3 Mixed Messages Toxic People Use to Manipulate Your Affection

Amber AultBy Amber Ault, Ph.D., MSW

Cognitive dissonance — the mixed perceptions and feelings that result from inconsistent experiences — helps to explain why people find it difficult to leave toxic relationships.

On the one hand, the toxic partner tells us they love us; on the other, they engage in behavior that is cruel, disrespectful, or exploitive. Our brains work overtime trying to make sense of these mixed messages —and in the process, we often stay longer than makes sense; in the meanwhile, the toxic partner continues to benefit from our attention, support, and resources.

Here are three mixed messages that toxic partners often create through their words and actions:

  1. They are brilliant, extraordinary, charming — and pitiable

Think of this as the “wounded superstar.” This person is appealing in so many ways, but unable to support themselves because of some fatal flaw. Partners become attracted to the charm, then vulnerable through their desire to rescue and to support someone so wonderful to overcome their bad breaks and achieve their full potential. It’s great to support our partners, but rescuing and becoming responsible for them creates the groundwork for exploitation, imbalance, and resentment.

  1. Totally into you — and totally disinterested

Many survivors of toxic relationships believe they had found true love because they had never experienced such intense interest from someone else before their toxic partner arrived. Because of our culture’s romantic storylines, we can misperceive “love bombing” as falling in love. Once we become comfortable and, indeed, hooked, on their attention, the toxic partner backs off, disappears, ghosts us, or becomes far less available and interested. A vulnerable partner may experience withdrawal and begin to “play chase” to re-engage. Once this happens, the power in the relationship lies with the toxic partner — until their target decides to end the game. 

  1. Really great with money — and totally broke

Many toxic partners show up giving the appearance of being well off and able to indulge you with expensive gifts and experiences, or they share early on that they “come from money.” After installing an initial impression of wealth and financial success, they reveal that they have fallen on hard times, have a temporary cash flow problem just as they are about to make it big, or have been the victim of someone else’s irresponsibility. Of course, they are happy for you to help them out.   And if you have bought into their lovefraud, you just might, at great peril to your own financial security, goals, and health.

Consistency vs. inconsistency

 It’s true that all of us have our inconsistencies. However, solid partners are more consistent than not. They are consistently responsive, consistently responsible for themselves, and consistently clear about who they are and what they want, even as that is evolving. When people are mostly consistent, we relax; when people are mostly inconsistent, we become caught up in solving the riddle of how to return them to consistency: how to get their steady love, or how to solve their crisis so that life can be good again — until their next crisis or they withdraw again.

When we are ready for something healthier, more functional, and less exploitive, we realize that these are not the most helpful questions to ask. Instead, we begin to ask, “Is this relationship contributing to my health, welfare, and happiness?” and “What am I avoiding by focusing on rescuing or re-engaging my toxic partner?” and “How can I have the best life possible?”

When we begin to ask these questions, we begin to let go of the cognitive dissonance created by a toxic partner’s erratic, exploitive behavior or mixed messages and start to come up with clear answers that serve us well.

About the author

Amber Ault, Ph.D., MSW, coaches people in the US and EU who are leaving or recovering from toxic relationships. She is an instructor for Lovefraud Continuing Education and will offer a five week online Roller Coaster Relationship Recovery Seminar & Support Group starting September 24, 2016 through amberault.com. Dr. Ault is the author of The Five Step Exit: The Skills You Need To Leave a Narcissist, Psychopath, or Other Toxic Partner & Recover Your Happiness Now, available on Amazon.com.



21 Comments on "3 Mixed Messages Toxic People Use to Manipulate Your Affection"

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  1. Bev says:

    This is so good.

    Lol…charming, yet pitiable. Totally in, yet disinterested. Great with money, yet broke.

    As usual, the convoluted clusterf**k that IS these types.

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  2. slimone says:

    This is so to the point and accurate! Experienced every one of these dichotomies, and just couldn’t quite wrap my head around it until I came to Love Fraud.

    The spath I dated was the ENVY of so many people. Gregarious, handsome, fit, motivated, fearless, and upbeat. Little did they know just how incredibly pathetic/pitiable he was when you got close to him. Just a bag of nonsense really.

    He travelled ’round the world teaching movement classes and ‘shaman’ type energy work. Everyone thought he was so successful. However, again, up close and personal his finances, rental house, and basic living needs were in shambles. He was a mess, in every aspect of his self-care.

    And then the lovebombing, over-the-top sex, constant calling. Followed, and very quickly, by complete disinterest, cheating, nit-picking, and criticism. Then, poof, no attention at all.

    I dumped him when I finally knew that he was a ‘no win’ game. I get now that this is exactly what he wanted. He was tired of playing the game with me because I just required too much effort, and he wanted an easier fuel choice. The ratio of energy in, energy out was not to his benefit.

