Mixed signals are the bane of the dating scene. Navigating that cloudy space between the first date and the “what are we?” conversation is like crawling through uncharted territory full of words and actions that don’t quite add up. Like, the person you’re dating hasn’t responded to your last text, but they just watched your Instagram story. WTH does that even mean?
People aren't perfect at expressing what they mean or need, especially in dating. You don’t know how the other person communicates—heck, you might still need to get a handle on how you communicate. True feelings and intentions are bound to get lost in translation. Then add contradictions (like leaving you on read for days, then asking about your week) to the mix, and no wonder you're left feeling confused, disheartened, and insecure. At the end of the day, the question is: Should you stick it out or move on to the next?
“Mixed signals are negative signals in disguise.”
“Mixed signals are negative signals in disguise,” says marriage and couples therapist Marni Feuerman, PsyD, author of Ghosted and Breadcrumbed, Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart About Healthy Relationships. “Ultimately, the antidote is to pay attention to the actions more than the words.” Deciphering mixed messages is a long game of “they love me, they love me not”...and no one has time for that ish.
So why do people give off mixed signals?
Keep in mind, you’re not to blame for being on the receiving end of confusing messages. It just means the other person has a lot to straighten out, and the mess affects you. Mixed signals can simply be a miscommunication—or they can be an excuse to hold you at arm's length because they don’t want to commit (or make you believe that they are ready to).
“Usually, it’s used to create distance,” Feuerman says. “It’s a way to say, ‘I’m not totally sure I am into your or not.’ Or, ‘I’m not sure if we want the same thing here.” Either way, mixed signals can be used to slow down the pace of the relationship without actually talking about it. (Cue eyeroll.)
Before you tap that unfollow button, a quick disclaimer: “Everyone’s experience is different,” says Alysha Jeney, MA, LMFT, relationship therapist and founder of Modern Love Counseling. Mixed signals can definitely mean that the other person isn’t going all in on you, but that’s not the only answer at play.
Often, those who give off mixed signals have avoidant attachment styles, a learned coping strategy where the person shies away from closeness and intimacy because it makes them uncomfortable. (There's more to this, but that's a whole 'nother story, for another time.)
They might “appear super interested in you, but then engage in sabotaging behavior that causes emotional or physical distance,” says Samantha Burns, dating coach and author of Done with Dating: 7 Steps to Finding Your Person. It's up to you if you want to try to see it through with an avoidant type—not saying hard pass, but it will definitely take some patience and emotional energy on your end to ever break through their wall.
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Now that you know what could be behind all those mixed messages...
These are the 8 most common mixed signals to look out for, to save yourself a lot of headache:
1. You don’t get that call when you expect to.
Who hasn't sat on their couch waiting for that almost-special someone to respond to plans or a meme you sent hours ago. Sure, the other person might be tied up at work, but if time goes on and on, you’re allowed to feel a little off about it. Maybe they don’t follow up days after a great date, or they only text you when it’s convenient for them. It’s shorthand for they’re not totally invested in you.
2. You see post-breakup behavior.
If the other person has you, what use would they have for talking with an ex? Talk about a mixed signal. It’s one thing if they're seeking closure or they are real friends, but it’s another if it seems like they use the connection as a lifeline (read: get back together) in case things don’t work out between you two.
3. They say they can’t wait to see you again but are “too busy” to make plans.
It’s 2019. We’re all busy. Juggling priorities is complicated AF, but if they want to spend time with you, they’ll make it happen. “If they aren’t in a place in their life where they’re able to prioritize a relationship,” Burns says, “they may not be able to give you a commitment, no matter how well you get along or how much chemistry there is.” So sorry, but better learn that now than later, amirite?
4. He creeps your Instagram stories.
Ever refresh the 'gram waiting for a specific person to double tap your thirst trap? Been there, done that. Analyzing social media engagement (sounds so romantic, right?) sometimes feels like a crystal ball. If someone watches your stories soon after you post them, it has to mean you pop up early in their list and they're interested enough to tap on it (or at the very least, enough to not stop the stories from rolling on). They commented on that apple-picking pic you just posted with a fire emoji? It’s a tell-tale sign, especially when you’re waiting for it.
