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When Ambivalence Becomes a Chronic Pattern in Relationships

A woman looks at her boyfriend who stands a few meters away with his hands in his pockets, he looks ambivalent.

This article discusses the nature of ambivalence in relationships and the resulting dynamics. My perspective on this topic has developed over the past 20 years of working with individuals and couples and noticing how these dynamics emerge.

What Is Ambivalence?

Ambivalence occurs in intimate relationships when there is a coexistence of opposing emotions and desires towards the other person that creates an uncertainty about being in the relationship.

It is our nature to split our experience into polarities, such as good/bad or right/wrong and emotions such as love/hate, joy/sadness. One could say that we constantly deal with the opposite of our experience even if that is unconscious. As we become closer to our beloved and feel connected to them, our experience is defined by the possibility of separation. Every time we say “yes” there is a “no” in the background informing our choice.

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If I am saying “yes” to something wholeheartedly, I can feel that yes in every cell of my being. “No” has been considered and rejected, however fleetingly, and my “yes” has the quality of certainty. If my desire to say “no” interferes with my “yes,” it will be said with hesitation and doubt, and a lingering uneasy feeling that causes me to hold back; I am unable to fully commit to that “yes.” So not only does the opposite polarity define my experience but the degree to which I have integrated it into my consciousness will also affect my experience. Ambivalence could be said to occur when we are stuck between two polarities, and unable to reconcile them.

Ambivalence and Conflict

All relationships contain opposing desires at times; this is the essence of conflict. The degree to which both ends of any polarity are conscious or hidden will affect how partners deal with conflict between them. In addition, how much each individual identifies with one end of the polarity will also determine the ability to resolve conflict.

For example; if I identify with being kind and cannot tolerate the notion that I can be unkind, the unkind aspects to my psyche will become unconscious and drain energy away from my ability to be kind. I will not be fully present or authentic in my acts of kindness, and in all likelihood project ‘unkindness’ on to my partner. By being rigidly identified with one end of a polarity and blocking awareness of the intolerable aspect means we cannot be fully present. If both individuals in a relationship are identifying their nature in this way, then what they create between them will also be an inability to tolerate certain experiences and make resolving conflict difficult.

A Chronic Pattern of Ambivalence

So if the nature of ambivalence is the inability to resolve an internal conflict that results in a lack of presence; a common way of expressing this is confusion. Ambivalence and confusion can be temporary states in all relationships, as we take time to resolve opposing or new information. However, where ambivalence becomes a chronic response to the world, confusion can become a defensive stance that protects us from being fully present. Expressing confusion habitually regarding what we want or need reinforces our sense of helplessness. “I don’t know” does not give us a sense of mastery over our world, nor does it give our partner anything to go on. The inability of either partner to move forward in the relationship, either to leave or to move closer, reinforces this helplessness. This chronic pattern becomes a problem in relationships by inhibiting deeper intimacy.

A chronic pattern of ambivalence typically generates a dynamic in relationships where one partner is identified as uncommitted and the other as wanting commitment. Each partner will develop behaviors around this conflict in an attempt to pull their partner closer, or push them away. Each partner is expressing a particular role in the conflict over being in the relationship or out of it, but essentially both partners are creating the ambivalent tension between them by being identified with one end of the polarity.

In other words, if we were to reduce this to a simple yes and no—the two ends of a polarity would be, “yes I want more with you” and “no I do not want more with you.” Partners are identified with either yes or no, and between them creating a stalemate. We can assume from this that both partners have not resolved their own internal ambivalence as neither of them can commit themselves to either being in or out of the relationship, and neither of them, in this dynamic, are fully engaged with the other. Often as one moves away the other will express more desire for the relationship, and the ‘certainty’ expressed by the committed partner is a desire to hold on in reaction to the greater pulling away of the other.

Because ambivalence pulls the individual and the relationship in different directions there is an atmosphere of uncertainty and unpredictability that creates instability between the partners. There can be an atmosphere of impending doom and dissolution of the relationship. Partners often breakup many times, or threaten to breakup. As time goes on the relationship takes on the characteristics of an emotional roller coaster where they alternate between feeling hopeful and breaking up. Within this atmosphere, it can be very difficult for both partners to be themselves, and be open with each other. When faced with the possibility that it will end at any moment, anything that either of them believes could cause the relationship to end will be denied or held back. As each partner withholds aspects of himself or herself from the other, this creates distance, and thereby increases anxiety over the possibility of separation. It becomes a vicious circle.

Typically, the partner who expresses commitment feels hurt and rejected by the other. The feeling that they are not good enough for the other to fully commit to them creates a reaction of trying to please, in the hopes of increasing the other partner’s desire to stay. The partner who carries more uncertainty often feels guilty that they are not able to give more, and finds it increasingly difficult to voice their true feelings. They start to dance around each other—trying to anticipate how the other is going to react, and holding back thoughts, feelings, or desires if they think their partner will react badly to them. In this way the relationship becomes more and more dishonest.

