The Serious Impact of Mixed Messages in a Relationship

mixed signals

mixed signals


Considering everything that is required and all the ways it can go wrong, relationships are very challenging. It’s difficult to be in sync with somebody else, know when and when not to act, and do all this while managing your own emotions. Adding mixed signals to the concoction will test the skills of even the most experienced communicators.


The Psychological Explanation of Mixed Signals

So, why do people experience problems understanding each other?


One of the explanations is the so-called transparency illusion. It refers to the belief that someone’s actions are crystal clear to the entire world and people understand intentions. Very often, however, the intentions one person has come across as something completely different.


Since people assume that their motives are transparent and easy to understand, they don’t dedicate any time to getting the message across in a clear manner. The person receiving the message, on the other hand, will very often have little information about the intention behind. As a result, a certain course of action can be perceived in two very different ways by two individuals that are being engaged in poor communication.

Some Typical Mixed Signals

At this point, you may be wondering what the most common types of mixed signals are. If you look back into your relationship history, you’ll certainly come up with your own examples. Still, here are some of the most common activities and behaviors that seem to be sending the wrong signals to the recipient:


  • Hot and cold: have you come across a person that’s incredibly distant one minute and flirting intensely with you the next? This is a common mixed signal that both men and women are guilty of. It leaves the recipient clueless about the level of interest that the other person has.
  • Friendly attitude confused for something else: friendship between men and womentends to be tricky. Sooner or later, one of the parties is bound to see the interest of the other as romantic. Maintaining the relationship entirely platonic from that point on will be a very difficult, possibly even impossible task.
  • Dressing provocatively: men will often assume that women who dress provocatively are interested in flirting, which isn’t always the case. Some women just like the attention that results from wearing revealing clothing and it’s most definitely an invitation to make advances.
  • Liking you but not looking for a relationship: how many people have heard this one? It’s a particularly confusing mixed signal. Very often, it means that a person doesn’t feel ready for a relationship or is afraid of the commitment.
  • Being a big flirt and withdrawing: the fact that someone is flirting hard doesn’t always mean they want to jump in bed with you the next minute. The reason why some people enjoy flirting is very similar to the reason why women dress provocatively – attention.

Why are People Sending Mixed Signals?

This is one of the most difficult questions you’ll need to ask. Once you have the answer, you can figure out where the relationship is going and whether the two of you have a future together.


Some of the reasons are quite legitimate and they could be tied to fear, insecurity and very strong, turbulent feelings.


One of the common reasons why people are sending mixed signals is that they genuinely don’t know what they want. A woman may be passionate about you, yet worried about the way in which you’ll perceive a more aggressive approach. Instinctively, she may want you but when it comes to thinking rationally, she may be a bit more reserved.


Fear of commitment is another common cause. This problem actually happens to be much more common than the other causes of mixed signals. People have been hurt in the past, which is why they’re often afraid to open up.


Finally, it’s also possible for someone that was interested a few days ago to have lost that interest meanwhile. Because the person is afraid of saying it openly, mixed signals will be the most common outcome of every single interaction.

The Best Ways to Handle Mixed Signals

So, what can you do to improve the communication if the other person is sending you mixed signals? The right approach will be of uttermost importance:


  • Play along: relax and refrain from being pushy. Playing along and giving the other person some time to gather their courage will often get the issue resolved. If you demand too many answers too fast, chances are that you’ll ruin the possibility of effective communication between the two of you.
  • Set boundaries: you’ve played along for some time but the situation in your relationship doesn’t seem to get any better. This is when the time has come to set some boundaries. If your partner isn’t worming up or committing 100 percent, you’ll need to communicate your disappointment and figure out what both of you need to feel happy and fulfilled.
  • Avoid emotional outbursts: mixed signals can be infuriating but if you give in and embrace the anger, you will not get anything productive out of the interactions. Forcing the other person to give you answers or emotional commitment too fast will be detrimental.
  • Take it slow: if you begin falling for this person faster than they are falling for you, chances are that you’ll start demanding an emotional response that isn’t there yet. Take it slow and enjoy the process.


Effective communication is all about openness. If you’re misunderstanding something – ask questions. Be curious, be open and willing to learn more about the other person. A relationship that isn’t working because of someone who’s uncertain or simply not that committed should never drag on for too long. Give the other person a fair chance but don’t forget to keep your own best interest in mind.

About the author

Dr. Syras Derksen, operates a private practice and consults for the Couples Clinic ( He is also a weekly guest on CJOB, a Winnipeg radio station, talking about relationships.   

Winnipeg Couples Counsellor and Psychologist