But then, that’s it. They doesn’t respond to your DM when you thought a story was directed at you, or you see them post at home when they said they were too busy to see you. Or they DM about your stories but rarely respond when you DM to theirs.
"At the end of the day, if you’re left confused about someone’s intentions, they probably aren't that into you."
Here's the hard truth: If they don’t make an effort to be more than a number on your IG page, you might’ve played yourself. “At the end of the day, if you’re left confused about someone’s intentions,” Burns says, “they probably aren’t that into you.”
5. They won’t open up, but they expect you to.
A successful relationship requires an emotional connection, and being vulnerable is key to building a path toward that. If you’re the only one expressing your true self, what’s the other person hiding or holding back?
6. He flirts with other people.
This mixed signal brings to mind the conversation Demi from Bachelor in Paradise had with her girlfriend, Kristian, who was being a little too friendly with the other ladies on the island. Demi didn’t know if it was because she didn’t give enough attention to Kristian, or if that’s just who she was.
It’s confusing to know if someone is actually interested in you or wants you around in case other options don’t work out. When you bring it up, see if they’re defensive (a sign to leave) or if they try understand where you’re coming from. They might not be ready for exclusivity, but if they're really into you, they shouldn't have an issue toning down any behaviors that make you truly uncomfortable.
7. You still haven’t had the “what are we?” conversation.
The transition from dating to being exclusive is, uh, a trip. Just when you think things are progressing, they dodge any conversation that approaches commitment, or worse, ghost you for a while. Burns says to watch out for noncommittal responses when you ask to hang out again, like “that sounds fun” without throwing out a real time. If you’re the only one reaching out, you could be more interested in them than they are in you.
8. They won’t show affection in public but has no problem doing so when you're alone.
I'm not talking "they won’t make out with me on the side of this building, so they must not like me.” Sometimes it can take a minute to get comfortable enough in the relationship to be that open about it, but not acting like you're together at all in public can also make you feel like the person is hot and cold...or doesn’t want to be seen with you.
Burns says the sign someone is truly interested in you is when their actions match their words. “If they tell you they’re really enjoying getting to know you, or that they miss you, make sure they’re actually making plans with you, introducing you to important people in their lives, and making you a priority,” she says. Sounds simple enough...so where are these people?
It's not just me—modern dating is the worst. Here's how to make sense of it:
Should you stop dating someone who's giving you mixed signals?
Ah, the ultimate question. Here's the expert advice: Let the other person settle into the thing you have going, but don’t wait around or cut them slack every time they give you a mixed signal. Investing time and energy in someone who doesn’t return the emotional favor is asking for heartache.
“We know that those who don’t directly communicate their thoughts and feelings might be self-absorbed, lacking empathy, or immature,” Feuerman says. (Oof. Those are three words you don’t want to use to describe a potential partner.)
When the mixed signals become too much—i.e., you're feeling abnormally anxious or unsettled, to a point that it's legit affecting your headspace—speak up about how it makes you feel, figure out where the messages are coming from and make your decision, Feuerman and Jeney suggest. If it helps to give yourself a deadline before initiating a convo about it, do that (but stick to it).
“I know it’s scary, but you have actually nothing to lose if this person isn’t interested anyway,” she says. “You may, however, have a lot to gain. Sometimes we just need that opening to confront our own feelings head-on.” I'm not going to sugarcoat it—clarity can suck, particularly when you get an answer you were hoping not to get, but there’s no fun in wasting your emotional energy on someone who hasn't earned it. Not to mention, overthinking and reading into every little text and signal is exhausting, if not destructive.
“Be brave enough to confront their behavior and ask what it means,” Feuerman says. “It’s okay to express how you feel about the way you are being treated.” If anything, that shows someone that you know your worth and aren't going to stand to be treated for less than you deserve. To the right person, that will be sexy—and make them want to step up, because you're too good to lose. (You ARE.)
If the person acts the same after you bring up the conversation, it may be “your cue to exit, since they may not be capable of meeting you halfway,” Jeney says. By all means, feel the feels—but this isn't a moment to self-doubt or self-loathe, or feel resentment toward them. This is an opportunity to "honor your desires for a relationship," Burns says. "Walk away with your head held high, and be proud that you're prioritizing yourself."