Whether you’re still in the giddy infatuation stage or so comfortable in your relationship that you leave the bathroom door open, it’s not always easy to read a partner. And given that so much of our lives play out over text (scheduling dates, managing family logistics, you know the drill), it can be even harder to decipher how someone’s feeling, and whether or not things are becoming a bit one-sided.
Everyone comes into a relationship with different ways of communicating. Sometimes, wires get crossed, triggering vulnerabilities and insecurities that can throw you for a loop, but this advice from relationship pros can help you move forward from these common mixed signals.
In a romantic relationship, you’re choosing to share your life with someone. It goes without saying, then, that to maintain intimacy, you need to put in facetime. “If your partner prioritizes you one week, then is MIA the next, and that becomes a pattern, anyone will start to question their own importance,” says Brittany Bouffard, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist based in Denver, CO.
If you’re feeling connected one minute and neglected the next, “communication is key here. Be true to your needs,” says Bouffard. “Let it be known you want more consistent time together, and beware of rationales like work constantly being the barrier. Look for concerted efforts and teamwork to bring about real change.”
Suddenly, they want to branch out.
You both deserve your own friends, of course, but it can be alarming if your partner suddenly wants to expand their social circle, says Wendy L. Patrick, Ph.D., author of Red Flags. Are they just looking to meet new people, or are they bored with your social life? Are they tired of you?
“Take note of what type of company they seek,” says Patrick. “Networking, spending more time with family, meeting like-minded individuals who share newfound values—those types of social expansions are not necessarily threatening to a relationship, unless there’s no effort made to take one’s partner along on the journey.” But increased effort or an expressed interest in reconnecting with old friends or making new ones without any real reason may stem from dissatisfaction—and the desire to explore alternatives, she says
They say one thing and do another.
If someone you’re dating says they want to see you and then doesn’t follow through with plans, that’s annoying. If your partner says they’re going to help with the laundry and then leaves it piled on the floor, that’s frustrating. “People whose words do not match their actions may be afraid of confrontation, or may be acting acting their feelings instead of discussing them,” says Paulette Sherman, a psychologist and the author of Dating from the Inside Out.
This is the kind of selfish behavior you have to bring to their attention and see if they’re willing to work on it—and then decide how much it damages the trust in your relationship and if it’s worth staying together. “You can’t change the other person,” says Sherman. “You can create awareness of this pattern, model clear communication around it, express how it makes you feel, request what you’d like to happen instead with your partner and monitor whether it improves.”
Romantic gestures come out of nowhere.
If your typically self-absorbed partner (no shade, we’re all busy) comes home with roses out of the blue or whips up a gourmet dinner for no reason, it can sweet and romantic—or the unexpected randomness of it can be jarring. “This type of unpredictable behavior can arise from a partner wanting attention for ‘doing good’ or ‘being good,’” says Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, CA. “It can also stem from a place of feeling guilty for not being attentive.”
Assuming you prefer these gestures to the alternative, reinforce the positive actions when they occur in order to encourage your partner to contribute more to the relationship in the future. “For example, you might say, ‘I’m so touched that you made dinner tonight. What an unexpected surprise. Thank you!’” says Manly. “In time, these things might become a more consistent.”
They seem to have misplaced their sex drive.
Few things can ding confidence quite like a partner who suddenly doesn’t want to have sex with the same frequency as in the past. “Before you automatically suspect infidelity, think insecurity,” says Patrick. “Emotional mood swings may produce feelings of unworthiness, and unattractiveness, and health-related physical issues may cause some partners to shy away from engaging in the usual amount of physical affection within their relationship.”
Before you freak out, pay attention to your partner’s other “love languages,” says Patrick. Someone who still engages in the same amount of loving conversation, texting, or affectionate gestures may have legitimate reasons for (temporarily) shying away from physical contact that have nothing to do with losing interest in the relationship or you, she says.
And now for some common mixed signals from your ex…
They initiated a post-breakup hookup.
“This tends to happen when the person who broke up the relationship is lonely or needs and ego fix, so they turn to their ex,” says Caroline Madden, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Burbank, CA. “That ex is vulnerable and may take this renewed interest as a sign that maybe their former partner has had enough space and is finally coming back to their senses and wants to reunite.”
We’re certainly not saying that never happens, but the reality is, post-breakup hookups are a minefield of emotions. “They are likely looking for comfort or a confidence boost,” says Madden. Of course there are exceptions, but if you’re willing to engage instead of move on, remember that this might not be a means to rekindling.
That ex also tells you they miss you.
Just because your ex says they miss you doesn’t mean they want to get back together. “It could simply be an expression of missing the time that you had together,” says Joree Rose, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Danville, CA. “You can miss lots of things about the person—their laugh, their smell, the sex, the connection when it was good, the chemistry you had together, the vacations you took—while at the same time not missing actually being in the relationship.”
So, acknowledge the sentiment but don’t get caught up wondering what it means. “Sometimes, it just is what it is—missing someone is natural,” says Rose. You don’t need to respond, but if you choose to, stay neutral—“don’t label it as good or bad, or view it as a positive or a negative,” she says. “A neutral response will keep the mind from wandering into rumination of the past, and into the anxieties of the future unknown, both of which are places in which we can get stuck.” For example, you can say something as simple as, “thank you for letting me know.”
They keep checking in on you.
In theory, how sweet! In actuality, it’s just dragging out your recovery process. “The person doing this usually feels a little guilty for breaking someone’s heart, so in an effort to not feel like the ‘bad guy,’ they start reaching out to their ex to see how they’re doing,” says Madden. “For the ex, though, that’s taken as a bid for connection and sparks the hope that maybe the relationship isn’t over.”
Basically, it’s keeping you in limbo, unable to process the loss and move on because you’re still hoping to rekindle the relationship. “I know it can feel cold to go no contact, but it might be for the best if you’re trying to heal,” says Madden. Block ‘em on Facebook, Instagram, whatever, and delete any texts—and stick to your decision to go cold turkey if you’re sure you want to cut ties.
And call you whenever they need something.
Ah, this is someone who wants the benefits of a relationship without any of the responsibility. So they told you they didn’t want to be tied down, they just didn’t feel ‘that way’ about you anymore, or that they weren’t looking for something serious. But “sometimes you can continue to fulfill your ex’s emotional needs without having a commitment or getting anything in return,” says Sherman.
If you find your ex is still calling to talk on their drive home from work, or wants to grab a glass of wine on a random Tuesday when they don’t have anything better to do, or they’re fishing for compliments via text…be aware. “You need to set boundaries, and explain that you want space and time to focus on yourself,” says Sherman.
Once you move on, they act jealous.
You broke up, you moved on, and now your ex is sending sad or snarky comments your way about how happy you look on social media or the fact that they heard you were dating again. Even if they broke up with you, “jealousy can be normal because emotions aren’t logical,” says Rose. That jealousy may not mean they want to get back together with you; it may simply imply that seeing someone they cared about move on is hurting them.
But, hey, that doesn’t have to be your problem. “There’s no need to apologize to them or to nurture them,” says Rose. “That is no longer your role.” Instead, consider drawing healthy boundaries so you can create your own safe place for moving on. That could mean disconnecting from your ex on social media or asking your friends to not share the details of your new life out of respect for you, she says. But be compassionate—“breakups are hard, and it can take time for the emotions to settle into the new normal,” says Rose.