Hot ‘N’ Cold: How to Overcome Giving Partners Double Messages

The music video for Katy Perry’s 2008 “Hot N Cold,” her second single from One of the Boys, is a hyperbolic parody of a bride left at the altar by her cold-footed fiance.

In the frenetic sequence of events, Perry chases her fiance as he flees the wedding, at one point blocking her intended’s path as she stands on top of a convertible, mascara over her tear-stained eyes, a slew of bridesmaids with similar mascara smears, as they all wield baseball bats.

In this fanatical exaggeration, Perry literally pursues her fiance in a wedding dress with her posse of bridesmaids as she goes through a “rollercoaster” of emotions while he runs away from the most obvious symbol of commitment — marriage.

The whole sequence serves as a representation of a very common circumstance many people have felt in their lives: having to deal with a partner who seems “hot n cold.”

According to Urban Dictionary, someone who is hot and cold is defined as a person who “is inconsistent in there[sic] attitude, and personality towards others.” One minute, they may seem like the most committed partner discussing future plans with you, and the next they’re as distant as cats weary of their owners’ attention.

From my own personal experience, being hot and cold is a common symptom of commitment phobia. It is one of the many ways in which individuals with this condition construct extraordinary barriers and create complicated situations to keep themselves from fully committing to another person.

And it’s dangerous for relationships because it makes the partner on the receiving end feel confused, hurt, angry, and eventually disappointed.

In Getting To Commitment: Overcoming The 8 Greatest Obstacles To Lasting Connection, Steven Carter and Julia Sokol state, “The partner with active [commitment] conflicts is almost always saying yes and no at the same time. He or she may be showering you with intimate, loving words at the same time that he or she is also creating excessive boundaries that keep you from getting too close.” They go on, “People with commitment conflicts are often genuinely of two minds. One mind wants in — often quite desperately. The other wants out — often just as desperately” (41).

This double-mindedness leads to a destructive behavior: giving partners double messages.

Double-messaging is like playing two games in opposition with each other. The objective of one game is meant to bring a partner closer so that more intimacy will develop. The objective of the other is to keep that same partner at a distance so that he or she doesn’t get too close. Both games work to create a fragile shifting balance for a person with commitment conflicts: keep a partner close enough, but not too close.

That may explain why people who have dated others with commitment conflicts say their partners seem like sociopaths. The truth is that they’re not actually sociopaths, I hope. The reality is people who give double-messages want to be close to someone desperately. But at the same time they fear the vulnerability that comes from being so close and depending on another person.

The paradox of being afraid of commitment is that the person with it wants a commitment, and at the same time doesn’t want it. People with commitment conflicts spend a lot of effort bringing partners close and creating meaningful connections, only to later resist those connections. The resistance comes by setting up boundaries, pushing their partners away, and finding ways to sabotage the relationship.

While all this resistance is taking place, they are still fighting to keep their partner interested and committed in the relationship because they don’t want to lose them either. It’s a frustrating cycle of conflict for both the person with the commitment problem and the partner who is with him or her. I know because I used to repeat this pattern in relationships.

I would put a great deal of effort to endear myself to new partners. Then, once I was secure they liked me, I started to create boundaries and challenge the relationship in order to push them back. I tried to create this balancing act where I wanted a partner to still accept me, but at the same time not get too close. It is an unnecessary waste of energy, and all it did was needlessly complicate my relationships.

I would do things that gave the impression I was building expectations towards commitment, only not to follow through when my partner asked for something more serious. I would make kind gestures that showered my partner with attention and care, while holding onto an attitude that I had no intention to commit. I would appear passionate, warm, and connected one minute, and withdrawn, withholding, and downright cold the next. In sum, I was leading these women on. I was leading myself on.

For example, Melanie and I had instant chemistry. We began our relationship on Tinder, having long spiraling conversations every day for over a week. When we finally met for the first time, we already had more inside jokes than we could count.

We were both mindful with each other about taking things slow. But with chemistry so strong, we couldn’t resist sharing very personal things and starting a sexual relationship.

A month together passed in a blink of an eye. And then I had to leave for a month-long acting and writing intensive. We agreed to put off being an exclusive couple until I returned. And sure enough, as soon as I got back, we became an “official” couple. This was when my habit for double messaging started to fully manifest.

