You hear it time and time again: Communication is key to a successful relationship. But how can you ever get to that point if the person you’re seeing keeps sending you mixed signals? They tell you they need space, then text you all day long. They don’t want you to date other people, but they don’t want to be exclusive. They seem really into you, yet don’t prioritize time together. What gives? Mixed signals might as well be ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics when it comes to the energy it takes to decipher them. But once you get to the root of where the miscommunication is coming from, you can begin interpreting what mixed signals really mean for your relationship—and communicate in a way that makes you both feel heard and understood. To help you unpack mixed signals in your love life, HealthyWay sat down with Shirani Pathak, LCSW, a relationship counselor, holistic psychotherapist, and founder of the Center for Soulful Relationships. Here, she shares how conflicting attachment styles might be to blame for crossed wires, why miscommunication might not always be a red flag, and examples of mixed signals you’re most likely to encounter when you date. Plus, she offers some effective communication strategies that can help you both say what you really mean—no shame or blame necessary.
What are mixed signals?
You’ve heard your girlfriends groan that they’re getting mixed signals from guys and girls they’re dating—and now you suspect you’re experiencing them yourself. What are mixed signals? “Mixed signals are when someone’s being inconsistent in the messages they’re giving people,” Pathak explains. Mixed signals can simply be miscommunication—your partner tries to express one set of feelings, and it comes out wrong. They can also be intentional, like the dude who’s keeping you on the back burner while he waits to see if someone “better” comes along. But no matter the reason for the mixed signals, they definitely add a new layer of stress and frustration to dating. “Mixed signals make us feel crazy. We wonder if we’re reading the relationship properly, whether or not this person even has interest in us. It can make you feel like you have no idea what’s going on in a situation and can trigger insecurity in people when mixed messages are coming through,” she says. [pullquote align=’center’]“Mixed signals are when someone’s being inconsistent in the messages they’re giving people.” —Shirani Pathak, LCSW[/pullquote] Sending and receiving mixed signals can occur at any point in a relationship, whether you’ve known the person for 10 days or 10 years. That being said, messy communication like this tends to be more prevalent early in relationships. That’s when we’re still getting to know each other and are often too vulnerable to be who we really are. “It usually happens early on. Online dating has absolutely made mixed signals even more common because there are just so many more options [of people to date] out there. People are constantly on the search for someone better,” says Pathak. No matter when or where mixed signals happen, they can be equal parts confusing and frustrating—especially if you really like the person. But your partner’s behavior is in no way a reflection of who you are. At your wit’s end with mixed signals? Don’t blame yourself.
The Psychology Behind Mixed Signals
Most people don’t get into a relationship in an attempt to mislead their partner. And yet, poor communication between two people who like each other means they don’t always convey what they really mean. Why do people send mixed signals, despite intending to be open and honest? One of the biggest problems is that most of us haven’t quite learned how to say how we truly feel. It gets tied up in blame, doubts, and insecurities that then turn into mixed signals. We build walls in our relationships when we don’t express our true feelings. “We haven’t been taught how to communicate clearly, with love and kindness, about what we really want and need. It’s a skill set that needs to be cultivated,” says Pathak. On-screen communication catalyzes mixed signals as well. Without hearing a person’s voice or seeing their body language, it’s all too easy to misinterpret an otherwise neutral text message (like “I’m not sure what my plans are”) as something else entirely. He might be trying to let you down easy if he wants to decline a date…or he could simply be letting you know that his schedule really is up in the air and he doesn’t want to commit to something he might have to cancel down the road. It’s hard to decipher without those other clues. And in a world where instant communication is the norm, a delayed response to a text can be the loudest mixed signal of all. We interpret the radio silence as the person being uninterested, and it tends to spiral as we ruminate on what that potential lack of interest says about us. Was it something I said? Maybe he’s not into me anymore. Is she seeing someone else? Why doesn’t she like me? Or…maybe the person got distracted and forgot to text back. It happens!
Mixed Signals and Attachment Styles
All of these types of mixed signals really go back to something much deeper: our attachment style. We all have one. About half of us have a secure attachment style, meaning we strive for intimacy and comfort in relationships, while the other half is divided into two groups: the avoidant attachment style and the insecure attachment style. Those with the avoidant attachment style can get totally freaked out by close relationships and push partners away, while people who have the anxious attachment style crave closeness and tend to come off as a little clingy or overbearing. Those who fall into the avoidant or anxious attachment style categories tend to be the ones sending and receiving mixed signals. [pullquote align=’center’]Most of us haven’t quite learned how to say how we truly feel. It gets tied up in blame, doubts, and insecurities that then turn into mixed signals.[/pullquote] “People who have the anxious attachment style are really good at picking up when someone’s starting to distance themselves or when someone’s being inconsistent,” Pathak explains. “That oversensitivity can be a gift when cultivated, but it often comes out sideways [as] mixed signals.” “As for the avoidant type, they’re the ones constantly looking for someone better out of fear of true intimacy,” Pathak says. “Their mixed signals can lead you to feel like you’re not good enough and wear on your self-esteem.” There’s no good excuse for sending a mixed signal. But understanding where it’s coming from can help you interpret it, find the right response, and figure out the healthiest way to move forward.
