorrhea has an incubation period of up to a month, and can be asymptomatic beyond that point—so it’s also difficult to know whether your former hookup could have been infected without realizing.
This brings me to your question, DID—you ask if I have any recommendations on how to ethically ghost someone, and I must confess that I do not. This is because ghosting is by nature an all-or-nothing strategy: you either respond in some way or not at all (if we’re using the classic definition of ghosting, which is to go totally radio silent). It is inherently non-relational, and so very difficult to ethically tailor.
Perhaps you are really asking whether you have the moral right to ghost in this situation? Considering that this person has likely been dishonest and hurt you, is it okay to ghost? Every person you ask is going to have a different answer to this question, but I generally think that adults dating other adults do have the right to ghost. Unless we’ve made some kind of explicit commitment, we don’t actually owe someone we’re casually dating or hooking up with our attention or time. Where someone has acted in ways that are dishonest or hurtful, ghosting may feel particularly justifiable. The thing is, however, that “morally justifiable” and “kind” are not the same thing. Ghosting may be morally allowable or even justifiable, but it is usually not kind.
Being ghosted by someone we care about hurts not only because it feels like an abandonment, but also because it leaves us feeling haunted: in the absence of clear communication, the ghosted person is left to fill in the missing story on their own—why they have been abandoned, what they could have done differently, whether the ghost is still thinking about them at all. In the void where the relationship used to be, there is instead self-recrimination and shame, all the worst stories we have been carrying secretly within ourselves come floating up to devour us.
You are absolutely free to do whatever feels best to you, DID, but my suggestion here is not to ghost. If I am understanding correctly, your primary concerns are to honour both your desire to end the relationship and to dispel the notion that you are shunning your Grindr acquaintance because of his HIV status. As far as I can see, only a communicative approach can accomplish these goals.
In situations like these, my preferred method is to write a letter or email: unlike talking in person or by phone, a long-form letter or email automatically implies distance and formality and is suitable for handling delicate matters while setting a clear boundary. A letter is less casual than texting and is spacious enough to write clearly and thoughtfully, which can help you to express care. It does not need to invite ongoing conversation.
Here’s what I suggest you put in your letter, DID:
1) An expression of care and compassion about his recent diagnosis
2) A kind but clear statement that you don’t want to see him anymore and why (the dishonesty)
3) A reflection of the things you like(d) about him and will continue to appreciate
4) A reflection on the things you wish he had done differently, as well as some compassion for the possibility that he might not have known what else to do
5) A kind goodbye
A letter like this ideally does a few different things: first, it ends the relationship without ghosting. That’s generally something most people appreciate, and your Grindr acquaintance might particularly feel better knowing that you had a reason to stop seeing him rather than simply being left hanging after disclosing his HIV diagnosis to you. That is one kindness, and another is actually giving him the feedback that his dishonest behaviour is not really serving him because it will drive potential partners away, as it has you.
A direct communication ending the relationship also allows you to express your own feelings of hurt and disappointment. While I can certainly appreciate you not wanting to chide him when he is probably already feeling down, I think that it is both possible and important to relate to people with simultaneous compassion and candour. People need to receive empathy in hard times, it’s true, but they equally need to be given feedback in a caring way. This tends to feel better than ghosting in the long run, for everyone involved, because it makes space for everyone’s emotions—and everyone’s humanity.
I applaud your care, DID. I encourage you to put it into words. We so often stay silent in the name of care, but care must be spoken and acted upon to be felt. Even as you bring this relationship to close, you can do so with care: Care for the other person. Care for yourself. Ghosting is not necessary. All you need to be is human.
Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.