As a therapist, my single clients and friends often ask me what might be happening in their relationships when they get "mixed signals" or "mixed messages." First, let's define what this means. UrbanDictionary.com states that mixed signals are given by people who contradict themselves via words or actions when they are interested in a member of the opposite sex. LawDictionary.org defines this concept as "a confusing message made uncertain by serving to multiple interpretations at the same time." Similarly, Barron's Business Dictionary at Answers.com calls this phenomenon an "unclear message; usually two contradicting messages." These similar definitions indicate that there is a general consensus as to what mixed signals are, but they don't explain why they happen to us or what we can do about them!
We seem to be able to tell when we are receiving mixed signals, but we do not always know what they mean. Wouldn't it be nice to have an app that decodes the mixed messages? Well, unfortunately we don't, so I'll break it down as simply as possible! The mixed signals mean one of two things:
- I'm not that into you and I am too immature to tell you
- I have an "insecure attachment style" and I will forever feel ambivalent towards you and love in general.
When a member of the opposite sex is not that into you, they may actually be ambivalent. Ambivalence is a state of having simultaneous, conflicting reactions or feelings towards something (hint: that "something" is you!). They may believe that there are both positive and negative aspects to you and the relationship. In this sort of situation the individual may experience "mixed feelings," uncertainty or indecisiveness concerning the relationship. This may be a more "forgivable" form of mixed signals, especially early in the relationship. It is very possible to have mixed feelings that the person does not want to disclose until things become clearer. The solution is for you to directly ask for clarification. If someone can't at least be grown-up and honest enough to directly tell you that they are feeling ambivalent or confused, it may be time to reconsider continuing the relationship.
If you are with someone with an "insecure attachment style," this most likely means that he or she is dismissive of the need for intimacy or fearful of intimacy and closeness in relationships. The person may even prefer being alone more than being with other people. Sending a mixed signal is designed to keep things off balance or create distance. Ultimately, it makes you question whether or not you can count on this person. You will begin to wonder if they will be emotionally responsive to you and your needs. You may have someone who is not capable of commitment in this circumstance. Just like with a person who is "not that into you," the resulution still involves the direct communication of your concerns.
I would also encourage expressing some empathy in return if the person makes a whole-hearted attempt to talk about their thoughts and feelings from a place of honesty. You may not be hearing what you want, but you do need to face the truth. If instead your partner shuts down further or sends even more mixed messages, this can trigger your anxiety and fruitless attempts to get the relationship on track. This becomes a painful, vicious cycle.
Many people chalk up their relationship difficulties to "poor communication." I believe that unless your partner is speaking in a second language, there is no reason that a mature adult can't speak clearly and directly. Do you really want to be with someone who sends mixed signals? I know that it can be maddening and that we hold on to hope when we experience attraction or chemistry. You start to poll all of your friends and family, driving yourself completely insane as you try to find validation for your feelings. It is much healthier to ask yourself, "why am I okay with this?" and "what do I do about it," not, "what do these mixed signals mean?"
Be empowered to take charge of your life by straightforwardly discussing what you see happening and your feelings about it. You want a partner that can come to the table and do this with you, too. If the object of your affection is incapable of this communication, please do not dismiss it or try all sorts of ways to fix it. File it away under the "red flag" section and seriously consider moving on!
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