Both partners are in a relationship that isn’t the way they want it to be, but neither is able to leave. This is the essence of ambivalence. The preoccupation with separation, either wanting more separation, or being afraid of separation from the other, is the foundation of the anxiety that the relationship sits on. This preoccupation means that each individual cannot rest in the relationship; it is not a place of sanctuary and support but a place of deprivation. Even though there may be times where both partners can have fun and feel connected it is short lived, as both partners carry an underlying dissatisfaction that doesn’t get resolved. A lot of time and energy gets taken up dealing with this underlying anxiety and deprivation.

Moving Beyond Ambivalence

From this perspective, the alternative to living with a chronic pattern of ambivalence would be to resolve internal conflicts that prevent one from taking action, making decisions, expressing how you feel, and being fully present. Issues around connection, intimacy, and separation are often at the root of an ambivalent stance. To be fully here is to accept the fragility and imperfections of life, to “go for it” despite the possibility it could be gone in the next moment.

© Copyright 2007 by Delyse Ledgard, MA, therapist in Vancouver, British Columbia. All Rights Reserved.

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  • Therapist Fresno December 11th, 2007 at 12:25 PM #1

    Is it possible that ambivalence develops in a simpler way? Maybe ambivalence develops when people don’t communicate and continually go in different directions for a variety of reasons including career and raising children. I like how the author develops the connection between ambivalence and how it can cause panic in a relationship. Feeling one partner pull away can certainly cause feelings of uneasiness and immediacy in the other partner.

  • Therapist Great Neck December 12th, 2007 at 8:10 AM #2

    Maybe you are confusing ambivalence for disinterest. I think in this case ambivalence is more of an inability to commit to going in one particular direction with a relationship. It may be that ambivalence is referring to not being able to decide if you want to stay in the relationship or not. The author certainly illustrates how easy it is for a relationship to be soured and, really, ruined by ambivalence.

  • Therapist Hewitt December 13th, 2007 at 6:26 AM #3

    Maybe the author is referring to ambivalence between two people rather than within one part of the relationship. One part of the couple wants to continue the relationship while the other is considering terminating it. I like how the author draws the conclusion that being ambivalent in a relationship does not allow someone to feel “mastery over their world.” I think that it is important to recognize that sometimes it is a state of being such as ambivalence rather than the other person in the relationship that creates that feeling of lack of power. Of course, sometimes it is the other person. But, it’s good to look at this side as well.

  • Couples Retreat October 11th, 2009 at 10:27 AM #4

    I think you hit on a lot of good things in this article.

  • No Name February 12th, 2010 at 8:39 AM #5

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time!!! WOW!!

  • Chana June 10th, 2010 at 1:53 PM #6

    I read the article and it was like a balm on a wound for me. Thank you.

    I feel quite ambivalent in my relationships (always), and I notice it is when I am actually present and feel close to someone. Currently, I am experiencing this in my relationship with my therapist, as I am the one pulling and wanting to pull away. Out of sheer desire to be completely honest, I share these raw feelings… and it hurts me to see how this honesty affects others… for the look of moist eyes and the tightness of body parts protecting the frame and heart always feel cold and confusing to me.

    I have no idea what to do, but to continue trying to resolve this seemingly on my own…

    In hearing the voice of this article, I felt like someone out there was (for a brief moment) accepting me and connecting with me… and this was an absolute RELIEF and healing, even if it was brief…

    Thank you.


  • Hillary June 24th, 2010 at 4:54 PM #7

    I googled “am i ambivalent?” after my therapist suggested my ex was ambivalent. I questioned her choice of words because I thought of it more like indifference. Like it meant he didn’t care one way or the other. I saw it as more of a hot n’ cold thing. I pull away and show the side of myself I’ve always EXPRESSED: Independant, indifferent, strong, defiant- often with-holding affection and sharing of feelings.

    This would result in him being the one to express fears, inner most thoughts, love, jealousy, more attention/affection… etc.
    Basically everything I wanted from him before that I wasn’t getting so I stopped trying/hoping and POOF – Mr. Perfect shows up.

    I do not allow myself to connect emotionally with men. I have no problem getting over a guy that I have a physical connection with. Often it just takes a few days. They may have thought there was more there, but I didn’t feel anything for them. My ex and I broke up and got together so often that it seemed like it would either NEVER work, or NEVER end. My relationship before that was pretty much the same but MUCH worse. I still hold many emotional scars from that trainwreck. I guess I just wonder what the way out of this is? My therapist says this ambivalent relationship will continue until I make the decision to end it. I have done that MANY times, only to have a change of heart when they try to come back.. Why would I take them back if I broke up with them because I couldn’t trust them in the first place? Is leaving this person and never seeing them again, never trying to talk to them again, the best alternative? Would you classify an ambivalent relationship as “toxic”?
    How does one deal with their own ambivalence due to a fear of intimacy? I fear I won’t be able to have a healthy relationship with anyone until I figure that out…

  • Sean Johnson June 1st, 2011 at 4:56 PM #8

    This article is very good. It has made many things clear to me. But I am still a little confused on how I can treat ambivalence in my relationship.

