Mixed Signals

Friendly but no-nonsense relationship and dating advice for women in their 20s and 30s, from the guy perspective. Come back for biweekly posts and "tips of the week." Skip to the advice...

May
11

I hear from a lot of women about guys sending mixed signals. J's boyfriend was uncomfortable using the word "girlfriend," but six weeks later he wanted to move in together. L's boyfriend broke up with her because something was "missing," but two months later he was back -- texting, calling in the middle of the night, and even showing up at her place unannounced. E's boyfriend said he had been hurt before and backed off because of his own strong feelings, then came to meet her mother without being asked, and then backed off again. So what the f*** is going through these guys' heads? Read on for the answers...

Below are three real-life examples of guys sending mixed signals -- Change of Tune, The Obsessive 180, and Running Scared -- and what I told each woman about how to deal. If you like, you can also skip straight to the conclusion, with more general advice about how to deal with a guy's mixed signals.


Change of Tune

Over their first few months together, J and her guy "spent A LOT of time together," but J "was in the same situation as your friend Megan, the 'what are we?' phase." So when her guy said he wasn't ready to use the words "boyfriend" and "girlfriend," she backed off.

A few weeks later, he said he wanted her to be his girlfriend, and soon after he said he was ready to live together. Things were going well and J was happy about it, but she wondered what was up, because "2 months ago he was having a hard time calling me his girlfriend, but now suddenly he wants to make this huge decision and make me a more permanent part of his life."

** The guy perspective:

J's ability to respond positively and drop it when her boyfriend got skittish really helped him get over the hump with their relationship status. As a guy, bringing up something that you think is going to hurt someone and instead getting listened to and given the space you asked for is a completely eye-opening sign of a good thing. I told J that as long as she kept a good head on her own shoulders, she probably wouldn't have to deal with the flip-flopping again.


The Obsessive 180

Right after they talked about moving in together, L's ex broke up with her, saying "this isn't getting serious fast enough and there is something missing but I don't know what." She dealt with it and began to move on. But two months later, he was texting and e-mailing her every day, and even called in the middle of the night and showed up at her place. As L said, he "pretty much acts as though I broke up with him."

** The guy perspective:

When L took the breakup well and put appropriate distance between herself and her ex, he realized that he'd lost something good, and that maybe L didn't need him as much as he thought. Most guys who send mixed signals have major confidence issues. For L's ex-boyfriend, the realization that he wasn't everything to her became a feeling like she had broken up with him. When he called or texted and L didn't always answer, he got in his head about it, let it eat away at his confidence, and ultimately he was the one who felt dumped. I told L not to get back together with him while he's obsessing. Until this guy gets some perspective, his biggest need isn't actually her: it's the need to get his own groove back.


Running Scared

E and her guy had been dating a few weeks when he "got scared . . . and said he had serious feelings and it is too soon so he was backing off for a while." Two days later, he came by her house to pick something up and ended up spending the night. Then he went to dinner at her mom's, and met her for the first time. "He told me that he was thinking I could be someone he could really be with and that he has strong feelings. He said he has been really hurt in the past and has a wall up." Sure enough, the next day after he went to work, E could sense that the wall was back. When she texted him about it, he didn't event respond. So E wanted to know: "what should I do to let him come around and accept his feelings and go with them instead of backing off?"

** The guy perspective:

This guy has been doing his best to tell E what's going on, and he's been honest about having been hurt before and wanting to be careful. But he also really likes her. So I told E that her best bet was to respect what he's told her and be patient with him for awhile. If she senses he's freaked out, she should try to give him some space until he comes around again. A few weeks is enough time to start building a great connection, but real trust takes longer than that, just as much for guys as for you. So E needs to try giving him the space he asks for, when he asks for it. Chances are this will slowly break down his "wall," since guys are suckers for women who respect a need for space without clamping on or running away. Once he gets the space he needs, a few more weeks is enough time to look for some improvement. If you don't see it starting to get better after that, it's probably time to cut him loose.


Sorting the Signals

It's important to remember that men and women do have a lot in common, along with all the differences. Love and relationships can be as confusing for guys as they are for you. So when you've been getting mixed signals, a good place to start is just to step back and try to put yourself in the guy's shoes by imagining yourself in his situation, with someone else. If you were sending those signals, why would you be doing it? Because you were put off by the other person's anxiety? Because you were unsure of yourself and depressed? Because you genuinely didn't know what you wanted and didn't feel right about hurting someone while you tried to figure it out?

