Mixed Signals: Things to Look out for and How to Interpret Them


Last Updated: November 16, 2023

Relationship Advice

Mixed signals are the bane of every dater’s existence! One minute, you think things are going really well. And the next, well, not so much. These sudden twists and turns can be emotionally draining and even affect your ability to trust in the relationship.

In this article, we’ll dive into the psychology of mixed signals and how to deal with them. By the end, you’ll be in a stronger position to navigate mixed signals or decide when to chart your own path. Let’s get started!

What are mixed signals?


Signals in general are integral to any relationship, whether new or established. They are the verbal and nonverbal signs that let your partner know that you’re interested, happy, comfortable, frustrated, or downright angry. And while some signals are going to change day-to-day depending on your mood and what’s going on in your life, there are a few that should be pretty stable in a happy, healthy relationship. These signals are associated with your:

  • Willingness to connect
  • Enthusiasm about spending quality time together
  • Interest in the well-being of your partner
  • Commitment to the terms of the relationship

These signals take the form of regular communication, questions about your partner’s day and current mood, acts of service, willingness to talk about the future, and more.

Mixed signals, on the other hand, are when these core principles are not being clearly communicated. Your partner may act inconsistently, giving you the impression that they care about you one day only to ignore you the next. Or, they may make lofty promises that never come to fruition. The result for the recipient of mixed signals is confusion, anger, sadness, a dip in self-esteem, and even desperation to do anything that might improve the relationship.

Where do mixed signals come from?

One important thing to know is that mixed signals can have many different psychological explanations. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Fear of rejection. A fear of getting hurt is one of the major drivers of mixed signals in dating. In practice, this might look like a person treating you affectionately when you’re together but then ghosting you when the date is over. On your end, you get the impression that they’re just not that into you. But what might be going on from their side is a deep insecurity about whether you really like them or whether they came on too strong. And they overcompensate by putting up an emotional wall to feel more protected.
  • Fear of commitment. Some people seem to get cold feet the more serious a relationship gets. And that can prompt them to send mixed signals about taking the relationship to the next level. They may talk about wanting to get married someday or hint at the idea of you moving in with them. But when the rubber hits the road, they may make it clear that they aren’t ready to move the relationship forward…at least not right now.
  • Societal pressure. Ah, good old societal pressure. We can see this at play in traditional dating games and tactics such as negging and waiting a specified amount of time after a date to call or text. The fact is, many of us are taught that sending mixed signals is simply what you are supposed to do if you want to keep someone interested in you.
  • Malicious intent. Finally, we have malicious intent. This is one of the least common reasons for mixed signals, but it’s also the most harmful. Someone who wants to gain power over you may send mixed signals as a way to tear you down only to build you up again.

How to deal with mixed signals


Because mixed signals can have different psychological roots, there’s no one-size-fits-all method in how to deal with them. So, consider trying out one of the following tactics to navigate this confusing behavior:

  • Don’t fight mixed signals with mixed signals. It can be tempting to give a partner a taste of their own medicine by sending your own mixed signals. But we would strongly recommend against this! As we mentioned, mixed signals often are rooted in insecurity and fear which will only become worse if you aren’t clear in your communication.
  • Ask for clarification. The best solution to mixed signals is also one of the most difficult: being direct. Remember that whenever you have difficult, potentially emotional conversations like this, “I” statements are more effective than attacks. For example, you can say something like, “I had the impression after our conversation last week that living together was something we both wanted, but now I’m getting the sense that maybe you’ve changed your mind or aren’t ready yet. Can we talk about where you stand to clear up the confusion?” This line of questioning invites calm conversation instead of accusations.
  • Stay strong against gaslighting. A common defense mechanism someone may use when accused of sending mixed signals is to deny having sent them at all! And this can be distressing when you’re trying to have an honest conversation. There are a few ways to handle this. One, you might consider keeping a regular journal so that details don’t get lost or mixed up with time. Another option is to talk it through with a therapist or couples counselor.
  • Put yourself first. One of the things that mixed signals can do is make us question our perceptions. It can also negatively impact our self-esteem and self-worth. One important way to counteract this is to refocus on yourself. Spend time doing things you love and with people who make you feel good. This will give you a better foundation to weather the mixed signal storms.
  • Set goals and boundaries. Things like ultimatums and hard lines can make a relationship with mixed signals even more volatile. Instead, consider taking a look inside and coming up with personal goals and boundaries that would make you feel fulfilled and satisfied. For instance, let’s say that you want to travel with your partner but their mixed signals have forced you to push back your trip multiple times. Clearly, you can’t force your partner to go with you. But you can say something like, “We’ve talked about these travel plans for a few months and while I would love for you to come with me, I’m ready to move forward with my plans with or without you.” In this way, you’re remaining firm in your needs without blaming or controlling your partner.
  • Learn when to walk away. Never forget that you deserve a relationship that makes you feel safe, supported, and validated. Being with someone who has the emotional maturity to communicate clearly or at least work on their communication skills is not being picky or asking for too much. So, if you’re getting mixed signals and your partner has shown that they’re not willing to clarify or improve their communication, it’s okay to walk away.

You don’t have to accept the confusion of mixed signals!

As we’ve explained in this article, mixed signals can be painful, frustrating, and downright mind-boggling. But, you don’t have to accept them as a normal part of dating or your relationship. With the right conversations and commitment to your own well-being, you can say goodbye to mixed signals, once and for all!

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