Mixed Signals in a New Relationship? Here's How to Deal According to a Dating Expert

Communication is the most important aspect of any healthy relationship. Yet, oftentimes, you may find yourself lacking a comprehensive connection in the early stages with a new partner. Are you tossing and turning at night over the mixed signals your S.O. is sending? Why do they text you a lot one day, and not at all the next? Why do they say you’re the only person they’re interested in while still having dating apps on their phone? 

Mixed signals are not only unfair to you, but they also put unnecessary strain on a budding relationship, making the future even shakier. Mixed signals are complicated and frustrating, but there are ways to mitigate them and understand whether the signals you’re receiving are due to simple miscommunication or are a larger cause for concern.

Understand that mixed signals are often the result of the newness of your relationship.

Most relationships aren’t perfectly planned out between two people before they begin dating. This, in turn, leaves a lot of room for confusion over expectations within the relationship and often leads to one or both partners feeling the impact of mixed signals. Dr. Kristie Overstreet, a psychotherapist and certified sex therapist, says mixed signals in new relationships occur because couples don’t know each other well enough yet. “There hasn’t been enough time to figure out both people’s likes, dislikes, pet peeves and areas to avoid,” she says.

While there are many ways a relationship can struggle under the weight of mixed signals, technology, of course, is a major cause of many issues. Some people prefer to communicate via text or phone calls more often, while others prefer to hash out problems or express their feelings in person. This is known as the “text vs. talking” conundrum. “This can cause additional problems because the couple isn’t understanding that their needs of understanding are different,” Dr. Overstreet says. 

The “texting vs. talking” conundrum isn’t the only issue you may face in a new relationship. Many people fret over texted messages received hours after they sent theirs — as though there's a time limit on when people must respond to your messages. Lots of people are guilty of this, myself included — if I text someone around 8 p.m., why will they not respond until 11 p.m.? What could they possibly be doing during this timeframe? In a world where everyone is attached to their phones 24/7, how could this person not have seen my text?

It’s important to not fall into the trap of fearing the worst if a person doesn’t respond to you right away. Not only is it possible that they haven’t yet seen your message, but they may simply not have the time to respond to your message and begin a new conversation. Also, keep in mind the notion of “playing games” in a relationship; sometimes people don’t want to come off as too interested, and so they will wait long periods of time before responding to you so they don’t seem overeager.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Of course, this isn’t exactly a healthy way to get to know someone, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen — and, in fact, you’ve probably done this yourself. I know I have; I’ve gone half a day without opening someone’s Snapchat or responding to their text because I want them to think I’m super busy, that I have an entire life that doesn’t revolve around them (and I do!). Still, though: it never hurts to make your feelings clear, to show that you are in fact interested in that person. It is not a sign of weakness to respond quickly to a text message; it’s okay to be vulnerable with the person you like. If your partner's sporadic responses bother you, it’s totally okay to talk to them about it. Your partner will likely have a very reasonable explanation for their infrequent texting; and if they don’t, you have every right to decide that this person is not worth your time and energy.

Some mixed signals don’t feel like mixed signals: they feel like disrespect. Dr. Overstreet says it’s common for a couple to realize that they value time differently.  “One person doesn’t see a problem with being late and their partner may see their lateness as disrespectful and selfish,” she says. This is not really an issue of time, but an issue of respect. You or your partner are probably not intentionally being disrespectful, but it can certainly come across in this manner if you do not engage in productive conversations with your partner. These sorts of issues must be resolved upfront, because there is nothing worse than a relationship falling apart due to miscommunication. A person’s intentions are everything; if you know your partner is probably not intentionally trying to disrespect you or your time, talk to them about it.

New relationships are incredibly fragile — communication is a surefire way to not only strengthen your new relationship, but also is a means to navigate any and all mixed signals you may receive from your new partner. 

Learn to communicate effectively with your partner.

"Communication is the building block of every relationship,” explains Dr. Overstreet. “If both people aren’t willing to look at their responsibility in effectively communicating, then the relationship won’t work.”

Communicating with your partner can take a number of different forms. Dr. Overstreet recommends using “I” statements in order to avoid miscommunication and to ensure you always clarify whatever your partner says to you. For instance, rather than saying “you don’t text me often enough,” try saying “I get sad when you don’t text me for long periods of time.” While “you” statements tend to make a partner feel as though they are being targeted, “I” statements ensure that your personal feelings and desires are communicated. Additionally, “I” statements show that you are willing and ready to discuss your relationship with your partner in a mature, respectful manner.

Since your relationship is so new, it’s very easy to misconstrue what your partner is saying or vice versa; general anxieties and fears can also pave the way for further miscommunication. It’s important to be extremely clear with your words when you and your partner discuss any issues within your relationship. If, for instance, you are a big fan of PDA and your partner says they are not, it may feel as though they are implying that they’re uncomfortable touching you or do not want to be affectionate with you. This is where good communication comes in: your partner may not like PDA, but this doesn’t mean they don’t like you. Perhaps your partner grew up in a household where public displays of affection were frowned upon, or they just are simply uncomfortable with it. Communicating with your partner will allow you to understand that they are not embarrassed to be with you or grossed out by you; they're just less comfortable than you when it comes to being affectionate in public.  

As in the above example, poor communication can lead to unnecessary misunderstandings if you and your partner aren’t careful. “Most people aren’t good at communicating because they haven’t had the opportunity to work on it,” Dr. Overstreet notes. “We form our communication styles by what we experienced in our family system. Most of these examples weren’t healthy, but we don’t realize it until we get into relationships.”

Make your intentions clear and your expectations straightforward — this way, there is very little room for further misunderstandings and mixed signals.

Remain honest and open.

It's hard to allow yourself to be vulnerable early in a relationship, but it’s something you must do if you seek longevity. Your partner cannot read your mind, so it’s important to be completely honest when you communicate. It’s also vital to be open to your partner’s own thoughts and feelings. “We need to communicate assertively, which is speaking up for our needs and listening with respect to our partner,” says Dr. Overstreet. “Every relationship issue you will experience can be traced back to an issue in communication, so it’s important to build this foundation as soon as possible.”

Evaluate whether remaining in this relationship is right for you.

Sometimes, communication isn’t enough to fix an issue in a relationship, and you and your partner may continue to misunderstand one another. If you keep receiving mixed signals from your partner after you two have had a discussion, it may be time to reevaluate your relationship. While your partner is probably not intentionally sending you these mixed signals, you have every right to deem their style of communication ineffective and unfulfilling. 

"You'll need to check the boxes to make sure you’ve done all that you can do on your end in the relationship,” Dr. Overstreet says. “You’ll know when there’s nothing left for you to do or change. At this point, listen to your intuition, which may be telling you it’s time to call it quits.” 

Letting go after you’ve tried to make your relationship work is hard. However, if you’ve communicated with your partner about their sporadic text messages, their inability to have a conversation without mentioning their ex and/or their refusal to delete dating apps and they choose not to change their behavior, there’s not much left to do but end the relationship. This does not mean your partner is a bad person; they just have their own way of navigating the early stages of a relationship. Still, your feelings are valid and you deserve so much more than someone who constantly upsets you and confuses you because of their words and actions. 

Mixed signals in the early stages of a relationship are always distressing and confusing. By communicating with your partner and voicing your discomfort with receiving mixed signals from them, you can save yourself unnecessary heartache and trust that the two of you are equally as invested in the relationship.