Someone I slept with has left me confused. How can I untangle his mixed messages?

I am a 23-year-old student. Someone I have slept with for the first time (also 23) has left me confused. Before we slept together, I was sure he was interested in a relationship. The tone of our interactions and his texting were ridiculously romantic. When he said he was only interested in being friends with benefits I was surprised. He has sent a lot of mixed messages. He has shared some very personal details about his life, including the death of his father, the loss of a job, and the end of a long-term relationship.

I do not know this person very well and was a little taken aback by how ready he was to share such painful information with someone he did not know. It has also made me paranoid that he plans to enchant me with performative emotional openness and the promise of romance. How can I untangle all these mixed messages?

Eleanor says: Maya Angelou said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” The addendum is: when someone tells you what they want, believe them.

This is an absolutely firm rule.

It will save you from a lot of hurt – when someone says they are emotionally unavailable, going through a lot right now, really busy or any other variation on that theme, it never ends well to mentally add “on the other hand … ” People who use their words to lower your expectations are doing you a favour. Let them.

Quite apart from protecting your own heart, this rule protects the people around you.

Think about what’s supposed to do the “mixing” in mixed messages. They say they’re not interested, but they text you good morning and goodnight. They claim they don’t want anything serious, but they over-confide in you in a way that feels intimate. There’s the message they say out loud and the contradictory message expressed by what they do.

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The problem is that actions don’t wear their meanings on their sleeves the way words do. Not everyone uses the same cipher for which actions mean which things – a lot of people agree with you that emotional disclosures are only for close relationships, but not everyone. Some people vent to near strangers because they’re near strangers. Not everyone thinks it’s flirty to message goodnight; not everyone thinks “just friends” means not holding hands; not everyone thinks it’s a sign of interest to drink alone together or hang out at night. People disagree about what actions signal what. That means it’s not safe to conclude that a message you inferred was intended by the person who sent it.

When you’re wondering how to treat other people, what they meant to convey matters more than what they accidentally did convey. Prioritise their words.

I’ll be honest – you might miss out on some opportunities this way. Sometimes someone will suck on the end of a pen and say, “I don’t usually do relationships, but … ” with a pause you’re meant to fill with seductive entreaties. But when it comes to dating, false negatives are a lot better than false positives. It’s better not to pursue someone who secretly wanted more than to pursue someone who explicitly said they didn’t.

This way, too, you’re doing your bit to eliminate the silliness of suggestive pauses and pen sucking altogether. If someone wants you, they should say so. Create an emotional economy around yourself where people don’t get what they want, except by being brave enough to say so.

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You’re well within your rights to tell this guy he’s confused and hurt you. It sounds as though he was thoughtless. You should tell him exactly what you want, whether that’s “leave me alone unless you want a relationship” or “we can keep sleeping together but please don’t confide in me”. He needs to respect the boundary you set, in the same way I’m telling you to respect his. Call him out if he doesn’t.

Both of you are on either side of the revelation that, in dating, a lot of hurt lives between what’s said, what’s meant and what’s heard. The best way to avoid that hurt is by shrinking the space between all three. Take words to have decisive weight – both when you say them and when you hear them.


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