Common Mixed Signals (and How to Interpret Them)
Communication is rarely perfectly clear in a new relationship—you’re haven’t quite learned the inner workings of the other person’s personality. But how do you deal with mixed signals when they come up? Here are some common examples of mixed signals, along with what they might mean.
1. Going Hot and Cold
Everything’s perfect when you go out together: You’re laughing, having deep conversations, and generally enjoying each other’s company. But the next day, they’re completely distant. You try to invite them out again, but all you get is wishy-washy responses—talk about mixed signals! Why can’t they just decide if they like you, once and for all? What it means: They might be intentionally keeping their options open, or their avoidant attachment style is causing them to pull away. Either way, there’s clearly a barrier to bonding with this person. It’s caused by an inability for them to say what they might really mean, like “I’m still figuring out if this is going to be a fit, and we should keep our options open.”
2. Not Trying to Impress You Anymore
When you first started dating, she dolled herself up for every date, right down to the high heels. You loved seeing her across the table from you, looking her very best. But now that the relationship is settled into a rhythm, it seems like she’s stopped putting in effort. She has swapped her heels for sneakers, her dresses for jeans and a nice top. Instead of asking you out to dinner, she assumes Netflix and takeout for the fifth weekend in a row sounds good. Her casual appearance and too-chill attitude might feel like a mixed signal itself—what happened to the woman I was dating? What it means: She probably didn’t show up as her most authentic self when you first started dating. She thought she needed to be glammed up to get you to like her. “We think we have to give off a certain persona in order to be attractive to people,” says Pathak. Now that she feels comfortable with you and confident you like her, she feels like she can finally be who she really is—and that might be a jeans-and-tee, on-the-couch-homebody kind of girl. It’s naturally confusing to watch someone’s style do a 180, but it doesn’t necessarily mean she has stopped caring about impressing you and putting effort into the relationship.
3. Mismatched Sex Drives
Your partner told you he loves getting it on all that time. And you’re super into that. But it just doesn’t seem to be happening all that frequently in reality. It feels like a rejection—but is it? What it means: “Lots of people get upset when their partner’s not as kinky as they thought they were,” says Pathak. Confusion in the bedroom can be interpreted all sorts of ways. He might feel like you are having sex a lot, and you’ve just got different interpretations of what “a lot” means. He might be stressed out about stuff that has nothing to do with you. Or you both might need to express what does and doesn’t turn you on and make a few tweaks next time you get intimate.
Avoiding Mixed Signals
Mixed signals are just one symptom of a larger issue: an inability to communicate effectively. This is an issue for both sides of the relationship—the sender of the mixed signals and the receiver. Learning to communicate in a kind, loving, authentic, and direct way can help you get to the bottom of just about any mixed signal. Here are some relationship therapist–approved communication tips for decoding mixed signals:
Show up as your true self.
The best way to avoid misinterpretations is to exude authenticity. Don’t change who you are just to impress a person you’re going out with. Instead, be genuine in how you look and behave starting from day one of any relationship. “When you give off mixed messages about who you are, you’re going to receive mixed messages. Showing up as the best version of you, and not who someone else wants you to be, will help cut down on mixed messages,” says Pathak.
Approach mixed signals with open curiosity.
It’s really easy to fall into the trap of blaming ourselves when we feel rejected by someone or confused about a relationship. Shift that self-blame into genuine curiosity for your partner as you try to figure out what’s really going on.
Start the dialogue with “I” statements.
The only thing you can ever be sure of in a relationship is how you feel. Using statements that start with “I,” rather than “you,” focuses the dialogue on something that’s true for you, hopefully without putting your partner in defense mode. [pullquote align=”center”]Mixed signals are just one symptom of a larger issue: an inability to communicate effectively.[/pullquote] “Pause and check in with yourself and what you’re noticing. It’s okay to say ‘I’m feeling insecure and I’m feeling like I’m getting mixed messages from you.’ Taking ownership of your own feelings can help you more clearly communicate with someone in a relationship,” says Pathak.
Avoid shame and blame.
Conversations about mixed messages can be tense, but shaming and blaming your partner is the fastest way to get them to shut down completely. Aim to stay neutral in your language in as self-assured a way as possible.
Know when it’s time to move on.
If you can’t find common ground in your communication, it might be time to move on. And that’s okay—it has nothing to do with your worth as a partner. It just means the relationship wasn’t the right one for you. “No matter what happens in a relationship, always remember you are lovable and valuable,” says Pathak. “You are worthy of affection, regardless of a pattern in giving and receiving mixed messages.”