Is Your Relationship Too Good to Leave, and Also Too Bad to Stay? How to Work with Ambivalence
Why do emotions fluctuate?
Love is complicated, particularly because your lover holds many projections of the experiences that live inside of you. In other words, your entire life history makes up the lens through which you view the world. What you see is a combination of what is objectively happening outside of you and the subjective way that you interpret it. Are you confused when you feel repulsed by the very partner to whom you are usually attracted? It is true that on some days people look better than on others, but beyond this, you also might ask yourself if you have started to project onto your partner. Perhaps she became your suffocating mother? Perhaps he became your absent father? All of this complexity means that you can feel impossibly happy, and then the clouds can roll in, and then the sun can come out again, and so on and so forth.
The Latin root of “emotion” is “move”; feelings are dynamic and always changing. It would be unreasonable for you to expect yourself to be completely steady about anything all of the time. Many people, at times, have feelings or fantasies about leaving their partners. But if you feel an overall “yes” with regard to your partner, despite instances of doubt, then you are in the natural range of fluctuation and can accept these moments as “the cost of doing business.” However, if you feel split between the “yes” and the “no”—stuck in between—then you are facing a more serious level of ambivalence, and there is some work to do.
How can you find your way out of deep ambivalence?
It is important to understand that while it may seem that your ambivalence is about your partner’s qualities or behaviors, it is ultimately about you.
Ambivalent attachment tends to develop in those who grew up with inconsistent caretakers—parents who were at times nurturing and attuned, and at other times insensitive, intrusive, or emotionally unavailable. When children cannot count on a consistent response, they do not know what kind of treatment they will get and hence become confused and mistrustful. This split between the “good” parent and the “bad” parent gets internalized, and later in life it gets projected onto romantic partners. As adults, people with ambivalent attachment push away contact, yet once the distance is accomplished they feel a sense of panic and reach out desperately.
To begin to clarify what is happening inside of you, here are just a few questions you can ask yourself:
- “Am I afraid to let myself want something I fear I cannot have?”
- “Am I afraid to let myself have something I want?”
- “Do I feel safe with someone to whom I feel ‘superior’ but then hate them because they cannot meet me?”
- “Do I recognize a consistent push-and-pull pattern in my romantic history?”
This is a painful dynamic to find yourself in, but the good news is that it can absolutely be worked through. Individual or group psychotherapy can be a great support for this process; with or without outside help, here are a few ideas to keep in mind:
Trust yourself. Although this split experience may be crazy-making, there is nothing crazy about it. When you consider the attachment dynamics that result in ambivalence, it makes perfect sense. If you work mindfully with your attachment—by bringing consciousness to the wound inside of you and working to heal it—you will find your way into an answer about whether to stay or leave. Trust that when it is time to know, you will. I know it is painful to live in limbo—both for you and your partner—but you cannot force an answer.
Focus on yourself rather than on the merits and weaknesses of your partner. Many people who experience ambivalence attribute it to something outside of themselves. The truth is this: if you are feeling ambivalent, it is a reflection of your inner mechanics and you will be best be served by tending to yourself rather than obsessing about that which is outside of you. As within, so without.
Consider talking about your ambivalence with your partner. It is hard to succeed in keeping this secret from your partner. Hiding such an intense experience will necessarily require emotional isolation and distance; he or she will sense your conflict, and it will create interference in your connection. If ambivalence is an attachment wound, then the way to heal it is through an attachment relationship. Of course you might not share every last thought with your partner, but appropriately bringing him or her into your process can afford an opportunity for you to cultivate intimacy and heal. That said, not every person or relationship is capable of holding something this difficult and complex, so it may not be feasible for you. It is delicate terrain that must be tread carefully and consciously.
Sit with your process rather than trying to solve it intellectually. This is not a thinking thing. It is a feeling thing. You are intelligent and with your mind, you can convince yourself to leave and you can also convince yourself to stay. Thinking about this will not help. Rather, really let yourself feel all of the uncomfortable feelings of not knowing, the fear, the conflict, the pressure, the hatred, and the love. The only way out is through. Do not worry, I am not asking you to conjure your pain for the sake of reliving it. When you decide to feel things in a deliberate effort to heal, you end up releasing and letting them go.
Consciously or not, relationships provide us with opportunities for growth—and they are called growing pains for a reason. Everyone experiences ambivalence at times, and if you are one of those who feels deeply stuck, I want to encourage you—if you stick with your process, you can journey your way into peace and clarity.
Yael Melamed, MFT
Yael believes that difficult times are part of the natural life cycle of relationships, and are in fact a gift if you are able to grow from them. She is dedicated to helping people repair their relationships—both with themselves and others—and thinks that one of the biggest factors determining the outcome of your relationship is whether you have the right tools to navigate the challenges that arise.