The Hot And Cold Game
Our subject today, ladies and gentlemen, is hot and cold behaviour. I am referring to that dramatic shift in how a partner or significant other behaves towards us. One minute you are on a high from the sheer intensity and warmth of their attention, and the next minute you’re being frozen out and left to wonder what happened and question if maybe you said the wrong thing or made the wrong move. When I think about hot and cold behaviour, the jukebox in my mind automatically flicks to that Katy Perry song. Yes, you know the one that goes, “You’re hot then you’re cold, you’re yes then you’re no, you’re in then you’re out, you’re up then you’re down” Amen to Katy for this lyrical masterpiece. The fact that a whole song is dedicated to this behaviour tells you that you are not alone if you have experienced this or are going through it right now. Why would someone run hot and then cold, only to run hot again, quickly followed by cold? And then back to hot? Take a seat, catch your breath and let’s break it down.
Whether conscious or unconscious, hot and cold behaviour usually activates a cycle of longing and pursuit in a person. It is a tactic used because it sustains a level of uncertainty and of course, interest. Relationship uncertainty makes us (as relational beings) yearn for stability and to return to the warmth of affection. The instinctive response is to chase when the “other” pulls away because that which was once readily available to us is suddenly gone. Spoiler alert but no, these erratic shifts do not indicate that your partner is confused. Nor do they need more time to figure out their emotions, sift through their last relationship nor are they constantly busy with work. This may be the hope, but this is not the case. The hot and cold pattern is about much more than a lack of certainty on a lover’s part. It’s a pattern. More than this, it is a pattern designed for control and to manage proximity and expectations.
Hot. Cold. Repeat. Each step is a phase and each phase has a cycle. This formula is as predictable as it is consistent. When you pull away, they’ll come forward to engage with you, and when you move towards them, they will pull away. Because you see that they can blow hot, when they blow cold you don’t acknowledge what that means and instead focus on the fact that you know that they’re capable of blowing hot. After a cycle or two of this routine you’ll be so confused you won’t know which way is up or what to don to stop this absurd game. The pattern will repeat itself for as long as you are willing to play. Such behavioural extremes indicate a power play. It typifies the other being undecided as to whether they like you, but meanwhile, wanting to keep you on ice just in case. Like the proverbial dog in a manger, they are not sure whether they want you but they sure as hell do not want anyone else to have you. They want to keep you as an option whilst trying to ensure that you are invested in them and so see them as the only option for you.
At its core, hot and cold behaviour is an attempt to gain and retain control over the uncontrollable, love. It is a way to get to feel love but without getting hurt. You cannot get hurt if you never fully invest or you keep someone at arm’s length and to communicate to the other to not expect too much from you. Why do we stick around even though on some level we can sense that we might be in for a world of pain? Does hot and cold behaviour actually make us more attracted? It can do because of Cognitive Dissonance and more specifically, the agony of trying to reconcile mixed signals.
Cognitive Dissonance refers to the psychological tension experienced by a person trying to reconcile two or more conflicting beliefs or ideas at the same time. In other words, it’s the mental stress (dissonance) that you stay with when presented with evidence for and against a particular outcome. Hot and cold behaviour is a manifestation of mixed signals. It provides an indication that a person likes us, followed by something that can be interpreted as quite the opposite. Our interpretation is crucial because we assign meaning to these signals. When you have these conflicting views, you develop psychological stress that can leave you feeling confused, hopelessly overthinking, reading into every situation, and anxious. You desperately want to know the truth — do they like you or not?
When you experience such ambiguity, you look for a solution. However, the question here is after so much time, analysis and emotional investment, are these genuine feelings that you are feeling or are they the product of a deceiving cognitive loop which is caused by the hot and cold behaviour? As a bit of a neuroscience geek, I also want to layer in the Dopamine effect here. How do feel when you do get a perceived sign of attraction? For many, this is energising and motivational. The thrill can be so exhilarating it trumps most other things going on in your life. Now, does that mean the person is the reason for your immense emotion, and thus you are falling for them? Not exactly — but that’s what many of us think.
The real driver behind the emotional rollercoaster is a hormone called Dopamine. This neurotransmitter has many useful functions, but of most concern to us today is the ability to seek reward and take action towards it and also the creation of pleasurable feelings in response to a perceived reward. This last function is especially relevant because dating is a game of rewards. The rewards are attention, physical and emotional connection. When Dopamine is released, our body is flooded with endorphins, we feel amazing and will look to repeat whatever action that made us feel that way
Now for the geeky part. It is how Dopamine is secreted that is super interesting here because the mere anticipation of a reward is enough to get a release. Moreover, uncertainty doubles the effect (the high) of Dopamine. In other words, if you are not sure whether you’ll get a positive response signal from the other, and there is an equal chance of a negative response, then Dopamine levels double. This means that in any situation with mixed signals, where you are genuinely not sure how they feel, you will get a huge addictive spike of this neurotransmitter. Dopamine release gives you the energy and inspiration to keep investing in an uncertain situation because of the pleasurable feelings and your desire to continue experiencing them. We repeat behaviours that make us feel good, even if they also make us feel bad (which is where cognitive dissonance is so powerful). Put simply, we convince ourselves that the juice is worth the squeeze.
Knowing our own patterns is one thing, but learning to address them head on and change a repetitive cycle that leaves you feeling bad is the real reward here. The moment that you allow someone to be inconsistent, you are allowing them to manage down your expectations. It can be very tempting to stay with the hot and cold person and keep betting on their potential but in its true form, blowing hot and cold is controlling, contradictory and unstable. You cannot forge a mutually fulfilling relationship with someone who blows hot and cold, so why waste your time?
It takes a rather self-involved individual to think that not only can they do this, but that they can essentially pull the same con on you time again without it being noticed or questioned. This person’s hot and cold behaviour has nothing to do with you not being good enough and everything to do with them being emotionally unavailable, slightly self centred and probably deep down nothing to write home about if you ever did end up in a relationship with them.
This is a partner who is in the game for an ego boost and doesn’t possess the skill set required for a relationship with you. Cut your losses and walk away. Your time is better spent with someone who is capable of honesty, intimacy, and consistency. Games are played where there is a lack of ability to be real. For those who are emotionally healthy, there’s little interest in anyone who plays games. Arming yourself with the knowledge of their existence and recognising the games makes for a rewarding, rather than confusing, dating experience.