    They are like machines, gathering what they need, without feeling or care; methodically estimating where they stand the best chance of getting just what they need, just when they need it.

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    • Bev says:

      Lol…love your second paragraph slimone…little did they know what a pathetic pitiable bag of nonsense he was…too good and too true.

      SON, as I refer to HIM, is exactly that. Charismatic, motivated and the good old family oriented boy on the outside…none of those things in the chewy center. The complete opposite, actually.

      HIS finances, smelly dirty ‘bomb hit it’ one room cabin (his ex kicked him out of a huge two story house), and basic personal care and hygiene are laughable. He lives like a disgusting pig but manages to outwardly ‘look’ like he’s really making it.

      And yes, we, who can really see through THEM, are much too much effort. Correct.

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      • stillrecovering says:

        Yeah, I remember the disgusting living quarters thing. The toxic guy I was with had two houses. One a literal mansion, and the other house, where he kept his office as well, was disgusting. The houses didn’t match at all. Then again, maybe they did. The mansion represented his outside and the other house was a mirror of his inner world.

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        • Bev says:

          Hah! Bingo.

          The illusion versus the reality.


          I remember before SON and his ex split, HIM telling me that she was a terrible messy housekeeper, as if HE wasn’t that way himself…lol. SON always blamed their messy house on her.

          Fast forward to now, on HIS own…his place is 100x worse. I am talking absolute filth. Even his clothes and his teeth…ugh.

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          • stillrecovering says:

            Oh, and the teeth!!! When I was with him, “Toxic guy” had a cavity in EVERY TOOTH. That says something, doesn’t it? The rottenness of the core is evident in the pearls of the mouth.

          • dragonlady says:

            My ex sociopath also had bad teeth. The only time he was seen by a dentist was when in jail

      • regretfullymine says:

        We lived in his grandparent’s old, rundown farmhouse for 9 years..old furniture, old heating stove, wood stove in the kitchen for any auxiliary heat. You froze in the winter/roasted in the summer. After a year or 2 of this, he bought an elderly window A/C for our bedroom..cold air came in through the leaky windows/under the doors.. after our first child was a few months old..we built a new house on another piece of land..to HIS design and specs..no A/C..an experimental hot water heating system..an earth house built into the side of a hump of earth..never will I live in one of these again..I had to fight for ANY extras..carpeting, paneling, bathroom fixtures, furniture bought as cheap as possible. Only my washer/dryer set was bought without being cheap.I came to hate that house; he refused to fix anything broken, it HAD to last 40 years he said..
        Speaking of money, he started hounding me as to MY parents’ will/estate/inheritance plans several years before we divorced. (I had seen their will one time, but I played dumb and didn’t tell him anything)…both of his parents are gone, and I’m sure he would have kept me in the dark about THEIR will/inheritance/estate..he didn’t want me to have ANYTHING that didn’t come from him first. He was SO cheap when it came to our family’s needs..but I’m sure he had money hidden away (from his mother, who hated me) that I never knew about.

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        • regretfullymine says:

          I am adding more to My own comment. He was clean, until we got married. Then, he wouldn’t bathe for days at a time, brush his teeth (what’s with these people and teeth?); and still want intimacy..he would stink like an old (dead) goat; chewed tobacco/snuff (after claiming he had quit smoking)..disgusting, disgusting..all that cleanliness just disappeared. Wore farm clothes/shoes until they fell off him; wouldn’t let me replace anything; wouldn’t see doctors/dentist until necessary; got mad when I took ME or the boys to doctors/dentists. (he insisted that I took the twins to an ear doctor, because I was having an affair with the doctor)..he cleaned up remarkably well, when he dated after our divorce..just part of his act to ‘hook’ another one.

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          • Bev says:

            That is hilarious. Oh the teeth…those filthy putrid teeth…

            At least we have SOMETHING that we can laugh at regarding the spaths.


        • regretfullymine says:

          what’s with these guys and teeth? Mine was clean and neat, until we married. Then he refused to bathe, brush teeth, for days at a time. Claimed to quit smoking, but took up chewing tobacco/dipped snuff…disgusting, disgusting, and still demanded intimacy! Wore farm clothes/shoes until they fell apart. Wouldn’t see any dentist/doctor unless it was ‘the last resort’. He got mad when I took the boys to doctors/dentist..cost too much money. When our twins needed extra care for ears/hearing; he said I took them to a specialist because I was having an affair with the doctor! He did clean up, when he began dating soon after our divorce..just another ‘hook’ to reel in more women.

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  3. stillrecovering says:

    This describes the toxic loser to the T! This is exactly how I got sucked in and why it took six miserable years to finally get out. It’s been over four years since the divorce, but my brain is still dealing with the long lasting stench of his toxicity.