Changing perspectives might not give you an immediate answer, but it will help you get outside yourself. Sometimes that's all that's needed. Because once you have perspective, you can make decisions based on what you want, rather than on trying to read some guy's signals. The right guy will recognize and value your confidence, while the wrong one will probably freak out and make your decision easy for you. Of course, if you still need another guy's perspective on your own situation, you can always ask me...

14 comments

Anonymous

Thanks everyone for your great comments and answers in this blog. I am 60 and like this man at my church that is the same age as myself. My younger sister introduced us a few years ago because she thought we had so much in common. He and I talked over the phone for months and had great conversation. During this time I learned that he had been married and divorced a couple times and was bitter because he saw himself as a good husband. that had been betrayed. I could relate to him because I had been in an emotional abusive relationship many years ago and had trust issues.

I really thought he was a nice guy that had been hurt too and had some trust issues like me. I learned he was not looking to marry anytime soon if ever, however, it came out that he didnt have an issue with a sexual relationship. I told him that I am a devout Christian and that I didn't believe in premartial sex. He seemed to respect me and understood my convictions, so we continued to talk.. When I really fell for him, he pulled away and told me I had developed some feelings for him that he did not share for me. I was really hurt and disappointed but tried to be a friend,

Meanwhile, during the next year he begin to send mixed signals; he would push up to me as if he had changed his mind about us. Or test me to she if I still had feelings for him. Once he found out I still caredm, he pulled away again. I brought this to his attention and he denied it. I also, noticed he intentionally would flirt with other women at the church to make me jealous and of course I became very jealous.

Believe it or not this man looks and talks like a Nerd, however, he has been "playing games with me" forever. The last straw for me was when I asked him one day if he wanted to start all over to develop a relationship he was all smiles. However, I felt he wanted me to initiate everything, he was very flirtatious etc.

One day I told him that our church members already thought we had a possible relationship going on. He became distant again, then within a week he brought another woman to church; I was crushed.

Now, I cant stand to look at him and I refuse to even say hello for fear I will fall into another game. He even complained about me not acknowledging him anymore. He liked all of the attention I was giving him and pumping his ego.

ethanfburke

Unfortunately, this guy's behavior seems consistent with what you know about his history. As you say, he isn't interested in a committed relationship, but is open to more superficial, sexual relationships. So I'm not sure his signals are so mixed: when he feels some threat of a real relationship coming on, he consistently backs off. Absent that threat, he comes on to you and acts more interested. His actions seem to line up pretty well with what you know about his motives.

When you feel like you share similar past struggles with a guy, it can be all to easy to see this as fertile ground for a relationship to develop. While this can be true, one does not necessarily follow from the other -- so while it sounds like you are still open to a committed relationship, in spite of your past experiences, he has closed himself off, and the fact that you might have some understanding of what he's been through is not going to be enough for him to open himself up to a relationship with you.

Anonymous

It's lame to wait for a guy. Period. They need to grow up or get a babysitter. Nothing is sexier than a man who is around who doesn't play games.

I still talk to a few men from the past I have loved. But they send mixed signals, even in friendship. I am not sure how their wives fare, but it can't be good. Relationships are best, be it friendship or more, where there is mutual respect and honesty. Mixed signaling messes with both of those things. Keeping in touch with them makes me realize how vitality sucking their actions are. When you are in love, you tend to forgive such vices, but then, once you are outside of it, you see how grating it is and you are glad not to have it in your life everyday.

Women need to find good men, not babies. Even the 60 year old guy is a baby. He needs to buck up and be a man or not seek out a relationship in the first place.

Anonymous

I agree, went out with a guy who I could either take or leave, ended up falling in love. He starts to play games, first distancing himself then coming back, found it very hurtful and tacky, in the end I walked away. Anyone who thinks they can playing games with your feelings needs to learn a lesson, didn't see him for ages and when I did he decides he couldn't ask me out himself but sends a friend over, like I said - tacky. Now I'm with someone who knows what he wants and that's me.

ethanfburke

Thanks for your comment. As you point out, once you're outside a relationship, it's way easier to look back and identify the behaviors and situations that were wearing you down -- so much so that you can feel pretty stupid later at the negative situations you let yourself get into. This is a major reason why I write this blog and respond to requests for advice: to help provide perspective for women who are in situations that make that hard to achieve for themselves.

