Mixed Messages in Relationships Part 3

This week we have been talking about mixed messages in relationships.  We know what it is, and the characteristics of a mixed message, but what does it look like for both partners.  As I have thought about this, it makes me think of two people dancing, each move impacting the other's steps as they navigate their relationship.  Each partner sends an unspoken message to each other that is not consistent or predictable in the relationship.  This can often create anxiety, fear and anticipation of unwanted or hurtful interpersonal exchanges.  

Conflicting messages placed on your partner creates "a no win situation" resulting in confusion and anxiety.  The one on the receiving end of the message does not know how to proceed in pursuing resolution or will avoid conflict altogether.  It feels like they are "damned if they do or damned if they don't."  An example of this is when an individual has a need to connect and be close to their partner, but when they reach out, often they are met with their partner pushing them away.  Conversely, if this individual doesn't reach out or provide their partner with "space," their partner questions their motivation or commitment in the relationship. Another example is when one partner expects the other to meet their needs or desires without being told what those needs or desires are. It feels like an impossible solution; they simply cannot win.

Each person in this dance, interestingly, have similar reactions and emotions in this confusing dilemma.  Each of them can end up feeling hurt, confused, misunderstood, frustrated, abandoned and develop a sense of mistrust in the relationship.  When this interaction occurs consistently in the relationship, it can often prevent the vulnerability necessary for the couple to feel connected, emotionally safe and have the closeness they are both wanting in the relationship.  The results of this negative interactive pattern can create attachment injuries or relational "traumas" that, over time, put significant distress on the relationship.  

So, what can you do?  The first thing is to be aware that this is happening in your relationship.  If you consistently feel like you are confused or that things are not being resolved, you may be in this "mixed messages dance."  Once you are aware of this pattern, you can ask yourself what you are doing to make this pattern play out in your relationship?  How do you want to be or act differently in your interactions with your partner?  Recognize that only you can change your behavior, not your partner's.  However, if you make changes in how you interact, your partner will need to change too.  Finally, when you are not in conflict with your partner, talk to him/her about the pattern you are noticing in your relationship.  If you do not feel equipped to change the pattern, seek professional help where you can learn strategies and skills to change the dynamic.  There also may be some underlying issues that need to be addressed, that are also contributing to your negative pattern.  

Tomorrow Natalie will be talking about the long-term risk factors of mixed messages.  Stay tuned!  

Written by Emily Freeze, MPH, MA, LMFT

Emily Freeze, MPH, MA, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist at Imagine Hope Counseling Group. Emily enjoys doing individual counseling, couples counseling and family counseling. Emily specializes in women's issues, specifically maternal mental health and reproductive mental health.

Imagine Hope serves the Indianapolis area, including the surrounding areas of Carmel, Fishers, Noblesville, Zionsville, and Westfield.