Have you ever dated someone who kept you guessing - hot one day and cold the next, telling you they just want to be friends while treating you like they're in love with you, or telling you they're in love with you but keeping you at a distance? Have you ever been the waffling one? Are people who give mixed messages about their level of interest or commitment manipulative game players? Undoubtedly some are.
Sometimes mixed signals are selfish attempts to have one's cake and eat it too and other times they are painful (and sometimes unconscious) efforts to avoid perceived vulnerabilities associated with love and commitment - and without it. To the observer it can be hard to tell the difference between the conniving and the conflicted - and it usually ends badly either way if you're the partner.
The clients I work with often give mixed signals to dating partners because they have contradictory (and distorted) beliefs and values about love and commitment that pull them in opposite directions rather than becoming integrated and balanced. Some common values polarities they struggle with are:
• Immediate Gratification------Long-term Satisfaction
Here's a chart of one client's perceived benefits and fears related to the Connection / Independence continuum (which for her, was split into all-or nothing polarities).
In this client's life, connection meant extreme attachment to the point of dependency and she thought extreme independence was the only antidote. She had no middle ground so she was caught in an infinity loop between approaching and avoiding a committed relationship. The mind plays tricks and the upsides of each pole are magnified from far away while the downsides become magnified from close up - keeping the infinity loop in motion.
In last season's reality show "The Bachelor", a contestant (Ali) seemed to be struggling with conflicting values when she made it to bachelor Jake's short list and suddenly decided to take herself out of the contest, saying her job was at stake. Moments after saying goodbye she collapsed into a puddle of tears and exclaimed "I made a mistake!" Did ambivalence cause her to boomerang? Was she playing a game in which Jake called her bluff by not begging her to stay? Or was she playing the card that would get the most attention and sympathy from the viewing audience and producers? It might all look the same to the outside observer (but she did get a deal as the new Bachelorette with her own show).
People with a healthy balance between closeness and distance (and other values polarities) can love and be loved while maintaining their own needs and preferences, and allow their partners to do the same without too much anxiety. They also reject potential mates who seek too much closeness or distance. Attachment theorists call these partners "securely attached". (To learn more about how you attach to others and how it affects your relationships take the free, well-researched and validated survey at http://drlindayoung.com/Free_Articles_and_Exercises.html under "Discover Your Attachment Style").
Vacillation isn't the only way people deal with commitment ambivalence. In my Marry Him? post I mentioned that when people are very picky about partners sometimes it's less about avoiding "settling" for a suboptimal spouse than their own ambivalence. Along with sending mixed signals, another way people try to overcome ambivalence is by making longer and longer lists of pros and cons about a prospective spouse's attributes - which gets them more anxious and frustrated - and leads to analysis paralysis or rejecting serial prospects rather than improving their clarity.
People who have conflicting beliefs and values related to commitment may also be more easily influenced by peers and 21st century single life zeitgeist. So if lots of their friends are marrying they may hastily decide to marry the person they're with to get out of the discomfort of ambivalence. If the people around them are bashing men, women or marriage they may follow the crowd. Ambivalent people might also try to escape thinking about their dilemma altogether by burying themselves in work, social or recreational distractions that feel unfulfilling and stressful instead of invigorating.
If you're a hot-and-cold partner I invite you to look at the list of values in this post that might be in conflict for you and consider others that I haven't included that are relevant for you. The work of balancing values that have been split into extremes means accepting some trade-offs and sacrifices and facing some fears. You will need to practice quelling your own anxiety without jumping whichever ship you're on too quickly by examining your irrational and exaggerated beliefs and assumptions about love and commitment and about being single. Here is a good place to start addressing these "schema". Working with a therapist or relationship coach can also be helpful. Let me know how it goes!
Copyright 2010, Linda R. Young, Ph.D, all rights reserved