How To Make Sense Of An Ex’s Confusing Behavior

Making sense out of chaos, given the stakes and emotions involved, is one of the most daunting tasks to face once the curtains have fallen on a relationship. In a wild attempt to cover all my bases, I’ve attempted to structure the article in three distinct acts.

I’ll discuss why confusion is both natural and prevalent, what we can do to reduce its impact, and end with a personal take on what several popular confusing signs actually mean.

The Complexity Of Fear

No matter the stakes, no matter how fragile the situation, the first thing we need to realize about any confusing breakup scenario is that we allow it to exist.

Let’s forget our collective exs for a second a take a look at our own internal wiring. Most of the time we allow confusion to reign simply because it’s comforting.

In the short-term, a confusing situation allows us forgo the pain of rejection or loss that will materialize should our expectations regarding reconciling (or moving on) not be met.

If we didn’t fear potential fallout, making sense of intent wouldn’t be an issue, because we could simply live in perfectly sterile, imaginary world where we could force absolute decisions. Where yes and no have no real emotional impact.

  • We would eradicate crumbs by simply ignoring them.
  • We would eradicate mixed messages by demanding straight answers.
  • We would extinguish frustrating mind games and subtle cues by taking messages at face value, without reading between the lines.

The more we look at the root causes of confusion, the twin evils of fear and insecurity, the more it becomes clear that deciphering intent is simply a question of reducing complexity. That’s right, we need to simplify.

A Reasonable Compromise

Admittedly though, the reason we are in this conundrum is precisely because we do care, and thus it is all but impossible to distance ourselves from our expectations.

So what do we do? We compromise with our insecurity.

This means making an effort to reduce the assumptions we make, and more importantly, not rewarding confusing behavior (your ex’s) with attention.

The reason this works is because the bottom-line about back and forth, hot and cold, or mixed message behavior is that it can only work with our complicity. These confusing behaviors are simply low-risk ways for our exs to chart the waters. Much like a submarine “pinging” the surrounding environment and mapping the results.

Let’s imagine they want to know whether or not you resent them. What better way than to find out the answer than by asking you a mundane, neutral question? They risk and offer nothing, but — should you answer them — they can get a rough idea of how you feel towards them. Just by answering (regardless of how you did) you have demonstrated that you care enough, or are polite enough, to allow communication.

At its core, confusion is the fear of uncertainty. If we’re going to see how deep the rabbit hole goes with any degree of certainty, we need to close that particular valve. At least until they are forced to take responsibility for their feelings and ask the big questions (if they really want the answer to important questions).

For those fearful that not engaging in frivolous contact might spell the end of contact itself, bear this in mind: If all it took was your refusal to participate in a game of egotistic musical chairs to fatally sever your connection, was it worth holding onto to begin with?

I would say that it isn’t.

Decoding Confusing Behavior

Now that you’ve survived my overly verbose disclaimer, I’m going to review some typical confusing behaviors and their meaning (based solely on personal experience and feedback from the website itself). Here we go:

Playing hot and cold

If your ex seems to bounce frustratingly back and forth between closing the romantic distance and performing a disappearing act, you’re probably dealing with an ex attempting to keep their options open in the face of uncertainty.

Breakups are a way to embrace new experiences and desires, but they also involve losing aspects of the past that we savor. You can’t have it all. Even in the most brutal of relationships, there is always something to miss.

The mistake here is judging your ex’s inability to let go with a genuine desire to reconcile. While it may mean they miss you, and have come to realize their mistake, chances are this is only a reaction to the emptiness and absence of readily available comfort that a breakup breeds. If reconciliation were to occur, and no real relationship reparation had occurred, this “emptiness” would simply evaporate and leave you both at square one.

Love and hate

Love and hate have something in common, they both stem from strong emotions. If your ex acts like they hate you, bear in mind that they wouldn’t feel the need to externalize their feelings unless they hoped to gain something from it.

Sometimes it is merely an attempt to appease subconscious regret by attempting to bring you down (thus making you seem less valuable). But no matter what their message is, it is clear that they continue to care, or they wouldn’t depend on you for any kind of validation.They’d disappear without a trace.

Something to prove

Have they mysteriously transformed overnight into a disco-dancing crusader? Is their Facebook timeline more colorful than it has ever been? Have they lost five pounds of fat and gained ten of muscle?

Sure, breakups are an opportunity to turn life around and make good use all that new found free time and energy on something constructive. But let’s face it,  in most cases it is nothing other than a subconscious call for attention. If not aimed directly at you, then at something or someone that will free them from their emotional rut.

