Receiving Mixed Messages In Your Relationship? Here's What To Do About It
At some point or another, many of us receive mixed messages in our relationships. Whether they mean to or not, our partners—or potential partners—may say one thing and do something else.
Perhaps he tells us how much he enjoys our company when we spend time with him but then never responds to our texts. Or maybe she regularly promises to have us over for dinner but then never sets up a date. With mixed messages, there is an inconsistency between words and actions.
The inconsistency between what the person says and does can drive us nuts; it leaves us feeling unclear, unsure, and irritated. We don't know what to believe or if we can count on the other person. This uncertainty does not establish a good foundation for any relationship, let alone a romantic one. When we don't address the mixed messages we receive, we live with insecurities and confusion that infuse our life (and relationship) with stress and anxiety. If you're receiving mixed messages, here's how to handle it:
Notice the inconsistencies between words and actions.
At first, we may want to be hopeful about where our relationship may go, so we focus only on what we want to hear. But if there are some incongruences, then something will not feel right. If we notice this uneasiness, then we should start paying attention to our partner's actions. Does he tell us he likes us for who we are but then suggests ways to change? Does she claim to have overcome her alcohol addiction but then passes out each week after "letting loose" at the bar? It's tempting to allow our desire for a happy ending to overtake our observations, but it is crucial for our own well-being to confront the reality in front of us.
Give it some time.
It's important not to jump into action as soon as we identify mixed messages. Maybe there's a good reason he didn't call though he said he would. Perhaps she needs time to figure out when to invite you for dinner. Keep paying attention to how consistent they are in what they say and do to determine whether they're actually sending mixed messages.
See if it's a pattern.
As we pay attention, we'll see if the other person has a habit of saying one thing and then either doing something different or saying something that contradicts what they've said before. If they regularly engage in this kind of behavior, take it seriously, as it is not likely to change unless we speak up.
Speak with the person about their mixed messages.
Although many of us shy away from confrontation, it is the only way to address this issue. Fortunately, we can bring up our concerns without putting the other person on the defensive by adhering to the following advice:
Inquire, don't accuse.
We want to have a conversation about the mixed messages we are getting, not an argument. We can start by sharing a few instances that we noticed and ask them to help us understand the inconsistencies.
Use "I" statements.
It is always useful to speak using an "I" statement, as it clarifies where we stand without putting the other person on the defense. We don't want to fight about these mixed messages; we just want to determine what is true and what we can realistically expect from this other person. For example, it could be something as simple as "I'm confused about how you really feel about me," or "I honestly don't know what to believe when you say you want to be with me forever."
Explain why we need words and actions to match.
We want them to know that we want to believe them but also need to see congruency. If the person we are seeing tells us he wants to be exclusive but continues to see someone else, we might say, "You say that you want to be with me, so I don't understand why you are still seeing that other person. I can believe you when you are no longer with that other person. In the meantime, I believe that you want to see us both and are not available for a committed relationship with me."
Ask how willing they are to make these changes.
We cannot make the other person change, but we can ask if they are willing to make adjustments to give us consistent messages. Maybe she didn't notice that she was saying one thing and doing something else. Perhaps now that he is aware of what he was doing, he will try to adjust his behavior. Or maybe they are defensive and do not know what to say. In any case, it is helpful for us to know where they stand on mixed messaging and its effects on us and our relationship. And it is equally important to see if they will make an effort to be clearer, honest, and reliable.
See what happens.
After we confront them, we need to give them some time to make those changes and see if the mixed messages stop. If the other person takes our concerns seriously and the mixed messages go away—great! This means they really care about our relationship and are capable of following through on their word. But if they continue to say one thing and do another, we likely need to reevaluate the relationship.
Although it can be challenging to confront our partners about mixed messaging, it is a step we must take if we want to enjoy relationships based on trust and reliability. By bringing up these issues calmly and clearly, we take the necessary steps toward creating the stable, life-giving relationships we crave. And if all of us can commit to saying what we mean and following through on our statements, then we can enjoy the open and honest relationships that may even sustain us for the long term.
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Nancy L. Johnston, MS, LPC, LSATP, is a licensed counselor, substance abuse treatment practitioner, and mental health specialist in private practice in Lexington, Virginia, treating adolescents and adults. She is a Diplomate and a Clinical Mental Health Specialist in Substance Abuse and Co-occurring Disorders Counseling through the American Mental Health Counselors Association. She has a bachelor's degree in Psychology from the College of William and Mary and a master's degree in Counseling Psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Nancy has practiced mental health and addiction counseling for 43 years. She has worked in public and private psychiatric hospitals, juvenile corrections, public mental health, colleges, and private practice. She is also the author of Disentangle: When You’ve Lost Your Self in Someone Else. She offers presentations, workshops, and retreats for self-recovery.