Mixed Messages in Relationships Part 5

This week, we are discussing mixed messages in relationships-- also known as a "double bind".

Our clients often describe it as "I can't win, no matter what I do", or "darned if you do, darned if you don't".  Mixed messages are confusing for the sender, and the receiver (but mostly the receiver), and are extremely destructive and self-defeating (and defeating for the relationship).  Not only do you not take steps toward progress in your relationship, but it actually can feel like things keep getting worse.

If you haven't read the earlier blog posts from this week, we encourage you to do so.

Today, we wrap up with what to do when you are in a situation where there is a mixed message or a double bind:

As the sender of a message, ask yourself "Am I being clear?"  If the answer to this is "no", then consider that you might be sending a mixed message, or setting your relationship up to be in a double bind.  An example of this would be asking your spouse to be more spontaneous with compliments, but then rejecting their compliments when they give them, telling them you don't believe them, or negating what they are saying by telling them all of the reasons why that compliment isn't true.  In this situation, you are asking for something, but your BEHAVIOR is saying something different.  This is not being clear.

Ask yourself "what am I TRULY needing right now?"  If you can't identify specifically what you are needing, how can your spouse meet that need?

Own your feelings AND your needs.  Push through the fear of being vulnerable with your partner, and name them.  It doesn't do much good if you keep both of these to yourself-- you are guaranteed to not have either of them recognized or met.  Your spouse isn't a mind reader, and not owning your feelings or communicating your needs specifically only ensures that both of you "lose".

As the receiver of a mixed message, call out the process.  In other words, name what you see happening.  If you feel like a mixed message is happening, it can be powerful to name that to your partner.  They might not even recognize they are doing it.  This might sound like "I hear you telling me that you need (more compliments, more affection, etc.), but when I am doing that, it isn't being received.  That is confusing to me, and feels like a mixed message, and I don't know what to do with that."

As the sender of a mixed message, if this is called out and is truly what is happening, be accountable for the mixed message.  Acknowledge and validate the confusion of your partner, and try to clarify what that is about for you.  Are you feeling confused yourself?  Are you really wanting the what you are asking for from your partner, but struggling with allowing yourself to fully receive it?  There are very few issues that healthy communication can't improve.  

As the receiver of a mixed message, set boundaries if the mixed messages continue.  This means to put healthy parameters around what you will allow and not allow.  Clarify to your partner that you truly want to know what they are needing from you, but you do not want to be a participant in causing more pain or destruction to the relationship.  When they are ready and able to be more clear, you are more than willing to readdress the issue, but until that happens you don't feel like you can progress with the issue at hand.  I once read a quote that we don't have to participate in every argument that we are invited to.  This doesn't mean ignoring your spouse-- it just means that when something isn't working, we need to look at our own role in how we are allowing the same thing to keep happening.  And then do what we can-- what is in our own power-- to take care of ourselves.  

Joleen Watson, MS, LMFTA, NCC, is a therapist at Imagine Hope Counseling Group. She enjoys doing marriage counseling, relationship counseling, couples counseling, and individual counseling.  Imagine Hope also specializes in family, child and adolescent counseling and serves Indianapolis area including the surrounding areas of Carmel, Noblesville, Zionsville, Westfield, and Fishers.