Although we would hang out consistently, even dedicating every Saturday morning for breakfast, I started to push her away by ignoring her texts, causally dropping statements such as the following to distance myself: “I would be so much more content alone,” “Sometimes, I think I am would just be happier if I were single,” and “I wish I could just have a kid without having to deal with the complications of a relationship.”

One particular night in bed, I turned over, hugged my pillow, and said, “All I need is a body pillow to keep me company.” Melanie immediately told me how hurtful that statement had been, but I pretended to be asleep. I didn’t respond, and she didn’t prod.

From there it began to escalate. Even though we were still revealing more of ourselves to each other and growing together through all the activities we did as a couple, like sending little doodles to each other every day, I started to move away from the honesty with which we began our relationship, and instead started keeping my process of working through my feelings a secret from her. I also began to withdraw from her by feeling less inclined to have sex.

Secrets gave me a sense of control. I started seeking secret affairs and communications so that I would feel like I wasn’t fully losing myself in the relationship while at the same time lavishing affection on Melanie. I was driven into this mania where part of me feared I was losing my ability to take care of myself while the other side desperately wanted to be with her at all times.

I felt as if my selfhood (in particular my ability to take care of myself) was being invaded. I started to feel coerced to make decisions when I didn’t feel ready. And I felt intimidated by the challenges of being in a real committed relationship as a result.

I felt invaded when Melanie started getting too close to me. I panicked and went into an old defense mode that I had been repeating in all my previous relationships. I started pushing her away and sabotaging the relationship as a result.

In other words, I let my anxieties influence my behavior. I gave double messages because I was experiencing relationship anxiety. One moment I was initiating romantic plans with Melanie, and the next, I was ignoring her messages because I needed “my space.”

It must have been very confusing for her and all my partners as I went back-­and-­forth from “hot” and “cold.”

I still feel guilty for having caused her so much disappointment, inconvenience, and eventually losing her trust. I feel the most remorse for causing her so much emotional pain.

I have come to realize the full weight of my actions and behavior all too late. A few weeks after we stopped talking, I purchased a few self-help books to understand why I kept repeating these destructive behaviors. In one of the books, I came across this theory of “Agree/Disagree.” It was developed by Gary Chapman (the person who wrote The 5 Love Languages), and Jennifer Thomas.

Their view in “Agree/Disagree” breaks down to the following: I can agree to experience emotions, such as fear; however, I have to disagree to choose to let those feelings be a justification to hurt another person.

I feel one of the biggest mistakes I made in my relationship with Melanie was using my feelings as a justification to hurt her with my words and behavior. I let my anxieties control my actions, and it led to terrible consequences.

In my search to identify my unhealthy patterns when it came to pursuing relationships, I came across Carter and Sokol’s statement that many people with commitment conflicts repeat a pattern of a “pursuit and panic scenario” (199).

In the beginning of relationships, people with commitment conflicts are relentless in their attempts to bring their partners close. And once they accomplish this goal, they panic and start pushing their partners away.

I clearly saw myself in this pattern.

My pursuit style went something like this:

  • I would engage new partners in conversation so that I could learn as much about them as possible.
  • I would play the role of attentive listener and encouraging supporter.
  • I would tailor dates to their interests.
  • I would become physically intimate with them, so that new partners would become accustomed to my touch.

Once the relationship felt secure, my behavior would change:

  • I asked less details about my partners’s lives.
  • I diminished my role as attentive listener and encouraging supporter.
  • I focused more on what I want to do.
  • I became less physically available.

Carter and Sokol claim that many people with commitment conflicts start relationships in a “fearless pursuit,” trying to outshine themselves to new partners in order to establish a secure bond (199). It’s the belief that one has to sell themselves and how special they are to another in order to be loved. I realized I had been holding onto that belief. I had been unconsciously trying to sell how special and worthy I was of being loved to new partners.

I have since repented from the perspective that I have to sell an exceptional self, or whatever that means, to new partners. Too many times I found myself unintentionally lying because of this need to sell my worth.

I spent so much time showing new partners how deserving I was, yet secretly holding back on commitment. So once I had sold them on how special I was and how special I could treat them, when I didn’t commit, it felt like a betrayal on my part.

This may be one of the core forms of double-messaging. In one sense, I was hoping a new partner would accept me, but on the other side, I was never fully intending to accept that person. I was still keeping myself closed.

