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 muchInaction. 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 backAction. 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 statusInaction. 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.

 

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22 Comments

  • smarterthanhimnow
    Posted Jan 22, 2016 at 6:39 am 0Likes

    I have been addicted to your site. It keeps giving me clarity. This particular article enlightened me. Rather than reading between the lines, analyzing what an ex is texting and driving myself crazy, I now know to take it at face value, for what it is. So tired of all the inactions.
    I keep moving forward and he just pulls me back.
    Thank you. It has given me clarity and forward on I trudge, no more pulling back from him.
    ????

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted Jan 22, 2016 at 2:15 pm 0Likes

      Glad I could be of service, Smarter! I think it’s natural and unavoidable to read between the lines (I’m certainly not immune to it), but I think it’s important to not lose track of reality while doing so!

  • smarterthanhimnow
    Posted Jan 22, 2016 at 6:40 am 0Likes

    Those question marks were smileys. Hahah. *

  • YWG Man
    Posted Jan 30, 2016 at 6:01 pm 0Likes

    I was in a 2 and a half year relationship LDR I live in Canada and he lives in USA, he broke up with me personally when I came to visit him and his family for the American thanksgiving. At first he lied that it is not working for us anymore, I asked him more questions while I was emotionally wrecked crying hysterically begging and pleading at that moment. He eventually told me that he met someone that lives in the same city. I was devastated and up to now I am still hurting. I found out that he was seeing him for about a month and he never told me. I felt like he used me while he is testing the waters with the new guy. Then when he felt like that it is time to let me go. He dumped me. Betrayal is the worst and I trusted him so much. I didn’t see any warnings or red flags. LDR is hard. Why is he so selfish? I cry everyday on why he treated me like this way. If he was not happy he could have communicated it with me. I love and care about him so much that is why I am hurting so much. He sent me messages many time and he greeted me for Christmas and NY but I just can’t talk to him I know he is being sincere with what he said in the message but he is clearly telling me that he is not open for any reconciliation. (Crumbs) we are still friends on social media I just recently got back after a social media detox to help me heal and then saw his Instagram posts and him liking posts of his new BF makes my stomach turn and feeling the pain all over again. He wanted us to be friends but how can I be friends with a person who is uncommunicative and cannot be trusted? Should I completely sever ties with him? I think being connected in social media it is prolonging my healing. I also tend to cyber stalk his new guy and found out that he drives luxury cars and it looks like he is doing good. I mean i have a job, finished school and all that I felt like I’m still small and low and I could never compete with this new guy. I am not really hoping to reconcile with him I just felt like I truly didn’t know who I was with for the past 3 years of being together. I was so willing and able to give up everything in Canada to be with him because i really thought that we will be together. We made a lot of future plans together and now I am stuck alone. It has been a very hard battle but I am still here surviving. I hope my story is making sense. My question is should I answer his messages or just completely forget about him and sever ties forever.

    YWGman

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted Jan 31, 2016 at 1:34 pm 0Likes

      YWGman, sorry to hear about your situation!

      I always block exs with whom I’ve had a tough or one-sided breakup (amicable partings are exempt for obvious reasons) from my social media for precisely the reason you described. There’s no way I can stomach a play-by-play highlight of their lives without me. All it takes is one happy-go-lucky selfie to take me kicking and screaming back to emotional ground zero.

      The one thing I make sure I do, though, is let them know that should they wish to contact me they still can (email, etc), I do this to show them that my blocking does not stem from hatred, but from a desire to heal. So if they do one day feel like having an honest discussion, they should feel comfortable doing so. So long as this medium of communication is not abused (crumbs).

      The bottom line is this; he has made his decision, and he has made it firmly with his fulfillment in mind, now you have the obligation to do the same. You shouldn’t feel guilty or anxious for defending your feelings and focusing on clarity. I would go ahead and block him, but perhaps also let him know why you are doing it.

  • A
    Posted Mar 19, 2016 at 3:06 pm 0Likes

    Hi James,

    I’m not sure you still answer these but I need a guy’s opinion. I met my ex off a social media app. What started as friendly conversation one day turned into multiple communications throughout the day. It was clear we both liked each other but there were some obstacles in our way ( distance, he has a child from a previous relationship). We’ve tried multiple times at a relationship for almost two years but he always puts the break on things, wants no communication, dates other women but always reaches out to me. Recently he came up to visit and while we were talking I asked him what did he want to happen with us, did he just want us to be friends, more than friends. He didn’t answer me. His actions around me always come across as more than friends to the point he’s talked about marriage, kids multiple times and moving to where I live currently and is getting a place. A few weeks ago after he came to see me he informs me he started talking to someone and never once when he came to see did he mention it after I asked him point blank. I put space between the two of us until one morning he called me and we talked. He tells me I’m the last person he wants to hurt, that while he likes this girl it’s nothing to compared to what he has with me, and that he struggles with his feelings for me.