Crumbs and hints

Much like playing hot and cold, crumbs and hints (and the resulting much ado about nothing) are signs of existential indecision. The only difference is that crumbs can be a constant feature of post-breakup communication, rather than just a sporadic occurrence.

If reconciliation is what you’re after then I would guess that signs of constancy are a better overall indicator of interest than hot or cold behavior is, because at the very least they are demonstrating that you continue to be on their mind on a constant basis.

As with any mind game however, hoping that crumbs are proof positive that things might one day pan out is a risky indulgence. As mentioned earlier in the article, it is precisely this kind of frivolity that I would take stand against.

The word on the street

Rumors and the use of mutual acquaintances are — if I do say so myself — rather cowardly ways of muddying the waters. I say this because rather than take responsibility for their feelings, the use of the third-person will end up placing the maddening burden of uncertainty on everyone but themselves.

If acquaintances are being used like pawns, in the advancement of a mind game of their choosing (and you’re fairly certain that it is the case, rather than a result of subjective over-analysis), then it is more than just confusion, it is a character trait that would best be avoided!

About the author

James Nelmondo

James "the Unknown" Nelmondo is a self-styled relationship enthusiast, former infant, part-time dumper and full-time dumpee.


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  • Last week my boyfriend broke up with me. It was so out of the blue. He got back from Brazil last month (first time in 9 years he’s been there) and has been very homesick since he’s got back. everything with us had been more than fine, amazing. The last time I saw him was Sunday morning, the night before we had an amazing night. then brunch the next day. Monday everything was normal. Get a text Tuesday afternoon saying we need to talk, arrange for 630, he says he cant face the situation yet. so we postpone. I am so confused because I at this point have no idea whats going on. Basically he tells me that he is thinking of going back to Brazil next year some time and doesnt want to break my heart when it happens and that he needs to be alone, and not in a relationship and that he is just depressed overall. He has created this dark place of what ifs that are all hypothetical and shutting everything and me out. I am just so frustrated because you shouldn’t throw something away thats not broken and in fact so good. I told him that its not his heart to break and its mine and I would risk it all if it meant the possibility of happiness with him and that in a year if he needed to go back i wouldnt hesitate to get on the plane with him. Its just so odd because he has always been so future oriented as a “we” together in the future, moving in, marriage, even talks about kids, so for him all of a sudden to just change this has blown my mind. I dont want to be with someone who doesnt want to be with me or doesnt see me in their future, but I just dont know where this has come from and how he could have made such a snap judgement. It was as good as a breakup can go, not angry, just sad. He texted me after saying how sorry he was and said “everything is going to be ok for the both of us” which doesnt make sense to me. After he sent that text, I just sent him something basically saying I just wish you could see things through my eyes etc etc because it was as if he had shut off and could not see or hear anything I was saying. Uninitiated on my part the next day he texted me basically saying he couldnt go to work because he was so upset, then again 4 days later asking how I was, random conversational things, again uninitiated by me. I am trying to hold out no contact becasue if he pushed me away to begin with nagging him or trying to be in touch I dont think will help. I dont want to hold out hope that something that may or happen, But I just want him to come out of whatever funk has come over him and realize. We have been together for a year and by the time he “may or may not go to Brazil” we would have dated for almost 2 so I told him that we would cross that bridge when it comes and that I would go too, nothing is keeping me from that. Im 27 he is 32 for reference. Anyway I was just wondering if my no contact was smart? He keeps getting in touch so I assume, but just dont really know what to do and feel like I could use a male point of view.


    • Hey there Kate, thanks for dropping by,

      I think no contact is smart in that it will allow him to crystallize what it is that he intends to do with his future. But on the same note no contact can help solidify his decision to part ways if that is truly his intent. I find that erecting no contact is a way of getting answers, because if the result is enduring silence, then that is an answer.

      However, the fact that he continues to initiate some degree of contact does betray the fact that he continues to prize your connection (which, given the year-long relationship and only a week-long break, is only natural). In my opinion the risk here is that while he may use contact as potentially a way of keeping his options open or alleviating guilt (which is the way I read him saying “everything is going to be ok for the both of us”), for you it means hoping in reconciliation.

      As brutal and crass as this sounds, it pays not to read too much into his introspective emotional debate and pain as signs he might be coming around, because if he wanted to be with you — well — he would. Anything short of a “yes” is his issue that he is responsible for resolving (whether it’s moving back to Brazil or something else entirely), without using you as a crutch. No contact is about absolutes, for good or for ill, either way you’ll have your answer. Casual chit-chat is the antithesis of this, because the waters will only get murkier, and the resulting anxiety will only get worse.

