As if ghosting isn’t a frustrating enough dating trend, now you may find yourself zombied. What’s the difference? Well, with zombie-ing in dating, the ghost comes back. Worse, it often occurs just as you’ve moved on and come to terms with what happened. Here’s more info on the troubling tendency and some expert advice on what you should do in this situation.
What does it mean to be zombied?
Imagine dating someone, engaging in regular communication, and then they stop responding to your attempts at contact without warning or explanation. Ghosting—i.e., when someone disappears from your life suddenly—is such a common exit strategy that you or someone you know has probably experienced it. Zombie-ing takes the sudden exit a step further.
Rather than performing a total vanishing act, the person who ghosted you might pop up again down the road. Their reemergence may be as random as their departure. It could entail a generic text message asking how you’ve been. Sometimes it’s a social media friend request or like on a post. Or even a forwarded email, such as, “Hey, here’s a coupon to that store you love.” If someone you were into abruptly cut off communication and then made an unsolicited attempt to resurrect the dead relationship—you’ve been zombied.
According to Jaime Zuckerman, Psy.D., LCP, zombies fall into two main categories: those who have insight and awareness, and those who don’t.
The insightful, self-aware zombie was likely no longer interested but uncomfortable communicating the issue, she says, so they avoided the discussion by ghosting. Over time, the zombie may have felt guilty about how they left things and wished to apologize. They may have also realized they care about the person or are more ready for commitment than before. In every scenario, the self-aware zombie is mindful of the hurt and confusion they caused, is contrite, and aims to make amends.
The less considerate zombie operates with more callous motivation. “They do not identify their behavior as hurtful or confusing, either because they have limited awareness into the impact of their behaviors on others or they simply just don’t care,” Zuckerman explains. She says these zombies may return because they’re bored, lonely, or want to see if they still have access to the ghosted person.
Relationship coach Kingsley Moyo adds that the victim could’ve been a “meanwhile” person whose role was to be a distraction from a different love interest. If that someone comes around, the ghost drops the temporary partner—and if things fail, they come back. They don’t feel they owe an explanation because they were never invested in the relationship.
The person you cared about might demonstrate awareness of their past behavior when zombie-ing vs. submarining if they don’t. Either way, it doesn’t change how reckless they were with your heart. Here’s some advice on how to handle the circumstance:
“What you can’t name and confront you can’t conquer,” Moyo says. Don’t make excuses or refer to the behavior as something more ambiguous, like a misunderstanding. You were zombied. When you face that, you can decide what to do about it and make yourself less susceptible to manipulation.
2. Know when to reconnect—and when to avoid it.
Zuckerman insists that reconnection should only be an option if the zombie first acknowledges their disappearance. “They need to clearly articulate the reasons why the ghosting took place,” she says. They must also show remorse. Only then should you consider rekindling the relationship. If they downplay the significance of their behavior or show little concern for your emotions, the odds are high that they’ll ghost you again.
Moyo points out that being ghosted may take you back to a time when you felt worthless or unwanted. It may trigger a trauma response. That response is often to fulfill your need for attachment with whoever shows up, making you more likely to accept the zombie-ing. Notice when these attachment issues are coming up so you can address them head-on.
4. Establish strict boundaries.
Boundaries need to be set regardless of how you choose to handle the zombie. If you reconnect, Zuckerman recommends being upfront about what you will and will not tolerate going forward. If you don’t want to resurrect the relationship, boundaries include not responding to text messages and blocking or ignoring any social media contact (see: the no-contact rule). You should also set a boundary for yourself to not stalk their social pages because doing so prolongs your feelings of anger or sadness.
5. Be honest with yourself.
If the zombie doesn’t apologize, demonstrate remorse, or take accountability for the ghosting, and you still want to reengage them, don’t lie to yourself about who they are and what’s going on. Know that there will continue to be sporadic interaction. This type of relationship can work for some people, as long as you’re able to genuinely place no expectations on the relationship or the other person. According to Zuckerman, you must be genuinely OK with the intermittent contact, not just pretending you don’t care. The worst thing you can do here is to have hope that “this time” will be different. It won’t.
Toss zombie-ing into the pile with ghosting, breadcrumbing, and all other unsavory adventures in courtship. Dating trends have names now, but they aren’t new. However, increased access to people through technology and apps does amplify those trends. Thankfully, most can be negated with open communication: Ensure you and the person you’re seeing have similar relationship goals, talk about how you feel, and set clear boundaries. It won’t eliminate every instance of someone leaving you hanging, but it can help weed out those who aren’t invested in the process.