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Home > Relationships> It's Complicated > What relational ambivalence is and how it can be productive

What relational ambivalence is and how it can be productive

Here's how, despite the negative connotations, ambivalence can save your long-term relationship

We tend to sometimes mistakenly recognise people exhibiting relational ambivalence as people with ‘walls’ built around themselves – those who keep their guard up to avoid getting hurt.
We tend to sometimes mistakenly recognise people exhibiting relational ambivalence as people with ‘walls’ built around themselves – those who keep their guard up to avoid getting hurt. (Unsplash)

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A steady diet of romantic films and Instagram feeds would have us believe that love is always unconditional— that we are always meant to have unbridled love our partner for who they are, through thick and thin. We sing along to well-composed songs dedicated to this sort of uninterrupted love that will last forever.

What’s left out of this discourse is that in reality, love is ever dynamic. A loving relationship can sometimes nurture doubt, even after years of being married or living together. Every relationship can, and maybe even ought to have very different answers to what romantic love means to them and how it plays out.

Unfortunately, we don't spend time understanding ambivalence within a relationship – most times, early signs of it, whether from oneself or one's partner are written off as ‘normal ups and downs’ in a relationship. Dealing with ambivalence the start of a relationship is chalked up to butterflies or even to an excitement about the uncertain. These mixed signals can cause one or both partners to misunderstand each other.

Identifying and better understanding ambivalence

“I could never settle down with one person," says 32-year-old website developer, Sujay Mishra from Nashik. "I have this constant fear that I’m never going to find the right one to marry. And if I do get married, what if years later I find out that she’s not the one?”

Mishra leaves behind him a string of casual hookups. His longest relationship was a three year, long-distance one. “I’ve seen very few couples around me who find peace in their partners,” he says, adding that he has "only felt exhaustion, stress and of course, the fear of being with the wrong person.”

Noted psychologist and author Ester Perel defines Relational Ambivalence as “the experience of contradictory thoughts and feelings—of love and hate, attraction and disgust, excitement and fear, contempt and envy—toward someone with whom we are in a relationship.

Having casual relationships, being overly critical of your partner or relationship, or just not investing yourself in the relationship, are tell-tale signs of an ambivalence pattern.

We tend to sometimes mistakenly recognise people exhibiting relational ambivalence as people with ‘walls’ built around themselves – those who keep their guard up to avoid getting hurt.

How it helps, and how it hinders

“The ability to integrate love and hate, frustration and tolerance, affection and distance, rather than splitting these two as separate and distinct entities is the great gift of ambilance,” explains Mukti Shah, a psychotherapist trained in Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). “Growing up in a culture that encourages univalent thinking can lead us to exile our negative feelings in our relationship which would result in resentment and guilt.”

Within a few of years of any long-term relationship, we realise that the expectation that one person should be able to fulfil all our needs is close to impossible, for both partners.

“The biggest mistake early on in my relationship is making my husband my best friend,” says Eshita Shinde, a 43 year-old homemaker from Pune. “We did everything together and I stopped making plans with my friends or my sisters who then lived nearby. The problem — isn’t it obvious? He didn’t do the same, and that left me feeling bitter and eventually resenting him for the world I had chosen to leave behind.”

Ambivalence highlights our unique capability to hold strong (and sometimes contradictory) emotions while attempting to think through decisions when it comes to a relationship.

Eshita and her husband were one of the few couples who not only noticed the growing problem quickly, but also nipped it in the bud. For Hyderabad based photographer, Roshni* (37) things weren’t so easy when her partner of eight years told her six months ago, that he wasn’t ready to get married as he didn’t believe in the institution.

“It’s a lonely feeling, to be in this relationship," she says. "We’ve been living together now for six years and suddenly, I’m not sure if this is a fear of commitment from him, or if maybe he’s not the right person for me.”

The good news however is that ambivalence isn’t all detrimental. This feat highlights our unique capability to hold strong (and sometimes contradictory) emotions while attempting to think through decisions when it comes to a relationship.

“The process of addressing ambivalence can be a life-transforming one for a person and couple’s own growth and integration,” adds Shah. “This is an opportunity to examine their own allegiance to a particular polarity and what it might mean for themselves and their relationships.”

How to resolve ambivalence

There’s only one key question to ask yourself: are you motivated to make the relationship work?

“A big part of resolving ambivalence in a long term relationship involves acknowledging and accepting that certain needs will never be met or met in the way we had hoped. But the needs that are being met are enough for us to stay in the relationship,” explains Shah. “This is perhaps the most important step. Conversations around actively finding acceptable solutions to meeting them in other ways, and redefining and strengthening the relationship, can be initiated.”

Communication is integral at any stage of a relationship, and to keep it ongoing is always a good idea. Typically, old school thought from elders says that one must accept that the journey together will come with bumps on the way. What one can do to develop on that, is to learn how to adjust or work through these bumps together.

While this could mean a period of disagreements ahead of you, it will help both partners learn to change or adapt and build a stronger bond.

Studies have shown that in long-term relationships, where commitment is high, ambivalence is in fact necessary for change — this gives the couple a chance at improvement and avoiding resentment. In fact, one could even argue that if one of the two lacks motivation or has an almost ‘I don’t care’ attitude towards working through the issues, then that itself becomes an answer.

Richa Sheth is a freelance writer based in Pune. She explores complexities within human interactions and relationships.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    21.09.2022 | 01:00 PM IST

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