    I made a video on fb and after the video he unfriended me. He’s done this before and with his actions of late with this woman he’s seeing I just had enough. So I wrote him a message saying this is the end of us completely but I wished him the best in life. I’m pretty sure he read it bc then he blocked me.

    Can you explain what exactly happened with my ex bc I got tired of the revolving door and him doing what he did when he obviously had ( maybe has) feelings for me deeply. I’m confused and I don’t plan on reaching out to him ever again but I know I’ll hear from him

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted Mar 20, 2016 at 7:31 pm 0Likes

      Hey there A,

      Looks like he wants to keep all his options open to me, without the responsibility that comes with a relationship.

      Words are cheap, actions a lot less so, and if you filter your connection with him through the lens of actions rather than words it sounds like the picture isn’t flattering.

      Bear in mind he’s also playing with the feelings (whether she knows it or not) of this other woman by keeping your connection alive, so it sounds like an enduring character trait on his end, and not the result of something personal (i.e, doesn’t sound like you can trust him).

  • Helen
    Posted Apr 21, 2016 at 4:26 pm 0Likes

    Hello James
    We were together for 4 very happy years and lived together for the most part. We would argue when he would say inappropriate things about other girls especially his ex. When i got upset about it he would stop talking to me, sometimes for a whole week. I used to beg him to forgive me and speak to me but the last time I just got on with going to work and watching feel good things on TV while he went in to the other room. This would happen on average 4 or 5 months. I began ignoring the other girls statements and was doing really well. The last day of our holiday in Greece he started to talk about the “prettiest girl he knows” We had a few drinks but I reacted calmly to begin with saying that I don’t feel good when he says these things. He went silent and I got angry and said that if he wants to like someone else to be my guest that I was going to focus on my own happiness. He didn’t speak. The next morning I was embarrassed and I sincerely apologized but he stayed silent. I gave him time. I made him breakfast apologized again he didn’t eat it. We had a silent 4 hour flight home so I texted his mun to come get him I couldn’t bear more silence for a week. He was very angry and said he was leaving me I said too late I’m throwing you out. He picked up most of his things 2 days later. I asked if we could talk about things before this big step and he said its sad but things have went too far. So a week later I haven’t been in contact but have been sooo hurt, he texts saying he loves me and misses me but due to my jealousy and his anger we can’t live together. He says we can maybe start again at some point. He says hes sorry for being selfish. What should I do? I feel that when I receive unwanted attention from guys that my boyfriend gets angry at me and talks about other girls. When I react the anger goes on for so long. I would never try make him jealous I don’t want to hurt him. I hate being alone as I get a bit anxious and he knows this but I’m dealing with it better than I thought.

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted Apr 22, 2016 at 11:38 am 0Likes

      Hi Helen,

      The solution doesn’t really seem fair to you, nevertheless my opinion is that his silent treatment is manipulative in that when conflict strikes he is made to feel “right” (even when he’s wrong) because he is able to gain a position of strength (it isn’t strength, but I’m sure you know what I mean). He knows this, consciously or otherwise, and thus everytime you take a hit and swallow your pride to even things out, you unwittingly endorse the manipulation (because it works).

      Please bear in mind I’m not judging, just giving an objective heads up about what I’m reading here. While caving to his silent treatment in an effort to patch things up is laudable, there comes a time when — despite our best intentions — it becomes counter-productive. We teach people how to treat us.

      If he has on demand “I win” button, he’s going to use it. Sadly (or happily), you’ve broken the pattern now, and thus perhaps he’ll sober up to the fact that making ends meet will require more than manipulation and willful escapism.

      With this in mind, and without playing games, I would personally (if I were in your shoes) demand transparency. Unless he is able to concisely and openly commit to communicating with you on an open playing field, I’d keep my distance. And uttering “I love yous” and “I miss yous” doesn’t count, sweet nothings do not constitute progress, because they do not repair trust in any meaningful way. You’re probably skeptical enough of them as it is, I imagine.

  • Helen
    Posted Apr 22, 2016 at 6:21 pm 0Likes

    Hello again James
    Thank you very much for that advice. I really didn’t expect your reply so quick. Manipulated is exactly how I felt after that text. I’m not sure why he apologizes for being selfish. He very rarely recognizes that my feelings maybe hurt saying instead I’m overreacting. I’ve not replied as I need time to think. I’m keeping that distance!

