Should I Stay or Should I Go? Understanding Relationship Ambivalence: Part 1

Written by: Melissa Kroonenberg, Registered Psychotherapist & Relationship Therapist

In this week’s blog post, I’m discussing “relationship ambivalence”, which is a term used here to describe the experience of being in a prolonged state of uncertainty in a relationship.  This is a complex topic and, as such, this will be a two-parter!  In Part 1, I will focus primarily on understanding relationship ambivalence – what it is and what it typically looks like – whereas Part 2 will focus on specific strategies for addressing ambivalence in your relationship.  Relationship ambivalence is a challenging experience for all involved; it’s often marked by a sense of feeling “in limbo” and can range in intensity from a strong sense of concern to an overwhelming panic about whether or not to stay in a relationship.  There are many reasons why someone might experience ambivalence about their relationship.  For some, an emotional injury, such as an affair, can create a sense of uncertainty about whether or not they want to (or can) work towards forgiveness and reconnection with their partner.  For others, a specific emotional injury may not have taken place, but they feel as though the relationship has been rocky for some time and struggle to hold on to hope that a better relationship is possible.

Living with uncertainty of any kind tends to be an anxious experience because it threatens our sense of security.  Ultimately, relationship ambivalence means living with uncertainty and a lack of security around the bond you have with your partner, which cuts us at the core of our primal selves.  When we attach ourselves to someone, we are psychologically, emotionally, and even biologically connected to that person.  Humans require connection to survive and the biological mechanisms that drive us towards closeness with others are powerful.  To feel uncertain about where you stand in your relationship means that those mechanisms are actively in a state of “limbo”. It’s like an internal alarm is going off that you can’t silence.  Your mind and body want resolution and a way to feel safe and attached, but the uncertainty invites you to deny the pull of closeness while also avoiding (as best as possible) becoming detached altogether.

In order to move forward and free yourself from the psychological torture that relationship ambivalence can create, it’s important first and foremost to understand that, although it may be difficult to imagine, it’s normal to have bouts of ambivalence in a long-term relationship.  Over the course of time, and through the various stages of “coupledom”, you will experience various up’s and down’s and, during those times, it can be perfectly normal to experience some degree of relationship ambivalence.  As such, it’s important to acknowledge that relationship ambivalence, although alarming, isn’t necessarily a sign that your relationship is in complete peril.  Rather, it’s a sign that an inner conflict about your relationship has surfaced and requires your attention.  Secondly, it’s important to understand the difference between relationship ambivalence and “red flags”.  Red flags are signs that you are in a potentially dangerous situation that requires immediate action.  It can be difficult at times to disentangle relationship ambivalence from red flags, especially if the relationship is new, but one way to differentiate between the two is by paying attention to the “ick” factor.  When red flags are present, something about the relationship may give you an “icky” feeling, like something is just “wrong” or “off” – for instance, it may feel like the other person is “up to something” or you may sense a threat to your safety in some way.  Relationship ambivalence, on the other hand, feels uncomfortable because it involves a personal struggle to resolve an inner conflict rather than a sense that you may be in harm’s way.  Red flags should always be taken seriously.

So, what keeps someone in a state of ambivalence about their relationship?  In my experience counselling several couples over the past 7 years, the following three points have come up again and again as key factors in relationship ambivalence.  If you're experiencing a sense of uncertainty about your relationship and find yourself asking, “Should I stay or should I go?”, it will be helpful to first understand what’s keeping you in this state of uncertainty, seemingly unable to make a decision either way.  The following points may be helpful for developing this understanding.

1. Fearing the Consequences

Many people who are experiencing relationship ambivalence find themselves stuck in the fearful anticipation of what might happen should they take action and address their relationship concerns.  For example, some are fearful of the conflict that could arise if they confide in their partners about their concerns.  If you have a history of explosive fights or degenerative conflict, you may be apprehensive to openly acknowledge the tension that you’re experiencing out of fear that doing so will “start something” that’s worse than the ambivalence itself, or that you may expose yourself to ridicule from your partner. Another fear that I often see in my counselling work is the fear of being alone.  Some people fear the thought of being alone so intensely that they avoid talking to their partner about their concerns at all and remain stuck in a relationship they don’t feel happy in; they don’t want to “rock the boat” and risk their partner leaving.  Sometimes the idea of simply accepting that their relationship is on the rocks, in and of itself, feels terrifying enough that people choose not only to avoid discussing their concerns with their partner, they also end up dismissing or minimizing their concerns within themselves.  In this way, people can get stuck in a state of relationship ambivalence because they are continuously focused on trying to avoid the inner discomfort they’re experiencing, rather than actively acknowledging their discomfort and ultimately addressing it.

Our close relationships have a great deal of influence over how we feel.  Nothing has more power to activate intense emotions like the people we care about, so it’s easy to get stuck in a place of fear about what might happen if we face the concerns we’re experiencing.  Where relationships are concerned, we can’t control the outcome, and that’s a scary prospect when we’ve invested ourselves as partners.

2. Split Between Values

Over the course of a relationship, we grow and evolve as individuals and sometimes that means we experience a shift in our values across time.  This is great if you and your partner can evolve together or find a way to live within your respective values that feels uncompromising.  There are times, however, when this is not so easy.  For example, you may come to learn that you don’t want children and your partner does.  This would reflect a value of parenting that perhaps you didn’t realize you believed in so strongly until the time came to talk about it, while your partner might simultaneously come to realize they strongly value flexibility and freedom.  This difference in values may cause great ambivalence about what to do in your relationship.  Do you compromise your values? Do you ask your partner to compromise theirs? Do you end the relationship based on this one difference?  Although making sense of the exact values that are in conflict in your relationship may not solve the dilemma, the act of naming the values themselves will help clarify the exact tension that you’re experiencing which typically results in some relief, and makes discussing the issue easier.

3. Issues with Self-Esteem

Sometimes when I talk with folks about their experience of ambivalence, the tension they’re experiencing stems from wanting or needing something from their partner and struggling to feel entitled to ask for it.  If this resonates with you, this is a signal that your self-esteem may need a tune up.  People with a healthy self-esteem understand that their needs are important and value themselves enough to advocate for them to be met.  This is not selfish; selfishness would be taking what you need regardless of the impact on others!  Rather, this is an acknowledgement that your needs are speaking to you and that they require attention.  It’s up to you to collaborate with your partner about how this can be done.  A relationship often requires a renegotiation of needs as life experiences force the relationship to grow and evolve.   If you can acknowledge that you need something and feel safe to talk to your partner about it, then the tension is expressed and each partner shifts to meet the new needs of the relationship.  If, however, one partner struggles to feel entitled to their needs, or struggles to see their own needs as valuable and important, it’s unlikely that their needs will get discussed and inner conflict about the relationship is likely to take place.

Understanding what underlies your experience of relationship ambivalence is an important first step towards resolving the dilemma altogether.  It may be difficult to do, and you may have to face some things about yourself or your relationship that are painful, but no less painful than staying in a place of ambivalence.  To turn towards yourself with intention and investigate what your heart is telling you isn’t always easy, but it’s a necessary step in order to find contentment and resolution.  Stay tuned for Part 2, which will address what to do to begin taking steps out of relationship ambivalence once you’ve gained this initial understanding.

Grow Courageously!

-Melissa