Is ‘zombieing’ the new ghosting? Unpacking the new toxic dating trend
Look, it’s 2023, we know what ghosting is. We’ve all likely had it happen to us, at least once, and done it ourselves (though we’re considerably less keen to admit the latter).
Except the problem with the perennially relevant ghosting in our era of dating apps is that it also has a billion other variations on the same theme, such as “orbiting”, “breadcrumbing”, even “houseplanting.”
What is zombieing?
The latest lexicon to add to your dating dictionary? Zombieing. And it’s actually legit. Picture the scene: you, sitting in your favourite London pub for your birthday, having a great time with all your closest mates, a couple of Aperols deep, sun emerging from the clouds and not a care in the world. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, you get hit with a text and just the contact name on screen alone makes your stomach sink.
It’s the guy who ghosted you three months ago, maybe even a year ago and - surprise! - he’s wishing you a happy birthday and wondering “how you’re doing?” He’s not apologising for his behaviour or even acknowledging it, he definitely didn’t care how you were “doing” months ago when his texts dropped off abruptly. Now he’s just back from the dead and super chill about it. Deep casual immortality.
This is essentially zombieing in a nutshell, a term recently resurrected by TikTok creator and singer songwriter Mariel Darling, who says she’s going through it herself. And is far from alone in her horror story, with many commenters complaining of a “zombie apocalypse” in their dating circles these days. It’s similar to that text you get from your ex every Christmas or a 2am, asking simply and not at all creatively: “u up?” And it’s neurologically, and psychologically, guaranteed to f**k with your head.
“When we start falling in love with someone, very specific areas of our brain start becoming more stimulated,” says doctor and sexual wellness expert for Kandid, Dr Elesha Vooght. “These are our caudate nucleus and ventral tegmental area. Not only are these zones essential to our memory and emotional processing, but they are some of our largest producers of dopamine, the hormone associated with motivation, reward and - if we are honest - lust.”
This plays out in our psychology. “When you meet someone and form some kind of connection, it’s in itself significant,” explains psychotherapist and author of the critically acclaimed What We Want: A Journey Through Twelve of Our Deepest Desires, Charlotte Fox Weber. “You have conversations and shared experiences, and even if it’s just texts or brief encounters, there’s already a shift psychologically that makes space for this new person in your life. When you’re then ghosted, it can be utterly de-regulating.”
It will also suck all of those nice new chemicals out of your brain like an overpowered Dyson. “[You] will have a sudden crash in their endorphins,” says Dr Vooght, “where previous feelings of grief and loss may be reactivated. The lack of knowing ‘why’ can lead people to jump to their own conclusions about themselves, dropping their self esteem.”
Weber agrees. “The thing about ghosting is that it’s really avoidant but it’s also an attack,” she says. “The attack isn’t direct, it’s the attack of absence. Withdrawal, while seeming non confrontational, is the ultimate form of passive aggression. Silence is loud.”
Then again, what if the ghoster, and all those lovely, lovely brain chemicals they have to offer, comes back? Your brain is automatically predisposed to give in - it’s a neurochemical molotov cocktail. “Many people have heard the saying that hindsight is 20:20, because we’ve forgotten the reasoning behind why we left that partner in the first place and instead we focus on the quick happy endorphin rushes that they originally gave us,” Dr Vooght explains. “It can be easier to reactivate an old attraction, rather than going through the stress of learning someone new. It also offers a salve to those feelings of hurt and rejection. We are validated that we are good and lovable, again causing a rise in our oxytocin and dopamine.”
In other words: it’s no wonder why we take back our ghosts for a second round, they’re hardwired into our brains already. But it’s a risky move, and should be taken with extra precaution (you’ve already seen what they’re capable of when they seemingly lose interest).
“If the ghost comes back into your life as a zombie, you can take charge by communicating directly and unambiguously,” Weber advises. “You don’t have to explain or argue or plead passionately, but a short and simple recap of your position can be incredibly effective for conveying your self-respect and establishing boundaries for decency.”
Dr Vooght agrees, and reminds ghostees who take back a risky zombie to focus on other areas of their lives that can provide happy hormones in case they disappear. Ultimately, it might be better to exit the nightmare altogether. “The safest option is to walk away,” she says. “There is a reason why most zombie films are horrors.”