The first time Nella reached for her beau’s cellphone, she recoiled as if it had bitten her. She wasn’t the suspicious type, compelled to check up on her man’s calls and texts, but after nearly a year together, her boyfriend Etienne’s devoted attention had recently turned inconsistent. When she asked if everything was all right, he assured her it was, then grew distant again. Nella was convinced he’d met someone else. What else could it be?

Actually, a number of factors, from the psychological to the situational, can contribute to the hot-and-cold dynamic. Whether you’re on the receiving end of such mixed signals or have been unable to find contentment in a stable relationship because you tend to be this way yourself, you must understand where the behavior is rooted before it can be addressed and, if possible, take steps to repair the relationship.

A hot-and-cold con game
 For some, the adore-ignore syndrome is a manipulative strategy. These people purposely keep you guessing so you’ll doubt yourself—and jump through hoops to get back in their good graces. One clear sign you’re being played lies in how your partner responds when asked what he or she was up to during a “cold” spell. If, rather than reasonable answers about a job or family issue, your mate becomes evasive, insulted or accuses you of being in his or her business, don’t stick around to have your chain jerked again.

Wanting it both ways
Some people suffer from value conflict, desiring two opposing things at the same time. For example, you can be staunchly independent yet still enjoy intimacy and a sense of connection. Balancing the extremes may mean facing some fears and making some sacrifices, but without doing so such a person cannot truly love or be loved. The conflicts underlying the ambivalence can be brought to light through counseling and honest communication between partners. Patience is key, but it is possible to find the middle ground a healthy relationship can stand on.

Circumstantial mixed signals
Genuine ambivalence may also be rooted in things you’ve been through. Anyone badly burned in a relationship may unintentionally send out mixed signals next time. Or the problem may be more deeply seated and originate in childhood. Having a parent who was in and out of you life could lead to a pattern of inconsistent behavior toward romantic partners. These challenging situations can be eased if they’re recognized and both partners have the courage to discuss them openly, with each other and in counseling.

Yet it wasn’t his past that led Etienne to treat Nella like a queen one day and a stranger the next; it was his future. A talented young journalist, he’d been accepted to a prestigious master’s program in another city. Although the university was only a few hours away, in his mind, it represented another world: new people, new pressures, new everything.

Once Etienne’s confusion was expressed, the couple could talk about their options. Ultimately, they elected to try keeping their bond alive long distance and, so far, they’re still together. Nella doesn’t think it’s ideal, but at least when she visits him, Etienne gives her his full attention—and she’s not the least bit tempted to snoop through his phone.

Linda Young, Ph.D., is a Houston-area psychologist and relationship counselor. Learn more about her at

 Check-in Checkup
Is your partner really running hot and cold? Or is it that your communication expectations are unreasonable?
>If you’ve been dating someone less than a month, don’t expect him or her to text or call you daily.
>Once you and your partner are officially a couple, discuss how much contact makes you feel secure.
>Even when you agree on communication expectations, give each other leeway. There’s often a good reason why a text or call cannot be placed or returned immediately.