      This is obviously just my opinion, and I don’t doubt that he cares — his actions show it. But the curtains have drawn on the relationship and you need to safeguard your own sense of security and belonging, and I think you’d be well served by not allowing him to further muddy the waters with redundant communication (as comforting as it is).

      If communication is conditional on reconciliation, make sure he knows that’s the deal.

      As always, that’s just my opinion, and I’m aware that different folks prefer different strokes, so take it as you will Kate! Best of luck.

    • Hey man firstly kudos to making this page I’ve read mostly all of the articles and I have some insight as to how to handle my ex girlfriend but that’s something that I need to ask you directly. first of all my situation is a little more complicated I’m 21 and she’s 17 and we have a kid together when she was pregnant she admitted to me that she cheated on me with someone and I treated her like dirt her whole pregnancy because of it we’ve been together for a little over 5 years. I know I hurt her a lot by the way I treated her and I’m trying to show her that I’m not out to hurt her anymore when the baby was born I tried to make things right with her romantically but she wasn’t trying to hear anything I had to say it’s because of the way I treat her when she was pregnant that she began to ask spiteful and do childish things but on social media like Twitter she would say that she wouldn’t want to be with me but I would see things like I still love you and I still want to be with you and I guess she was referring to me but that December she had the baby she had got a boyfriend and she decided that she wanted her boyfriend to be in my sons life, well this is child is very disrespectful I still tried to do with her and I still try to show her that I love her. I know I seriously damaged her mental state treating her like that. she would say that she wants nothing to do with me and that she wants to move on but when im with her its different I think she still loves me but she has too much pride, she got with her boyfriend like 2 months after we broke up and shes been together with him since dec 2013 its obvious she isnt happy but I still love her . How should I go about it?

  • My boyfriend broke up with me 5 days ago after an argument. We dated casually for 3.5 years which was mostly long distance because he is in the military before making it official. He asked me and my 10 year old daughter to move-in with him after 6 months so I uprooted to be with him. The first 3 months after we moved in were great. We were in honeymoon phase but afterwards we started having arguments because he would always question me when my male friends who I did not even have any romantic or sexual involvement would text me. The fights got worst and he even broke it off with me at one point cuz I started lying to him when he asked if I talked to any of them then he would find out by going through my phone or I’ll eventually admit. The conversations were nothing malicious, just catching up on life and kids, but I felt as though he would still get mad at me just because I’m talking to other men. His ex-wife left him for another man after 14 months of marriage and was cheating on him for 10 months of that. So to end that issue, I jut stopped talking to my male friends. Then I started to notice a huge change in him. He stopped showing me genuine affection and the intimacy halted. He stopped showing his love towards me like he used to. We went from honeymoon stage to him not really wanting to have sex with me anymore within 4 months. It bothered me and made me feel so insecure that I would bring it up almost every week or so which turned into arguments. Another reason for my insecurity is that he still kept in contact with women from his past and most of them didn’t even know that he’s in a relationship. The one who knew was incessant with her texts in the middle of the night asking what he’s doing and why he’s ignoring her since he stopped replying to her when I said something about it. The breakup was brought on by our arguments that escalated to insults and name calling. He told me to get out of house but stopped me when he saw how distraught I was. The next day I asked him for closure. We talked for hours and I explained to him why I was brought up the same topic that caused our argument… That I wanted to bring him out of his funk but the only time he showed his true self was when he was annoyed or angry. He said that he now sees that he changed but I didn’t other voicing my concerns which he took as arguments. We talked about everything and laughed and cried together. He said he still loves me and cares for me very much but he can’t be with me because he’s been unhappy and I’ve been unhappy. He said he lost himself and needs time to be alone. Btw, I was the only serious relationship he’s had since his divorce almost 9 years ago. We are still living together (3 more weeks) which is making my life unbearable because he told me that all his desires and love for me is back but he just can’t be with me anymore which I told him I respect. Can you please help me understand what’s going on and what I should do?

    • Hello Ali,

      I have the feeling (and I could be wrong) that too much was compromised in the name of insecurity. Given his past, the fact that it was long distance, the withdrawal and other variables, it seems natural that your relationship is/was vulnerable to begin with. However…

      If you and your ex were fundamentally limited in an effort to protect “trust” (for instance; not being able to talk to friends because it might provoke bouts of jealousy), then it also seems natural to me that over time the relationship would become increasingly unhappy and unsustainable, primarily because curtailing freedom of choice and behavior also leads to resentment.