  • Helen
    Posted Apr 22, 2016 at 10:48 pm 0Likes

    Oh and can you explain what you mean by willful escapism please?

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted Apr 23, 2016 at 4:10 pm 0Likes

      Hey again,

      Oh and can you explain what you mean by willful escapism please?

      That he intentionally creates distance to “willfully” make you insecure, just another type of manipulation.

      Could be wrong about that, of course, but I get that impression from reading your story.

  • Helen
    Posted Apr 23, 2016 at 5:32 pm 0Likes

    Think you are spot on this does seem to be the issue. Thank you your advice really has helped me see things more clearly.

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted Apr 24, 2016 at 11:53 am 0Likes

      No problem at all Helen! Glad I could be of service.

  • Helen
    Posted Apr 27, 2016 at 4:04 pm 0Likes

    Hello again James,
    Ive received another text. I’ve kept my distance and didn’t reply to the last one. Since you last heard from me I’ve been doing a lot of reading starting with relationship manipulation and triangulation which has lead to emotional abuse and me to find that he has lots of narcisssist traits – silent treatment, no empathy, manipulation..I really want to understand why this has been happening but the information has frightened me and im now having very confused feelings. He says in text that we can’t live together due to my ‘weird jealousy and his anger when we get into horrible fights’ he also says we can talk at some point if i want and that he’s not trying to be cruel. He adds at the end that he hopes im ok. I haven’t replied he has no idea how I am. What could I reply? I hate ignoring texts but don’t really feel strong enough yet to deal with any more manipulation.

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted Apr 28, 2016 at 11:20 am 0Likes

      Hey again Helen,

      Well, he seems to be reinforcing the issue we talked about earlier (the fact that he feels controlled and that he might be using his anger as a way of breaking free of it) — so no surprises there.

      Perception is subjective though, especially during breakups, and while he calls your jealousy “weird” (or was that you?), I would say that it was the result of feeling excluded,and thus not really all that weird at all.

      Of course, while attempting to throw a lasso around someone’s behavior isn’t going to work, it’s nevertheless a relatable response. The same goes for his anger, while I don’t condone it, nor do you deserve it, but I can objectively understand it — it’s just a way to try and break free of the chains he felt were cast on him. And to you, his anger seems “weird” the same way your “jealousy” seems weird to him.

      I’m not casting judgment or siding with anyone here, I’m just trying to be objective. Feelings aren’t driven by concepts of right and wrong and therefore I feel that driving him or you to an apology or an “awakening” is counterproductive. It seems to me that somehow the downward spiral caused by:

      Distance -> Jealousy (or controlling behavior) -> Anger and more distance -> More jealousy

      This is what needs to be broken, because otherwise it will continue to feed off itself until there’s nothing left.

      So. If you’re going to reach out, I’d do so in a way that conveys this — somehow. The pattern must be broken.

      Your connection needs to be redefined, where you are no longer associated with this “weird jealousy” he talks about, but also in a way that shreds this notion that he is narcissistic. This usually means starting from scratch, and accepting that he needs what he needs, and you need what you need without judging those needs.

      But is that fair? And is that even possible? Sometimes it just isn’t.

  • Helen
    Posted Apr 28, 2016 at 10:48 pm 0Likes

    Hi James,
    Im sorry but im even more confused now! I appreciate your being objective. Thats why I want your unbiased views on this. Some points I’d like clarity on; Im not sure why he would feel controlled when I’m reacting to yet another situation where I feel excluded. I actually feel compared and insulted at the time and it happens out the blue when I’m feeling that we’re really happy. He seems to be a lot more in control than I am. He watches this calmly as i get upset. What girl wants to hear their boyfriend saying the prettiest girl I know is…? (she is a friend of his that I haven’t met) The night before that he watched the sunset drinking wine with another girl in the hotel while i was getting ready to go out with him for dinner. I wasn’t weirdly jealous about that, I’d met the girl and she seemed really nice. There was no argument about that. I sometimes think his behavor is odd thats all. No arguments when he goes for drinks with girls after work. No mention of it. He is free to do what he wants I don’t get annoyed at every little thing. Weird jealousy is his words as they were during another reaction in the past when I was upset when he told me he will love his ex forever. They are still friends although she lives far away he sends her his music to listen to. She comes back a few times a year. I have accepted this but im not comfortable with it. I admit it does make me feel insecure and would like my feelings to be considered when he talks about an other girl being tge prettiest or about the most important relationship of his life. Am i jealous to be annoyed about that? Is that what you mean by chains? I dont want to be chaining anyone! He feels trapped if I have feelings (right or wrong)? Do I hide my feelings? I just want some consideration. His anger doesn’t feel weird to me it feels like he just doesn’t care and would rather continue making it worse than give me a little reassurance that I actually mean something to him as well. I have tried to explain this in the past and said it would be good if he could reassure me that he isn’t trying to make me feel insecure. I sometimes suspect he enjoys the attention of the breakup drama, so prolongs it. He can go about saying I’m weirdly jealous and make himself look important. The pattern is usually that he finally says we can talk I’ve always jumped at the chance and he tells me I’m over sensitive i apologise, we’re happy for a while until another girl is the most whatever…do you not think if he cares he will actually do something to sort it out rather than say we can meet up if i want at some point meanwhile reinforcing we’re not going to live together again? Apologies for the looong message and thank you again for your input. I just can’t fathom how he would feel controlled when I’m sure he is deliberately trying to make me feel insecure thereby I look weirdly jealous and he needs to escape from me. In the past i had hoped that he was just hopeless at relationship etiquette. Really the argument wasn’t that big a deal i sincerely apologized as soon as I could but to him it’s a deal breaker and he doesn’t want to hear my reasons for my reaction. I’m completely lost with this.