  • Kate Taylor March 16th, 2012 at 12:18 AM #9

    How does one break free from ambivalence in a relationship? This describes my relationship perfectly. The both of us so desperately want to/try to be close, but one or the other is always holding back. Our good times are short lived. While we both claim to be ‘madly in love’ it seems neither of us can open up to each other. We have tried breaking up and just keep going back to each other. I am tired of this dance. Any advice?

  • Kate May 27th, 2012 at 9:44 AM #10

    One of the best articles I have read in recent years.
    Having just come away from a four year relationship with an ‘ambivalent’guy it makes more sense of what has been happening.
    Sadly, for now, yet again, we have split up and am so sad!! :-(
    At least I am learning and understanding what is happening now! I was happy to commit and he really could not make up his mind…..

  • Relieved May 29th, 2012 at 9:17 PM #11

    This article accurately describes my relationship and has helped me to understand what’s happening. Thank you!

  • C March 10th, 2013 at 5:46 AM #12

    I appreciate being able to explore more through your article about ambivalence in relationship. I once heard a relationship expert say that there are, I believe she said seven areas of conflict the typical relationship has – areas where the partners disagree and there is not a resolution. So I imagine there is ambivalence in most relationships – perhaps it’s a matter of acknowledging this to make people less anxious about it as well as sharing honest feelings, including with a good therapist if they cannot do it alone. It is interesting what was said about projecting one’s disinherited/disowned feeling on the partner. It is a reminder to me that there is ambivalence in other relationships as well, and that this is normal, such as with one’s children. Thank you for discussing and shedding light on this subject!

  • Anna April 2nd, 2013 at 7:15 PM #13

    I am going through a relationship with an ambivalent partner. We met, after 12 months he became cold and distant, despite saying he loved me. We broke up – he didn’t want to try again, and then he did. And then he continued to become close, then distant, and then hurt me, until I ended things..and then we kept in contact and things were going well..until he gets scared it won’t work and then backs away…and then contacts me again to get together..its very confusing..and I believe stems from growing up with dysfunctional parents….who not hate each other…sometimes people like this can’t have a functional, giving relationship until they’ve worked through their issues, or find someone who is willing to sacrifice their own happiness and put up with being treated hot and cold….unfortunately my partner doesn’t acknowledge his own faults, and blames me for the relationship not being perfect. It’s such a shame because when we hang out without the pressure of the relationship – we get along so well. He seems so afraid of being in a committed relationship because he thinks he’ll end up like his parents did. It comes down to the amount of pain you’re willing to endure to be with the person. I love him – but I am also very happy and carefree by nature and I don’t know how much I can take.

  • paul April 27th, 2013 at 6:35 PM #14

    only just found this site,but all on here is whats happening in my life and honestly…need help!! she is my life but cannot believe how it always ends up my fault!?

  • Michelle May 31st, 2014 at 6:18 AM #15

    Anna, I am going thru the exact same thing but he cannot let me go entirely when I decided octant take this anymore. He can’t handle the thought of me being with someone else. I’ve had enough tho because it hurts and I’m sick of being happy then unhappy. I’m losing my love for him.

  • Renee August 25th, 2014 at 1:02 PM #16

    I have an M.S. in counseling. I believe a solution could be tied to recognizing you may have attachment issues. Many people live in fear of “what if”, paralyzing their ability to remain vulnerable to another person. Sharing ones heart is the most vulnerable place humans can be in. You are giving another person the power to crush you emotionally or love you completely. And those of us who have had relationships end may be reserved and fearful. A pulling back may happen when we have “triggers” that remind us of some hurtful experience in our past. All of this is usually unconscious. And sometimes we feel too good and wonder when it will end, again landing in fear mode and thus sabotaging the very thing we were afraid of. Solution is to know yourself, understand your insecurities, this is about you not them and seek professional help if you are tired of drama. Communicate your fears, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and putting yourself out there is the solution to a healthy functional relationship. Being with someone who has baggage is up to you. Work on you and know what you can and can’t deal with. Couple counseling can also be helpful.

  • horatio October 15th, 2014 at 5:45 AM #17

    the article helped me understand several things about my current situation. i am coming up to a year of being in a “relationship” with an ambivalent man. it is a very confusing and draining process. and it is indeed a process. unfortunately, the process has no end product. it’s a never-ending, blind-folded roller coaster ride. with him at the controls. we, those willing to commit and nurture and grow the relationship, are the ones who make concessions. each time the playing field is altered and the goal posts moved, we agree to the new rules. and we play accordingly. until they are moved again. and the cycle continues. as scott peck says in ‘the road less travelled’, the only way to end a game is to stop playing it. period. and the ambivalent partner will play the game forever, until the committed one picked up the ball and, finally, goes home.

  • Ms Ambivalent November 3rd, 2014 at 10:41 AM #18

    I agree with what you have written.
    I have just called it a day with a man I was dating. I kept looking for a get-out, and today I found one. It was a ridiculous reason for quitting with him and now I regret it. But I am not going to try to get him back because I know it’s not fair on him. I already hurt his feelings.
    I see a therapist and have established that I have attachment issues. Over a year in therapy and I don’t seem to be getting better, though I have more awareness and knowledge. Maybe I will be able to put it into practise one fine day. The drama is so tiring and it’s not nice or good to hurt people.

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