I have considered some solutions to stop falling into the “pursuit and panic scenario.” The most important is to be authentic and honest about myself to a new partner. This means worrying less about impressing another person at the start of a relationship, and allowing my real self to shine through, even if it means putting myself in the position of possibly being rejected.

Dr. Jane Greer, author of What About me? Stop Selfishness from Ruining Your Relationship, states that it’s important for both partners in a relationship to develop a strong sense of self-worth based on each individual person’s own self-evaluation, “if you form your own self-estimation and hold on to your judgment, your self-esteem will now come from your approval of yourself and not from the other person’s” (122). I have realized in my past “pursue and panic” behavior, I fearlessly pursued because I was forming my self-worth on a new partner’s estimation.

I have spent too much time being a people-pleaser, only to find myself conflicted once I was settled in a relationship. Now I am mindful of when I am doing a nice gesture, such as playing the role of the active listener, in order to distinguish whether I am doing it because I really am interested in listening, or because I want to show that person how worthy I am of their attention.

I have also been working on developing a strong sense of self based on my own self-estimation. This has boiled down to building skills in areas of my life where I feel I need improvement (i.e. understanding relationships).

Greer says, “You must work on you — that is the me in the equation — before you can navigate in the we” (121). Greer advises people to assess themselves based on the following questions:

  • What are your strengths and weakness (and list at least 3 for each)?
  • What are your negative self-beliefs? Things you beat yourself up about? Examples include “My thighs are fat,” “I’m stupid,” or “I don’t earn enough.”
  • Are your weaknesses and negative self-beliefs valid? In other words, do they have a clear basis in reality or are they just negative perceptions you hold about yourself?

With this assessment, Greer advises people to focus on weaknesses, and to take steps toward building skills to strengthen those weak spots.

Somehow, the old adage of loving oneself before one is ready to love another clear applies here. I needed to stop proving to others that they should love me; so I have started to prove how worthy I am of love to myself.

The second solution to ending double-messaging is to take the relationship slow and steady, working with commitment fears as they surface.

Another thing I have learned is to be mindful of my anxieties when they arise, and not let them influence my behavior so that I will not repeat this destructive pattern.

I have started to be mindful of hearing the types of messages I give partners, so that I don’t confuse them. Mindfulness is important in terms of recognizing when one is repeating a self-destructive pattern because it gives that person more awareness so that they don’t have to choose that self-sabotaging course of action. Again, this relates back to theory of “Agree/Disagree” I discussed earlier.

Here are a few other solutions that may help:

Be honest to partners about commitment conflicts in the past. People don’t have to confess they are commitment phobes, but I think it should be okay to disclose that in the past they have made some relationship mistakes, which they have hopefully grown out of.

Also don’t be compelled to call yourself a commitment phobe if you have had commitment conflicts in the past. It should go without proof that no one should be stigmatized by any labels. People are more than any one label that defines them. And commitment conflicts happen for various reasons depending on a person’s circumstances. Although some would deny it, people do in fact change. If they want to.

Recognize if and when you give double-messages and stop doing that. Refer to my failed relationships as examples.

Tell a serious new partner about your tendency for double-messages and anxities so that both of you can work together to overcome this. One of my biggest regrets, besides not knowing that I had this destructive behavior, was not asking my partner and friends for help before it was too late.

In that vein, it’s okay to ask a partner to be mindful with you when both of you become aware of giving double-messages.

Stop believing you have to show how special you are for a person to love you. We should be loved for who we are, not who we try to be for another person.

Finally, here’s an exercise from Carter and Sokol that may help you consider whether you fall into the unhealthy pattern of double messaging.

Exercise: What is the style of my pursuit? What is my behavior after the relationship settles?

Works Cited

Carter, Steven, and Sokol, Julia. Getting to Commitment: Overcoming the 8 Greatest Obstacles to Lasting Connection (And Finding the Courage to Love). New York: M. Evans, 1998. Print.

Chapman, Gary D., and Jennifer Thomas. When Sorry Isn’t Enough: Making Things Right with Those You Love. Chicago: Northfield, 2013. Print.

Greer, Jane. What About Me?: Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. Naperville, IL: Sourcebook Casablanca, 2010. Print.

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