This account of mixed signals came from my local paper‘s Love Letters advice column:
I have a huge crush on a friend at college. I sit by him in class, and months ago he started to move his desk toward mine and flirt. We began to text for hours at a time. It was all there: eye contact, smiles in class, inside jokes. Mutual friends said he often talked about me.
Once, I needed a ride home from a final. The test went overtime so I told him not to wait, but he did, and we spontaneously decided to get lunch and had a lot of fun. Something about spending time with him felt so right.
Recently, at a party, my crush got drunk. The crush and I watched a movie on the couch, and he put his head on my shoulder. Then we went to a nearby park and he put his arm around my shoulders and gave me his sweat shirt when I was cold. We talked for hours, and he held my hands between his.
The next day, he told a mutual friend that he felt bad for leading me on and that he liked me as a friend but nothing more. I am genuinely confused. My intuition has never been wrong before. What does it mean that he seemed interested in me? Was it wrong to jump to conclusions about his actions? How do I avoid being led on in the future? Is there any hope for us?
— A confused girl
My first thought was “If you can substitute a Labrador Retriever for your college crush and the narrative still makes sense, you weren’t led on, you were just being foolish.”
To be fair, assuming she’s not exaggerating, texting for hours on end would lead most people to assume some romantic interest on his part. Yet nowhere in her story does she describe any behavior you won’t find between two new BFFs. Even her description of hand-holding sounds more like he took her hand in both of his while he said something he thought was important, not an attempt to get physical. In fact, this guy never made a move drunk or sober.
Yes, confusion can arise from perceived mixed signals in the early days. You’ve met someone and hit it off, there’s flirting but no action. You may wonder what is going on – for a week, tops. The thing is, 100% of guys who are interested in you will let you know by making a move and/or making it clear they want to go on a date with you without delay.
If that’s not happening, he’s not interested. “But he was flirting,” you say. “He seemed so interested – I didn’t imagine it!” Maybe not, but he decided not to act. That’s the bottom line. He made a conscious decision not to pursue you. There are lots of reasons people do this all the time. Here are just a few:
- His attraction for you has lessened as time has passed. 🙁
- He’s in a long-distance relationship and doesn’t want to cheat (although he has cheated emotionally).
- He’s always seen you as nothing more than a friend, and has been cultivating platonic friendship.
- He’s got feelings for someone else, e.g. an ex, someone who doesn’t reciprocate, someone who is away.
Crush Guy says he felt bad for leading her on, so he clearly read the not-at-all mixed signals Confused Girl was sending. He probably realized his actions had been misinterpreted and felt guilty about it. No doubt he also dreaded having to reject her and was hoping someone else would deliver the message, which they did. That’s not a very cool move from someone who was clearly inviting emotional intimacy.
Confused Girl judged the situation by his actions rather than just words, a sound approach. But she set the bar way too low. If he’d been interested, he could and would have easily indicated that. Like moving in for a kiss. Or even just saying “I like you.” She also relied on “her intuition,” which only told her that things “felt right” from her point of view. She failed to notice that he gave no such feedback.
A person’s interest doesn’t count if you haven’t got something tangible to show for it. Which means explicit words of interest followed by concrete plans to spend time together. Mixed signals will always equal “not interested.” What you’re looking for is a HELL YES.
It’s hard and frustrating to interpret mixed signals, so my advice is to ask straight out what’s going on. If the letter-writer had done so she’d have learned much earlier that this wasn’t going anywhere. Sure, it’s embarrassing to learn someone doesn’t reciprocate your feelings, but she’s embarrassed anyway. Not only did he figure it out, he told a mutual friend about it. Now she’s the subject of gossip, a far worse feeling than a frank exchange before she got her hopes up would have been.
The single biggest gift we can give ourselves in dating is to stop wasting time with people who aren’t interested, compatible or suitable. Be dismissive of mixed signals. If you can eliminate most of the “dead end” experiences you leave yourself open to finding Mr. HELL YES that much sooner.