Should I Stay or Should I Go? Understanding Relationship Ambivalence: Part 2

Co-Written By: Melissa Kroonenberg & Corinne Carter, Registered Psychotherapists and Relationship Therapists

Last week’s blog focused on understanding relationship ambivalence and highlighted some common factors that keep people feeling stuck in a state of uncertainty about their relationship, including: fearing the consequences, experiencing a split between values, and issues related to self-esteem. This week, in Part 2, we will focus on specific strategies to help you address ambivalence in your relationship. These strategies will be framed as “antidotes” to each of the common factors outlined in Part 1. Please note: the term “antidote” is used here to illustrate that the following suggestions may be helpful for "counteracting", or responding to, the common factors of relationship ambivalence, not to imply that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to resolving relationship ambivalence, or that these are the only strategies available!

Factor #1: Fear of Consequences

Antidotes: Practicing Courage & Staying Present

Whether it’s fear over your partner’s reaction to your concerns, fear of accepting your concerns as real and valid because of the internal upset this creates, or fear of dissolving the relationship altogether and being alone, if fear is the main factor keeping you stuck in ambivalence about your relationship, your antidotes include: practicing courage and staying present.

Although it may sound painfully simple (and come at the risk of a few eye-rolls from our readers…), when it comes to making change, courage is a necessary mindset. Practicing courage means that you’re open and willing to do something different, even if it's something small (change is change, after all!). Operating from a place of courage within yourself means that you’re developing awareness of the default behaviours that keep you stuck (e.g., shutting down after conflict, getting defensive, staying quiet about your concerns, etc.) and then, rather than allowing your default reaction to take over, thoughtfully and courageously choosing todo something different.

Where staying present is concerned, so often we hear our clients speaking in “what if’s” when working through their experience of relationship ambivalence which, by its nature, takes them out of the present moment and into some imagined future (or past). Because we're so invested in our relationship, and we feel a lack of control over the outcome of our situation, it can be easy to become caught up in “what if’s”, such as: “What if talking about it makes things worse?”, “What if we can’t resolve this concern?”, and perhaps most common, “What if I try and work things out and nothing gets better?” The thing about “what if’s” is that they ultimately focus on trying to problem solve the future (or time travel to the past). The future is unsolvable because it hasn’t happened yet, and the past is unsolvable because it has come and gone; yet the mind feels the discomfort of inner conflict and tries in vain to solve the unsolvable anyways. This is part of what keeps people stuck in ambivalence because if you tell yourself you have to solve a problem before moving forward, and that problem is unsolvable, then presto – you’re stuck! The only way to make change – the only way out of “stuckness” – is by focusing on what’s happening right now. It’s healthy to process unresolved experiences from the past, just as it’s healthy to be mindful of the potential consequences of your behaviour as they may unfold, but wishing the past had been different or trying to control the outcome of something that hasn’t happened are impossible and are part of what keeps you stuck.

Factor #2: Split between Values

Antidote: Practicing Curiosity & “The Death Bed Question”

It can be hard to imagine how to move forward if you find yourself facing a split between two strong values in your relationship, particularly if your understanding of one (or both) values isn’t yet fully formed. Practicing curiosity is all about meaning-making where your values are concerned; the goal is to help you better understand your values so that you are well-positioned for decision-making. The names that we give to the values we hold – honesty, conscious parenting, engagement and connection, self-growth, etc. – are simply words used to describe a set of characteristics or a way of being that is precious to us. While the words we assign to our values can be meaningful in and of themselves, to fully understand our values and the importance they have in our lives, we have to dig deeper, past our descriptors; we have to adopt a curious attitude in order to understand not only what is important to us, but also why. If we use the value of parenting that was discussed in Part 1 as an example, practicing curiosity would mean asking yourself questions like: what is it about “parenting” that holds the most meaning for me? Is it the aspect of nurturing another being? Teaching someone? Is it the desire to create something special and unique? You may also benefit from asking yourself the question, “Whose value is this really?” Without realizing it, many of us go through life living with a set of values and expectations that belong to other people. Our parents, extended family, friends, bosses, society, culture, etc. all give us ideas about how we “should” live. Most of the time, we don’t even realize how powerful these messages are until a process of reflection and examination takes place. The process of disentangling our authentic core values from the expectations and values of others is a challenging task. Some questions that we have found most helpful for this process are:

