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7 Reasons People Send Mixed Signals In Relationships

Understanding a new partner's inconsistency can help you decide how to proceed.

Key points

  • People who have a history of trauma and don't know who they are may be more likely to send mixed signals.
  • You can have compassion for the cause of someone's ambivalence without compromising your boundaries.
  • The clearer you are about what you will and won't tolerate, the less of an emotional ride you'll be taken on.
Cookie Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Cookie Studio/Shutterstock

It can be confounding, maddening, and even excruciatingly compelling when someone you’re seeing gives off mixed signals. One moment they seem wholly absorbed in you only to come off as aloof and unresponsive the next. Ostensibly highly committed in one instance, they suddenly express intense ambivalence in another—often, when you try pinning them down on what, exactly, each of you is doing in this romantic dance and where it's headed. To approximate stability, you’ll need to draw a line around how much flip-flopping you’ll stand for with these types. Getting a better understanding of why people do this in the first place can help. To aid you in gaining clarity, here are seven reasons a partner may put out contradictory cues.

  1. They Don’t Trust You. Not everyone gives new partners the benefit of the doubt. Whether they're being prudent or whether they’re hesitant to trust you because they’ve been burned in the past is something you’ll have to find out as you get to know them. If you haven’t had enough time to prove your trustworthiness, or you haven’t been consistent (think: showing up late for dates, being cagey about your past or your intentions) consider that a new date’s go-stop-go signals could be coming from not trusting you enough yet.
  2. They Fear Commitment. Exclusive involvement with another person doesn't appeal to everyone. Some people highly value their independence and freedom. Some have avoidant attachment styles that incline them to interpret closeness as threatening. Maybe someone is at the start of a career they want to prioritize and worry a relationship may hinder their progress. Pay attention to whether a mixed-signal-sender drops clues they’re loath to be tied down—by not letting you in emotionally, being reluctant to make plans far in the future, and not introducing you to their friends.
  3. They’re Hung Up on an Ex. Though new love interests may deny it, there are some giveaways that they’re not emotionally ready to move forward with you—or anyone else. Consider these seven signs that someone isn't yet over their ex. If someone who recently exited a relationship is all in with you one day and then totally MIA the next only to slide back into your DMs when you least expect it, beware they may be leaning into a non-committed relationship with you in an attempt to move on from their ex through distraction. Beware of emotionally injuring yourself on the hooks of the former lover still embedded in their heart.
  4. They’ve Experienced Abuse. Someone who furthers a relationship with you as much as they push you away may have a disorganized attachment style. This is a deeply ambivalent and conflicted pattern of relating to others often codified within a person’s nervous system during early childhood due to experiencing abuse. Someone with a disorganized attachment style may believe they don’t deserve love, may associate getting attached with earth-shattering wounds or abandonment, and yet intensely crave to be known and loved. Their relational style can feel like an approach with hands up to protect themselves—and it can result in a volatile dynamic where you feel intensely doted upon and then abruptly accused of wrongdoing. Proceed with caution as individuals with disorganized attachment may be highly unpredictable.
  5. They Don’t Respect You. If someone isn't consistently responding to your calls or texts, acting present for days or weeks then fading before popping up again, you may need to face the hard truth that they aren’t treating you with the respect that constitutes an equitable and healthy relationship. You have every right to call someone out on their inconsistency and set clear expectations around how you prefer to be treated. If they disappear in response, consider yourself as having dodged a bullet.
  6. They Want to Feel in Control. This may come from a deep fear of abandonment or mistrust. Or from a more nefarious personality style. The more narcissistic someone is, the more they tend to crave power and control in relationships. Keeping you in a constant state of guessing and lack of certainty could be a way for someone your seeing to feel like they’re holding the reigns. Do yourself a favor and ask if you want to be yanked around. If not, you owe it to yourself to set a firm boundary around what you will and won’t tolerate.
  7. They Don’t Know What They Want or Who They Are. A significant contributor to relational ambivalence is not knowing who we are or what we want. Someone you’re seeing whose signals are all over the place may be undergoing an identity crisis. Losing a job or loved one, aging, or doubting one's faith, sexuality, and career choice are just some examples. Pay attention to how often someone expresses uncertainty about themselves and their future, as well as their values and their goals. Brace yourself that they may need more time to get confident in who they are and what they want before they can commit to a relationship.

Regardless of the reasons someone may send mixed signals, it’s up to those of us who receive them to set firm boundaries around what we will and will not tolerate, as well as ask difficult questions to gather the information we need to proceed in our romantic and personal lives. Mixed-signal senders will carry on their behaviors to the extent that it serves them, they get away with it, and they’re not made aware nor held accountable for the negative impact of their behavior upon others. Are there completely innocent reasons someone might be acting ambivalently? Absolutely. Sometimes a mixed-signal sender may need support and patience to heal from past trauma, insecurity, or hesitancy at the root of their inconsistent actions. You’re welcome to support someone in that process but before you do, make sure you’re clear on where your limits lie so you can communicate them lovingly and clearly. You’ll be setting yourself and the mixed-signal sender up for greater success in enacting the more honest, authentic connections the majority of us deeply desire.

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