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  4. slimone says:

    Yeah…just for laughs:
    1. Couldn’t walk downstairs so pee’d in a jar in his room (only had a rented room)
    2. Slept on a blanket. No mattress pad.
    3. Uninsured, owed hospitals tens of thousands of dollars.
    4. Yep, cavities
    5. No savings, no retirement, no cash in checking
    6. No car
    7. Room a COMPLETE mess. The rest of the house without one stick of furniture. Roomies could only sit on the floor outside their rooms
    8. Booze, TV, late nights, drugs, sex, sex, sex, sex….
    9. STD

    But on the outside he was a New Age healer and musician, traveling around the world teaching classes to enlighten and heal people. Little did they all know…

    He explains all that away by telling people that he is SO bold and has SO much integrity that he doesn’t own things, have insurance, or generally participate in the ‘bad world’. He is a ‘spiritual’ being, who is living his ‘purpose’ and that the world just doesn’t support people like him, and isn’t that just a shame. People eat that sh.. up. They believe it hook, line, and sinker. I did.

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    • Bev says:

      LOL…yes, sounds like ‘SON’.

      HE explains HIS lack of possessions and HIS lack of really wanting anything better for himself on being ‘different’ than others, but in a good way. A non-materialistic way. A different priorities sort of way. What a joke that is. HE thinks people will fancy HIM delightfully eccentric and non establishment. A ‘cool’ sort of cat…HE even wears a beret these days I see on his fb page. HE is also an ‘architect’ in his career place on instagram…HE never attended university…only two years of community college, if that. It takes 8 years to become an architect…lol.

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      • Bev says:

        Pathetic liars is all THEY are…living an outward illusion to the world.

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      • slimone says:

        OMG! That is funny. Same with all the spaths I’ve known. They are ‘different….but in a good way’!??? Not.

        And the one I am referring to also padded his resume. We ran into someone from a university, where he said he was the chorus director (a prestigious position). Well, this person was yelling at him in a crowd that he was a liar, and NEVER was in this position. The spath just laughed, and walked away. Not bothered one bit. Told me this person was crazy jealous of him, and a total liar.

        He was NEVER bothered by any of his lies, just laughed stuff off; unless he was using it for a pity play. Then he would huff around with righteous indignation and anger. Yelling and acting stupid.

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  5. slimone says:

    Gingerbread men. Only not so sweet, huh?

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  6. HeartbrokenSister says:

    So yesterday someone sends me a “Profile Picture” of my sister’s path’s from a dating website. Yes – he has himself on a dating website. My other sister sends it to her, via email, and she takes up for him and says basically they had an “Open relationship” before she was diagnosed with her cancer. He has our poor sister so manipulated – she would have NEVER put up with this from any man before. We know he will lie his way out of it saying it was from before, but we even gave her proof this site is fairly new so we’re praying she will do the math and see it was after they started being in a monogamous relationship. He is totally draining all of her money and there is nothing we do or say that will wake her up. I wish so bad she would read some of these articles. Does anyone have any good ideas to get her to read them? Is there a magazine subscription I can order for her? Help!! This is killing of family….we were ALL so very close and it’s been over 2 1/2 years!

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    • AnnettePK says:

      It’s usually impossible to make a victim see clearly until she is ready. My friends and family felt impatient with me for staying with my ex psychopath so long.

      The most helpful thing you can do is let your sister know that you will help and support her if she decides to leave the relationship.
      Let her know your concerns about her relationship and let her know if you catch him cheating or find out something she should know, but try to stick to facts and let her come to her own conclusions. Try not to repeat your concerns nor tell her what to do so that she doesn’t become defensive and try harder to make the relationship work. Try not to say things like ‘I told you so’ or ‘I knew he was…..’
      If she opens up about the relationship try to listen more and give minimal suggestions. It may be more helpful to ask her what she thinks she should do.
      Keep reminding her that you care about her welfare and that you will help her in any way you can.

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    • NotWhatHeSaidofMe says:

      Heartbroken sister.
      Giving someone something to read, esp someone who’s energy must be reserved to battle cancer, I imagine she doesn’t have the strength to read. Nor the strength to battle him. You are NOT going to free her by being an adversary and trying to pull her from him. You have to get a strategy.

      What I suggest is that YOU get educated as fully as you can about cults, about sociopaths, about mind control, about manipulation and gas lighting, about double speak, and so much more. Teach her about socially normal vs his world. Teach her about healthy relationships. Let her know you love her and instead of trying to convince her or show her articles, give her the tools she needs to discover for herself. But you can’t do that until you give yourself the tools to recognize how to help her.

      All my best to you in this most important life mission.

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