  • Has this always been a value of yours?
  • Who else in your life shares this value?
  • Who would be the most disappointed if you did not prioritize this value?
  • Are there times when this value is not so important?
  • How important is this value to you, on a scale of 1-10?
  • What will you be risking if you do not prioritize this value at this time?

Upon reflection, most people we meet with can acknowledge that some aspects of a particular value are more important than others, and they can begin to identify their true values from those of others. By becoming more specific about your values, you may be able to create more space for negotiation with your partner where there was once no breathing room, and new possibilities for resolving the split in values may begin to emerge. For example, if upon reflection you realize that parenting a child is not really what you value but, rather, it’s the aspect of creating something special with your partner that matters most to you, this becomes a very different conversation than one where you want children and your partner doesn’t. Resolving a split between values doesn’t necessarily mean that you and your partner come to share the exact same values in the exact same ways; rather it means that both of you can find a way to live out your values together, without either person feeling like they’ve had to repress or disown an important aspect of themselves. Most differences in values are resolvable. However, there are times when, after much curiosity, reflection, and conversation, people find themselves facing a difference in values with their partner that cannot be bridged. If you’re facing an unresolvable split, this is when the “death bed question” comes in: that is, if you imagine yourself on your death bed looking back on your life, would you regret that a value (or set of values) was never realized? If the answer is “yes”, then it’s time to get really honest with yourself about whether avoiding the temporary pain of relationship dissolution is worth the life-long pain of living inauthentically. You deserve to live your best life – a life that’s in line with your values – and so does your partner. Give yourself your best chance at your best life.

Factor #3: Issues related to Self-Esteem

Antidotes: Repairing your Relationship with Yourself & Practicing Self-care

Part 1 talks about how, when needs go unvoiced (and, as a result, go unmet!) for long periods of time, this inevitably creates a sense of inner conflict which, in turn, can erode a relationship. It can be hard to understand how shifting your focus from your partner to yourself could be useful when it feels like your relationship is in trouble, but sometimes paying attention to and investigating your relationship with yourself is a necessary step towards managing relationship distress.

A healthy relationship requires that each partner is attuned to their own needs, and values themselves enough to share those needs with their partner in a direct and specific way. For example, in our work with clients, women especially seem to struggle with being specific and direct with their partner about what their needs are and how they want their partners to respond. Most commonly there is an idea that their partners should “just know what they need to do” - that asking for a need to be met somehow makes the gesture of meeting the need less meaningful - or the idea that their partner’s ability to just “know” what they need is related to how valuable they must be to them. These ideas can lead women to feel uncomfortable and disempowered when it comes to having their needs met in a relationship, resulting in tension and a fear that their partner doesn’t “know” them or “care enough” to meet their needs. Although it may seem surprising, this experience of not having your needs met in this case is less about your partner and more about your relationship with yourself. When you remain detached from what you need, or rely on your partner to “just know”, you are sending a message to yourself that you are not entitled or powerful enough to get yourself what you need. To love yourself enough to connect with your needs and validate their worthiness is the first step towards feeling better about yourself and your relationship.

Learning to love yourself and value your needs is essential for developing a healthy self-esteem. Self-love develops when you regularly turn towards yourself with kindness and engage in self-care practices. Since healthy relationships are made up of healthy individuals, caring for yourself and focusing on maintaining a positive self-esteem is an important part of caring for your relationships too! Check out our previous post on self-care for more information on how to enhance your sense of self and bolster self-esteem.

If you're experiencing relationship ambivalence, we hope that these suggestions will be helpful to you in moving out of "stuckness" and into the sense of freedom and groundedness that come from knowing where you stand.

Grow Courageously!

-Melissa & Corinne