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Giving up the Ghosts: How to Handle the Match Who Comes Back

by Sarah Elizabeth Richards - May 19, 2014

You can call them “ghosts,” “re-surfacers” or “sniffers.” But the scenario is usually the same. You receive an email or text from an old romantic interest saying “Hey, what’s up?” or “Long time no hear.” (The latter is particularly annoying, if the person cut things off with you and is insinuating that any lack of communication is because you dropped the ball.)

Depending on your level of interest, you might shrug your shoulders and return to folding your laundry. Or your stomach will flip-flop as you wonder, “Does this person still have feelings for me?”

A former match is back on your radar. But stay cool. You don’t know what he or she wants: To give the romance another go? To follow up with that networking contact you mentioned on your second date? To ask what you think of her new profile pic? To absolve his guilt for blowing off your last text?

Online dating ghosts are in a different category than ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends with whom you had a real relationship. In these cases, the re-surfacers were in your life for a short period of time. You might have exchanged 15 emails but never planned an actual date. Or maybe you went out for a few months but the person said that he or she was “too busy” to pursue anything more serious. Unlike ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends, ghosts are especially confusing because you never had the chance to see the relationship play out. You don’t have a history. You just have unexplored – or – fizzled – potential.

If you were disappointed that the relationship never got off the ground, it’s easy to get a burst of hope that this time things will be different. Although each situation is unique, consider these ground rules:

If you still harbor feelings…

Be friendly – but not gushing – in your response. Let the ghost suggest meeting up. Most important, keep your expectations to a minimum. Even though you might feel bitter about the circumstances of your parting, try to stay open and receptive on the date, and resist the temptation to demand what happened. The reason will come up naturally at some point. Or you could broach it gently by saying, “I was surprised to hear from you” and let he or she fill you in.

Obviously the reason things didn’t work out the last time will play an important role in whether you give the relationship another shot. If you were passed over for someone else, it may be hard not to feel like someone’s sloppy seconds. But there are situations in which timing was a legitimate issue. Maybe his divorce was being finalized. Or she overcame an illness or finished the case or took the boards. Although it would be awesome to think that someone was so crazy in love with you that nothing could have gotten in the way, real life often throws a monkey wrench into the most promising romances. However, go slowly before putting your heart on the line. Perhaps the truth is that your love affair fizzled because the other person was ambivalent and may still be.

If you’re ambivalent…

If you went out with someone a couple times and didn’t feel any chemistry, there’s little chance that person will suddenly rock your world during another go-round. Feel free to meet just to make sure this person wasn’t the one who got away. The lack of connection should be obvious. But if it isn’t, be gentle with your date’s heart. You might end the evening by saying “It was so good to see you. I hope we can be good friends.”

The path to true love isn’t always straight. Feelings aren’t always clear, and timing isn’t always ideal. If your ghost is sincere and treated you well the first time around, there’s no harm in giving the romance another shot. You might get it right this time. If not, hopefully you’ll gain a little more clarity and won’t be left pining for what could have been.

How do you handle any re-surfacing love interests?

About the Author:

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate and Salon.