The only thing we can claim with certainty when an ex contacts us is that they were thinking about us. As far as certainties go, that’s pretty much it.
Granted, this isn’t at all what we’re after. We want to find out what their intention is, along with how much hope, dignity and fragility we’re willing to commit to the conversation. In short, what on earth do they want?
This article is attempt to decipher intention based on action, because in my opinion trusting anything other than the tangible is grounds for a long-term anxiety attack.
1. What Is Being Asked Of You?
Straight to the point
Before we begin coloring their message with fifty shades of what-ifs, and reading between potentially nonexistent lines, it is imperative that we consider what it is we’re being asked to do.
An empathetic and considerate ex who actually needs something (rather than just reaching out in a moment of weakness because they need to pick themselves up), will tend to craft a very direct and transparent message. You will rarely see an ex who genuinely needs their jacket back prattle on ambiguously about life and its meaning before asking for an exchange. They will be aware that doing so will confuse and cause you to over think the message.
You may rightly point out that should they feel in any way self-conscious or guilty about communicating with you, they may well hide their intention behind this kind of message, because they may be aware that being all over the place will signal that they are nervous.
Sure, it’s a possibility, but if they are fundamentally unwilling to open up even marginally (and worse still, expecting you to potentially take the hits instead), consider how emotionally invested they actually are. If they aren’t willing to take a risk, if they aren’t willing to be honest, then I would urge you to take their message at face value no matter what their underlying hope might be (or break through the charade and risk rejection and denting any progress you may have made).
All over the map
Conversely, if you are hard pressed to concisely summarize the overall message, it may be a sign that the act of reaching out itself is the message, as it is usually an attempt to open or re-establish the lines of communication for its own sake.
In this case, the confusion that is represented in the text/E-mail or letter is a projection of the confusion, guilt or anxiety they may feel.
As always, the usual disclaimer applies, and this really is a generalization. For this reason I want to bring up the principle that I mentioned in the opening of this article that should help us slice through the grey area more effectively, the principle of action. Here are a few examples:
- Ex asks you to meet for coffee – Action. Is meaningful because it involves a high degree of emotional commitment and is fundamentally an appeal to a heightened degree of transparency.
- Ex sends you a thousand word epic about nothing much – Inaction. Not worth reading into because it requires a very low degree of emotional investment (typing from behind an emotional firewall is just too easy to do, and cannot justifiably be called action).
- Ex wants their jacket back – Action. It may not be the sign we wanted (this article is about deciphering their intention, whatever that intention may actually be), but it is nevertheless a meaningful signal because we are being asked to do something. In this case not jumping the gun about reconciliation and settling for the idea that they actually do just want their jacket back is the only healthy way to interpret the message.
- Ex likes your new Facebook status – Inaction. Requires no investment other than clicking a button. Not worth reading into.
Of course, the great thing is that this process works both ways, and demanding action (rather than just waiting for it) is a tool we can use to seek clarity for our own sake.
2. Forcing Clarity
Dealing with mixed messages and the anxiety of not knowing what an ex wants is a staple of the post-breakup blues. Don’t forget, however, that at any given moment we can force clarity, and if armed with sufficient courage and resolve, don’t need to depend on our exs in any way when it comes to tying loose ends.
Ask them to do something as a way of measuring their willingness to commit. Does that sound manipulative? I suppose it could, however, it is also — fundamentally — a courageous way of slicing through the figurative bull-crap. You are escalating contact and moving the process towards a more transparent state.
It doesn’t really matter what it is you ask them to do, so long as it requires a minimum of effort (such as a catch-up coffee). An ex whose only reason to contact you is to leech security or keep their options open will likely fold at the idea of having to actually make an effort.
At worst, even if the meetup is uneventful, you will have had the benefit of reading them face-to-face, and will have a better idea of what’s going on.
The important thing here is to realize that should they decline lamely, or keep rescheduling the meeting, that their persistent display of inaction is an answer. That is the beauty of forcing clarity. Their non-answer is an answer. We might have our hopes dashed, but we won’t play an endless game of their choosing.