Facing Ambivalence

Ambivalence and Ambiguity

It is normal to experience uncertainty about your relationship, particularly in the beginning. If, however, you are consistently on the fence about your partner, it will be impossible for your relationship to thrive.

I refer to this state of ambivalence as “stable ambiguity,” and it’s precisely because it’s so stable that it often goes unnoticed. I’ve seen couples parked in stable ambiguity for decades!

There are a thousand ways to be stably ambiguous. You can be in a primary relationship but have someone you run to when things go south. You can be chronically long distance. You can be committed in name only. You can be perennially unsure.

The main problem with these arrangements is that you cannot cherish your partner from a place of ambivalence. And a relationship without cherishing is not much of a relationship at all. Often, the lack of cherishing creates its own problems, ones that conveniently reaffirm the need to be uncertain!

Signs Your Relationship is Stably Ambiguous

By the time a couple comes to see me, one partner has typically decided they want more out of their relationship than to live with someone who is ambivalent about them. And rightfully so. I tell my clients that there is a word for waking up next to a person who is unsure if they want to be with you. It’s torture.

Still, many ambivalent partners come by it honestly. Some have years of pain and resentment stored up. Others are clear they want to leave but have clear financial, legal, or other logistical barriers to doing so. Still others are ambivalent about relationships in general. Regardless of the source of the ambivalence, both partners deserve better.

Some common signs you are in a stably ambiguous relationship include:

  • Increasing emotional distance
  • Decreasing sexual activity
  • Using work or other activities to avoid partner
  • Avoiding being home at the same time
  • Using conflict to create distance
  • Constantly threatening to leave and not following through
  • Breaking up and making up
  • Numbing through alcohol or drug use or abuse
  • Continuum of infidelities, from flirting outside the relationship to full blown affairs
  • Ignoring partner’s phone calls or otherwise taking distance irresponsibly
  • Making big plans without partner’s input

The ambivalent partner is not always cold and detached, nor do they need to have one foot out the door. Sometimes, frankly, they’re just oblivious. They’ll “help out,” but rarely show initiative. To these clients, I find myself saying “You seem clear on your commitment to this relationship, but not on your involvement in it!

A Way Out

The way out of stable ambiguity is to confront the underlying issues that keep you from fully entering or leaving the relationship. Often, this has to do with longstanding patterns of relating inherited from childhood. Many of us do not learn how to tolerate closeness or distance. Consequently, we feel we need to be in a relationship, but use distancing in place of healthy boundaries when we are overwhelmed.

A stably ambiguous relationship may seem an elegant solution to conflicting desires for closeness and distance, but it does not offer the intimacy we long for. Ambivalence is a form of disillusionment, and it can be a window into deeper connection, but only if it is faced head-on.

If you or your partner are struggling with ambivalence, it may be time to seek help in getting off the fence.

My greatest passion in life is to help couples craft the loving relationships they've always wanted. I do this in Austin, TX through my work in private practice, and everywhere else here on my website.

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