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted Apr 30, 2016 at 7:17 am 0Likes

      Hi again,

      Sorry if I wasn’t clear enough. And I agree that you aren’t chronically jealous or anything like that, I was just addressing his concern objectively (I took him at his word, however now it is becoming clear that that can’t really be trusted,my mistake). However, if as you say, he’s just throwing that at you just to make himself feel important that does change things slightly, because it means he isn’t laying open an issue to be repaired. Just creating more distance.

      The same goes for bringing up his ex, I suppose. Just a way to destabilize you and keep himself on a pedestal? And telling this or that girl is the prettiest is just bizarre. How he possibly expect you not to feel like crap? If I were you, I’d run for the hills if my partner kept kicking me down with phrases such as these, not because I’m under any illusion that I’m prettier than anyone else, but because the intent behind telling me this constantly is destructive.

      do you not think if he cares he will actually do something to sort it out rather than say we can meet up if i want at some point meanwhile reinforcing we’re not going to live together again?

      Thing is, at this point, the question is what he cares about more, you or the the way you make him feel loved and important? Maybe he does care enough to take steps to meet you, but if not living together is the centerpiece of his negotiations then that’s really your decision to make, not his. If not living together is not acceptable as a goal, then I wouldn’t hang around in the off-chance he may have second thoughts one day. There’s no guarantee he will.

      I still feel that my previous comment is somewhat relevant, in that if you want to see what his intentions are, and whether they’re deeper than just getting the occasional ego boost from you, the pattern of manipulation needs to be broken. If you deprive him of leeching security off you, then he’ll be forced to reconsider what you mean to him and stop taking him for granted. And yes, this does mean taking some time off from communicating with him.

  • Helen
    Posted Apr 30, 2016 at 11:34 am 0Likes

    Thank you for clarification, I seem to feel better when I can see clearer which is happening by each passing day. Thanks for your help with this…

  • Helen
    Posted May 1, 2016 at 10:31 am 0Likes

    Afterthoughts regarding your reply. I want to point out that these destructive phrases are not constant. They happen every 4 to 6 months or so. The intervals between we seem to be in a very loving relationship. This is what makes it so difficult to accept that its over for me. I seem to swing between being angry at myself for not being more assertive and indignant that it won’t change so tell myself to move on to hoping he’ll see the patterns take some responsibility and promise to change. Its been 3 weeks of nc hope by next week I’ll stop this emotional see saw. Any help with that?

    • James Nelmondo
      Posted May 1, 2016 at 1:58 pm 0Likes

      Hey,

      The phrases themselves may not be constant, but they are repeated. Which means that the thought itself is constantly there. It doesn’t need to be repeated constantly to be destructive, merely reinforced now and then. As is the case here. I’m not saying he’s a bad person, I’m not going to judge someone I’ve never met, but it is of concern with regards to long term trust building, and therefore of concern to this conversation.

      I wouldn’t count on the see-sawing ebbing anytime soon. In my case it lasted months. It some cases it lasts years. You just learn to live with it, moving on is basically just surrendering to circumstance most of the time, it absolutely isn’t becoming numb and forgetting. And given what becoming numb would actually mean (amputating our capacity to feel), it isn’t something I want to allow myself, personally, to be.

      You should check out the Kubler-Ross cycle, it does describe the transition between anger and sadness quite well.

      I think it’s important to recognize that grief isn’t weakness, even if it is extremely painful. Understanding this seemed to help me somewhat.

  • Helen
    Posted May 3, 2016 at 6:00 am 0Likes

    Thank you James
    I can’t tell you how much you’ve helped

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