Anonymous

My boyfriend of almost 2 years is the king of mixed signals. We had a short 2 month "break" in which we still dated & shortly before my birthday he came crawling back and telling me I was the most important thing in his life. Before the break up however, he had said "I'm not supposed to meet a girl like you yet" and other ridiculous things along those same lines. Recently, I've moved across the ocean & will be here for another 7 months. It's a long time & it's a hard commitment. However, I'm willing to do it & give it a shot because I love him & to be honest, I'm not a quitter. However, shortly before I left he mentioned he wanted 9 months of "freedom", while also telling me he loved me & that I was the girl for him and also commenting on how well I get along with his family & vice versa. He occassionally gives me the "I don't care about you" attitude, but then flip flops & is a loving & supportive & sweet guy (which is the guy I love). I really don't know what I should do. I've been racking my brains just trying to figure him out & it's making me touchy & very edgy.

Anonymous

Cheerfully tell him that you care for him but you'd be happy to try an open relationship for the next nine months if he'd prefer that and see how well he takes that. My guy moved to my city a month after i offered :)

ethanfburke

Distance is hard enough even when both people understand (and are clear with each other) that they want to maintain a strong commitment. From what you're telling me, you don't have that understanding with this guy. So rather than view it as "quitting," I think you need to be realistic about the situation you're in: across the ocean from someone who has not given you clear, consistent signals about his willingness to commit. You could spend the next 7 months stressing and agonizing about it, or you could take control of the situation by cutting yourself loose while you're away. This is far more likely to lead to your own happiness now and in the future, compared to the basically impossible strategy of trying to figure him out and manage his feelings from afar.

Anonymous

This is my Reader's Digest version of my hopeless love story with a very great man...

I have known this man for about ten (10) years and at the time we first met; I was still in a relationship with someone and he was getting divorced. A year passed and we dated (respectfully) and talked for hours on end getting to know one another. He asked me about a year after dating to be more than just friends and I said "no" because I was still in love with my exboyfriend and didn't want to hurt him with a love triangle.

A couple years later, we talked about exploring a relationship, but again I was not ready and regretted not giving him or the potential relationship a chance. I can't blame nobody, but myself for my immaturity.

Now, six (6) years later this "great man" broke off an engagement (this year) and we reconnected and I was under the false impression that he wanted to be more than just friends with me. I cut off everyone because I didnt want to play games with him. I expressed my heart-felt feelings for him and I thought he was feeling the same way about me, but after cancelled dates, no phone calls and "mixed signals" I felt as though he was not interested in me. I decided to write him a text (very lame-I know) and tell him that I needed to say good bye - for good. After crying all night and thinking about my mistakes of opening the door to him (like fool) once again. I just wanted to get your opinion...

Did I do the right thing? I feel like I did, but it's always good to hear someone's honest opinion.
Thanks for reading.

ethanfburke

You did the right thing. If you hadn't reached out to him this last time you would have always wondered what could have been. But because you did, and he clearly didn't respond with equal feeling, you can move on with your life knowing that it wasn't meant to be.

Anonymous

I dated my boyfriend for 6 months. There is a big age difference: I'm 38, and he's 60. We got close--I thought. He said we were “made for each other” and he didn’t believe in fate but would like to where I was concerned. He said he never knew sex could be as special as it was with me. He sent daily text messages. He wanted to be exclusive and suggested we spend weekends together. We went to France for a week in May, and I had dinner with him and his parents and 3 grown children several times.

He started growing distant over a month ago, and we haven't seen each other in that time or talked for three weeks. Late one night, 2 weeks ago, he sent me an e-mail explaining his distancing, saying he had "complicated" feelings about our relationship: he felt guilty as it was apparent to him I was putting more emotion and passion into it than he. He said it was nothing I had done/not done, and he couldn't go to the drawing board and come up with a more ideal woman. But he felt something was "missing" and didn't know if it was the fact he hadn't had a real relationship for the past 15 years, had gotten set in his ways, or emotional barriers he put up after his divorce. (He has said more than once he is "wary of relationships." He has said he usually seeks out "inappropriate" women--until me.) He said it was confusing and mentioned he might even need his "head examined" because I was so "perfect." The middle of the day the next day, when I hadn't responded, he sent another message saying he thought I looked beautiful the night before at a musical event we attended separately.