      You more you give up, the greater the framework put in place to appease trust issues, the more the relationship is going to feel like a prison, regardless of how much you care for each other. And it seems to me that your ex might have reached a place where dealing the relationship’s safety mechanisms have come to outweigh the benefits of being in one (which is ironic because his own insecurity is an inescapable part of the problem).

      As always Ali, I could be completely wrong about all this!

  • Hey James, thank you so much for your swift response. I really do appreciate your input especially during this very sad and confusing time.

  • Hi, I found your articles very helpful so I want to ask.
    I was in a serious relationship for 3 yrs and out of stress and depression my boyfriend broke up with me. We wee great, talking about the future, he even wrote me a lovely long letter just a month before. We still argued and since he was stressed with uni he’s was easily frustrated and angry. He never fights with anyone else so he just blamed me for it.

    It’s been almost 3 months and initially after the break up I asked for him back and didn’t understand that the person who loves me so much and missed me so much just that week could break up for good. Then I decided to leave him be and give him space. However, he initiated conversation every week asking silly questions like if I’m seeing anyone else, moved on, who knows about the break up. Because of how fine I was, he thought I did move on. Then after a month of that, I saw him and he looked so hurt and depressed. He told me he was not okay so i decided to help from then on since he doesn’t talk about it to anyone and i didn’t want him to feel more lonely with me gone as well. I hear men tend to push people they love away.

    It didn’t help me because I still wanted him back, anything to get a hint if he wanted me. He flirted a lot and we had a good week or so, then he backed out and said i need to move on since theres no chance of getting back. He’d say this to me online but in person, he’d be really loving, caring and wouldn’t say things that were so hurtful. He’d say he’s not a good person for me and all in person.

    It hurts me a lot to hear those things, and I’m giving him space to realise especially since he has his final exams coming up next month. He still keeps initiating contact and asking things about other guys etc. It’s really immature and it puts me off but I’m still in love with the person he was the day before he broke up.

    He now tells me that i should know he’s been hanging a lot more with the girl I warned him of for liking him when we were dating. I know he still loves me because of his actions and saying I love you when he leaves. I don’t know whether to believe and think he wants a relationship with the girl (especially when he’s not in the right frame of mind) or if he’s playing games. It seems really immature and it hurts me to see the person he’s become.

    I just want him to realise that I was bending over backwards to make him happy, and love him so much to help him through but it’s really not fair for him to bring up girls knowing how I feel for him and since HE broke up with me.

    Since the break up, I’ve apologised and changed so much, even he said I am so fun to be with and more amazing now.

    Please if you could help in any way. It hurts waking up to this and having him say something hurtful then act like everything fine and be nice then back to hurt. He’s trying so hard to start fights and cause problems just to validate his reasons for breaking up.

    • Hey there,

      While I understand that love can propel us to make ourselves readily available at all times (for favors or attention), it really does seem as if he is abusing this hope in order to feel better about himself. The main problem is that if you are expecting change, giving him a scenario where he can both pursue other romantic interests and at the same time continue to look to you for affection and attention (whenever he needs it), this kind of scenario is the least likely to lead to any resolution. Why? Because there is no incentive for him to change, he get’s attention/affection to quell his pangs of loss, along with the freedom to live outside of a committed relationship. And you’re absolutely right, abusing these post-breakup channels to make ourselves feel better is fundamentally egotistic.

      If I were you (as always, this is only one guy’s advice) I would erect stronger boundaries. His talking about other women (to tip the emotional balance in his favor) and other mind-games should become off-limits, as are emotions such as anger, spite or resentment. Regardless of whether or not you ultimately reconcile, you have your own healing to do, and trust to build, he must come to respect your feelings as much as you do yourself. If he can’t, I suggest you enforce a no bullshit rule and not allow him to play ping pong with your emotions. If he has something to say, it has to be about the breakup or reconciliation, and little else. These should be the conditions of communication, as any other avenue ends only in more pain. Fortunately, I also happen to believe that by demonstrating self-respect in this way (and also value), you also improve your odds of getting to a place where he does not take your affection and attention for granted.

      Does this mean it improves the odds for reconciliation? Not necessarily, but unless you can begin to communicate without the mind games, the path to reconciling won’t even begin.

  • Hi James
    What are your thoughts on an ex who seems very normal, happy and comfortable talking on the phone and when seeing you privately but is distant and aloof when in the company others?

    • Sounds like they might be wary of appearing too happy and comfortable given a discrepancy with how they act with you privately, and what they have potentially told others. Just a guess.