“Most of the time, it is not intentional,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Lesli Doares, author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage. “Often, it isn’t happening at the conscious level.” Dealing with it can also get tricky when you don’t ask for clarification—which few people do, Doares adds, noting that many will stew on their own interpretation and take it as fact.
To that end, it's also important to take stock of your own history with interpreting mixed signals, because relationship experts say this can be an issue, too. That is, while it’s entirely possible to legitimately be receiving them, it’s also plausible that your personal relationship history may be clouding your interpretation of what’s being said and done in current time. In that case, you may be characterizing pretty straightforward communication as mixed or otherwise confusing.
Also, mixed signals may just be a short-lived component of the beginning stages of a new relationship. “Perhaps they’re still grieving a past relationship or harboring feelings for another person while getting to know you,” says licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Mixed signals can actually suggest “a thoughtful, reflective effort to get to know the other person.” —Karin Anderson Abrell, PhD
It's also possible for early-in-the-relationship mixed signals to have nothing to do with someone else being on a person's mind. “You’re just getting to know each other,” says psychologist Karin Anderson Abrell, PhD, creator and host of the Love & Life podcast. “As you gather information, you may respond in the moment or pull back to process what you've learned.” In fact, she adds, mixed signals can actually suggest “a thoughtful, reflective effort to get to know the other person.” Meaning, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if mixed signals happen early on.
Regardless of whether they're good, bad, or not even necessarily existent, though, if you feel confused, you may find yourself feeling frustrated—and that makes sense. Below find signs that you may be experiencing mixed signals—and how to work through it if that's the case.
5 signs you're experiencing mixed signals
While it may be difficult to ascertain whether you’re actually getting mixed signals or you’re more simply overthinking, the experts do provide some intel to support the former happening. Check out the five signs below.
1. You’re confused.
This is one of the biggest signs that you're fielding mixed signals, Doares says. You may even start questioning your own judgment, Dr. Durvasula adds.
2. A person's actions don’t match their words.
People who give mixed signals might say that you’re important to them, but their behavior doesn’t match up, like telling you they want to be with you, but not actually making the time to do it, Doares says.
3. You’re not sure how to interact with them.
Being unsure of where things stand in a relationship can make it hard to know how to communicate with someone, Dr. Durvasula says.
4. You’re left playing detective.
“You may feel frustrated, and may spend time ruminating or talking to others and trying to ‘decode’ texts, emails, social media posts, and conversations,” Dr. Durvasula says.
5. Something feels off.
Sometimes, you’ve just got to go with your gut, Dr. Abrell says.
How to handle mixed signals
“The first thing is to figure out if that’s really happening or if you are,” Doares says. “Have you created a version of the relationship that is not yet agreed, to and you’re viewing the other person’s behavior through that lens?” If so, take a step back and recalibrate, and if not, you have several options for how to deal.
If you’ve just started dating, Dr. Abrell reiterates that mixed signals are pretty normal and may ease with time. “How could someone give you complete assurance of their feelings when they are still getting to know you?” she says. “In fact, it's likely you're giving some mixed signals yourself.” That said, if you feel like the mixed signals happening in your new relationship are getting in the way of building a relationship with the other person, you could always bring up how you are feeling. Just make sure not to lead with accusations or fall victim to other common communication pitfalls.
And if you’ve established an exclusive relationship, Dr. Abrell says it’s “fair” to either bring up your concerns or sit back and try to observe what’s happening. “If your partner's mixed signals reveal chronic behavior patterns, you may decide they aren’t a fit for you,” she says. “Or, you may decide to communicate your concerns and request more reliable, less erratic interactions. How your partner responds to this request will provide you with valuable information regarding how you two navigate conflict.”
And sure, the idea of directly asking someone what they think and feel can be scary, but Dr. Durvasula says doing important if your relationship has gotten to a certain point—whether mixed signals are present or not. “Many people may have a fear that if they tackle the mixed signals head-on, they may lose the person,” she says. “But there may have been an inevitability to that ending.” If that happens, she says, at least “more time and hope isn't being wasted.”
To start this conversation, Dr. Durvasula says to be direct and ask the person how they're feeling. “If they gaslight you and say that they aren't [sending mixed signals], then take that as the red flag it is,” she says.
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