Understanding ambivalence in relationships
Ambivalence or uncertainty of any kind can be an anxious experience which can make us feel that our sense of safety and security has been threatened. Due to the nature of human connection, we can become psychologically, emotionally or even biologically connected to those we love. The mechanisms which drive human connections are powerful, and uncertainty puts them in a state of flux. This can lead to internal alarms being raised, and both body and mind seek a resolution and desire to feel secure and attached. Ambivalence both invites us to desire closeness whilst also avoiding becoming too detached.
Bouts of ambivalent feelings are to be expected within a relationship, and it is important to note that when we find ourselves questioning our relationship, it does not mean the relationships is falling apart; instead it is important to recognise ambivalence as a sign that feelings have surfaced which require attention.
What causes relational ambivalence?
There are many reasons for ambivalence to appear within relationships and each relationship will contain its own set of difficulties, triggers and experiences which may lead someone to ambivalent feelings. Maybe you fear losing the relationship despite not being totally happy with your partner, or maybe you find it too painful to admit that your relationship may not be as it once was.
Ambivalence by its very nature contains negative and positive emotions and feelings, which jostle for space in our minds. It is painful to hold in our minds exclusively negative thoughts about those we love, or to think that we don’t love or care for our partner, or even that we’d prefer to be with someone else. We find ourselves switching between different feelings because settling on either one is too difficult or painful.
Below I have listed some common reasons why relationship ambivalence can occur and why it can continue without being addressed.
It can be common to have a fearful anticipation of what could happen if you took action and addressed your relationship concerns. You may worry a conflict could arise if there is a history of explosive arguments, or feel apprehensive you may start something which could be worse than the ambivalence itself. Or even that you may open yourself up to ridicule, anger or mistreatment from your partner.
Naturally, people fear losing their relationship, connection and bond, so there can be a sense that it is not safe to disrupt the status quo of the relationship, despite not being totally happy with it. Even admitting a relationship may be experiencing difficulties feels terrifying enough for people to remain silent or to minimize or dismiss their ambivalent feelings. This can lead to people being stuck due to becoming continually focused on trying to avoid the inner discomfort they are experiencing rather than acknowledging and addressing it.
Torn between values or beliefs
Throughout the duration of a relationship, we will inevitably change and grow as individuals, and sometimes that means our values or beliefs shift. It is great when you and your partner both shift and find ways to exist with different values or ideas, but this is not always possible. For example, one individual may realise that they do not want children, while their partner is very settled on the idea and feels very strongly about having children.
A difference in values or beliefs can be pivotal in creating relational ambivalence, and can contribute to the struggle for compromise or the desire for one person to shift their ideas. Although making sense of the exact values in conflict may not alleviate the ambivalence entirely, the act of naming them and discussing them will help ease the pressure, which can make it easier to come to decisions about the relationship.
Often the tensions we experience are related to either wanting or needing something from the other, and not being able to ask for it. People, who have a healthier level of self-esteem, may find it much easier to understand their needs matter and have value. This should not be seen as selfish, but instead that you are aware of your needs and require attention from your partner. Relationships require the renegotiation of our needs, desires and wants, for the relationship to effectively grow and flourish.
By understanding what underlies relational ambivalence, you can more fully take steps toward to resolving conflict. This is by no means an easy task, and requires time, effort and potentially the help of an external mediator, such as a psychotherapist, or counsellor. Facing these difficult parts of the relationship may be hard, but no more so than living with ambivalence and not expressing it.
Ultimately, our close relationships hold much sway over how we feel and influence and impact on our decisions. Nothing can activate intense, powerful and also potentially destructive feelings like our relationships with those we love and care about.
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About Joshua Miles
Joshua is an experienced integrative psychotherapist. He has assisted people in exploring conflicting feelings & emotions about their relationships & worked with them to understand complex & painful past experiences. He assists people in making connections between their past experiences and their current difficulties. He's based in Shoreditch.