I sent him an e-mail a few days later, asking, "Where do we go from here?" He responded the next day: “Don’t know right now.”

A couple of days later, I sent him an e-mail, saying I took his initial message as a breakup letter; it was a pity it had to end that way; and I would think good thoughts about him. I said I would get my personal items at his house at some point.

He would still occasionally forward an e-mail to me or respond to a FB post, although I stopped interacting, deciding no contact was best. Now his FB posts and "likes" are less frequent--except a few nights ago he sent me a message to say that the mother of one of our friends died. Apparently, he sent the message to a few other friends, too. I thanked him for letting me know.

A mutual friend found out we weren't together now. We had attended a party this summer at her house. Here is what she said:

"He's a hard one to keep, from my observation. We've had lots of talks over the years - but then again, not in several years. When we all used to go to happy hour at (local bar) every Friday, I enjoyed sitting beside him, getting to talk to him. I used to tease him about finding somebody. I used to think he was just shy and maybe lacked confidence. I think he told you the God's honest truth in his message. For whatever the reason, he just won't stick. I do NOT think he's some kind of player, and wouldn't hurt you for anything. Seems like he's scared to find a good person. Some friends have theorized he never got over his wife. I have no idea about that, but I sensed he has felt a lot of guilt about the divorce, regarding his kids. Yrs ago, somebody I know called me up and begged me to fix her up with him. She is a great person, professional, nice looking. I told her I'd try, but didn't give much hope because he is NOT a candidate for a blind date. At first he chuckled and said no thanks, but later asked a few questions and eventually agreed to talk to her. They went out a few times, then he just quit being interested, according to her. She said he was nice, complimentary, seemed to have a good time, great conversationalist, comical, everything you might say about him, and she didn't understand what went wrong. I don't know what to tell you except I'm sorry it didn't work out (so far. Who knows?) I think you are wise to move on, although I think you would have been great for him. You'd bring fun into his life."

I think he wants someone, but he's scared. I am heartbroken. What should I do?

ethanfburke

I'm sorry to hear about the heartbreak, and about the mixed signals you got from this guy. For someone at his age and with his experiences, it's hard to know exactly why he lost interest, but I think you have to take his word for it -- whether it's being set in his ways or having emotional barriers up, he was honest that things had become unbalanced and he couldn't continue that way.

If you believe in your heart not only that he wants someone, but that the person he wants is you, you can always make one last effort to reach out and tell him that. It's a risk, obviously, since he might just say the same things as before. But if you prepare yourself for the worst and have nothing to lose, it might be a risk you can manage. And at least that way you'll know that it wasn't meant to be.

ethanfburke

Are you worried because your boyfriend said he wants to be single for awhile, or because he's acting creepy? It seems very clear from his behavior that he's not over you, and not having a great time being single. So I wouldn't worry about losing him; he clearly just thought the grass was greener, and found out pretty quickly that it wasn't.

What would worry me is that this guy is so in control of your relationship that even though he told you that "we will see what happens in a few months," you're texting that you miss him as soon as you see he's having second thoughts. If you're going to let him call the shots, at least make him sweat a little. Otherwise sooner or later he's going to figure out that he can have you back anytime he wants, and then he really will start flirting with other girls.

I suggest you hold back until he tells you that he made a mistake. Hang out with your friends, sit on people's laps, whatever you need to do, but make him win you back. That way you can start to restore some real balance to the relationship, and not have to put yourself through the same thing all over again.

Anonymous

My boyfriend of a year and fiveonths broke up with me saying he just wanted to be a guy and be able to flirt and to be single for a while. He said we are friends and we will see what happens in a few months. And now he's not even flirting with any other girls, he still hanging out with me. And he watches my every move and if we are in the same area he just stares at me (along with still checking me out). And some of his friends have came to me and said he's not the same. Along with his best friend saying that I coming up to his house this summer to see his sister and he even said he would put the moves on me and most likely ask me back out. And a couple of weeks ago he saw me sitting on my friends lap and he went around asking everyone if I was going out with my friend and he wasnt to happy about even think that we were (which we aren't) I just don't know what to do because everywhere I go I see or have everyone one else tell me hes looking at me (or I can feel his eyes on my back) what do I do? And plus everyone told me to just try talking to him again. And I tryed texting him saying I miss you but my phone is having problems so I don't even know if it sent

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