Do you find yourself frequently moving between ‘shall I stay or shall I go’? This is what I mean by ambivalence in your relationship. Ambivalence and confusion are usual temporary states in relationship from time to time. Ambivalence occurs in intimate relationships when there are opposing emotions and desires towards the other person. This creates an uncertainty about wanting to be in the relationship. It affects both partners despite the fact that it may only emanate from one of the partners. Your ambivalence leaves you feeling pulled in two different directions simultaneously. Or you flip-flop back and forth between the two feelings. At the root of ambivalence are issues around connection, intimacy, and separation. (Bicultural relationships add even more complexity to this issue – shall I go home?; Do I want to spend the rest of my life here?).

Ambivalence in your head and heart does one thing – it creates distance between you and your partner.

While ambivalence is a normal emotion and we all experience it in one degree or another. Problems arise when you function under the belief that there should be only one state of being in your relationship. There is no longer space for ‘shades of grey’. Ambivalence is characterized by an ‘all-or-nothing’ or ‘black-and-white’ thinking pattern.  Many of us have a tendency to split our experiences into polarities – good/bad; right/wrong; love/hate; or joy/sadness. But this rigidity of thought patterns requiring a choice between two extremes creates the tension between the two positions making it feel very uncomfortable.  The two sides represent two internal dialogues. We are constantly dealing with the opposite of our experience (even if only unconsciously). Ambivalence occurs when we are stuck between those two polarities, and are unable to reconcile them. Sitting in the space of wanting two things equally and yet being unsure of what the right next move is – produces both stress and distance in your relationship. Feeling ambivalent about your relationship is very destabilizing. This is because ambivalence pulls the individual and the relationship in different directions resulting in an atmosphere of uncertainty and unpredictability that creates instability between the partners.

Your ambivalence towards your partner leads to practical realities:

  • You fail to commit to your relationship and in fact make it worse;
  • You talk less together;
  • Instead of having an emotionally intense affair with your partner you begin having an intense affair with your own ambivalence. You spend more and more time having negative conversations in your head about why its not working and the fact that perhaps you should go – and the distance slowly amplifies making the situation even worse. You are quietly sabotaging the relationship;
  • You spend less time together and eventually you stop doing things together. In its place comes a formal habitual quality to the relationship;
  • It eats away at your future relationships’ possibilities…. you loose faith in the relationship and deny the relationship a happy and fulfilling future. It produces an inability for either partner to move forward in the relationship, either to leave or to move closer, reinforcing the sense of helplessness for both partners;
  • Your confusion can become a defense mechanism which stops you from being fully present – potentially numbing and desensitizing you;
  • You damage your self esteem because you struggle and are unable to make the decision of whether to stay or whether to go. Repeatedly expressing confusion (either aloud or to yourself) regarding what you want or need – reinforcing your own sense of helplessness;
  • The emotional connection between you slowly dwindles and then the sexual connection disappears too. Your ambivalence begins to take on a life all of its own;
  • You become stuck or paralyzed by your ambivalence. Constantly weighing up the pros and cons of the relationship, shall I go shall I stay?; You begin to compare things against things that can’t be compared. Listening to the voice in your head producing arguments on both sides and producing little in the way of clarity.

Yet ambivalence is also a decision – it is the decision not to make a decision. You are married not to your partner at that moment but to your ambivalence. This is a lonely and frustrating place to be.

Instead spend your time usefully. Find out what it is you need to be happy and then go about getting it.

If one partner is ambivalent it has an impact on the other partner. Chronic ambivalence will inhibit deeper intimacy. Both partners slowly develop behaviors around this (sometimes unspoken) conflict. The goal being to attempt to pull their partner closer, or push them away. Each partner is expressing a particular role in the conflict over being in the relationship or out of it which creates the ambivalent tension between them. Each partner identified with one end of the polarity. Partners may often breakup multiple times, or repeatedly threaten to breakup. The relationship becomes an emotional rollercoaster alternating between feeling hopeful and breaking up. In this environment it can be difficult for both partners to be themselves, or be open with each other. Anything that either of them believes could cause the relationship to end, will be denied or held back. As each partner withholds aspects of themselves from the other distance is created and anxiety increases over the possibility of separation. And the vicious circle repeats again. 

Things you can do to help yourself with your ambivalence:

  • Admit that you/we need help and reach out to a support group or get into therapy. Explore what happened in your family of origin and look at your attachment styles and discover why you feel uncomfortable in relationship;
  • Start thinking positively about your love and while it may not be exciting all the time it can make you/us happy, and sustain you/us longer;
  • Acknowledge that there are gray areas.  Drop the black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking. Allow yourself to recognize that you can and do, feel or desire two seemingly opposite things at the same time; 
  • Pin point the areas that you consider to be problems for you and have the courage to name your desires and needs – even if it feels uncomfortable to put those into words.  Determine the specific steps required in order to make the changes you need;
  • Stop looking for the perfect person – this is a way of sabotaging your chances of happiness. The perfect person does not exist. What do you need to happen for the relationship to become fully viable for you? What are your minimum criteria?;
  • Find out whether you and your partner are willing to make the changes required. Ask yourself whether you have unrealistic expectations of your partner to be someone they are not?

Our intimate relationships should be a source of comfort and stability. It is up to each partner to take responsibility for their role in the relationship. Jump into your relationship with both feet, don’t sit on the fence. Ambivalence only holds you back in your relationship.

If you need to talk about your situation with a professional – contact us:

This post is inspired by the book Too Good to Leave/Too Bad to Stay by Mira Kirshenbaum.
Are you feeling ambivalent about your relationship?

If you would like to talk about some of the issues in your own relationship that this post raised – contact us.

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