On Chronic Ambivalence and the Torments of Uncertainty

Last December, on the heels of teaching Crisis to Connected (my signature course for couples trapped in gridlock), I found myself pondering a question posed to me by countless clients.

“How do I get out of chronic ambivalence?”

Before I attempt to answer this question, let me state what chronic ambivalence is not. Chronic ambivalence is not the common uncertainty typical in the early months of dating when we vet our new partner and aim to discern compatibility and shared values. Similarly, chronic ambivalence is not hanging out in relationship-limbo-hell. A term I’ve coined that refers to the painful space we find ourselves in when our marriage, once solid and strong, has morphed into a full-blown crisis and is hanging by a thread.

Instead, chronic ambivalence is that painful stuck place where your relationship perpetually seems too good to leave but too bad to stay. You feel unable to move forward because each option holds potential and peril. Like a funhouse mirror, your marriage continually reflects distorted possibilities. In one hopeful scenario, your partner takes the initiative by scheduling a babysitter, planning a date, wearing that red dress you love. In another, your partner dismisses you out-of-hand, says they’ve no interest in going for that walk, fails to greet you at the door. It’s insidious.

I remember almost twenty years ago when I got accepted into graduate school to pursue my master’s in psychology; this was (in theory) a seemingly positive opportunity that promised a better and more affluent life. But as the deadline neared to accept the enrollment invitation, slowly, my mind began to compile a list of pros and cons. On the one hand, my twenties were plagued by a feeling of being continually under-employed and equally underestimated. Despite the academic struggles plaguing my youth, my young adult self felt confident I had something to offer this world: street smarts, dedication, talent.

On the other hand, a graduate degree would cause me to incur an additional fifty-five thousand dollars in debt. A whopping sum for a would-be artist in the eighties. This, for a degree that fell entirely short of the income-earning potential of my peers who were enjoying the fruits of master’s degrees in engineering and computer science.

Ultimately, I kicked the can down the road for two years by deferring acceptance and then went about the next twenty-four months, agonizing over what to do — stuck in chronic ambivalence. This pattern of tormented uncertainty is not new to me. I spent my thirties conflicted over whether or not to pursue motherhood. More recently, at the ripe old age of fifty-three, I have been grappling with what it means to choose the lifestyle of romantic partnership over singlehood. It seems that I have an aversion to either/or scenarios constitutionally; I seek refuge (but also hideout) in the gray zones of life. I suspect I am not alone, given how many people approach me on this topic.

As a couples therapist, my mind gravitates to pondering the implications (and manifestations) of chronic ambivalence in the arena of romantic love. How does chronic ambivalence show up in a marriage? What is the toll it takes on a relationship over the years? Is it a devil’s deal, where one person settles for crumbs while the other gets to feast on their cake and eat it too? Or, are there exceptions — periods when chronic ambivalence is the wisest or healthiest stance to assume?

faces shwoing up on cloud

There’s no magic eight-ball you can shake that will tell you whether to stay or leave your relationship. Every couple is different. Unless we are painfully naive, each of us comes to love with equal doses of hope and hesitancy; this is normal and even okay. Where it gets problematic is when you feel chronically stuck in between hope and hesitation. When you choose the relationship, but not the person you are in a relationship with. You show up daily, but it’s a half-hearted kind of showing up; a maybe I can do better kind of showing up.

The truth is remaining chronically ambivalent is a choice. And since choice at its best involves being aware of pitfalls, I’d like to put forth some thoughts I’ve compiled regarding the potential implications of choosing to perpetually never choose:

Chronic ambivalence tricks you into thinking you can avoid loss, but make no mistake, loss is coming. No matter how long you idle in neutral, eventually, something will shift, even if it is not of your own volition. Even if it is because your partner has grown tired of being high-centered, trapped in a relationship that never gets traction. In that sense, chronic ambivalence is a trick you play on yourself. You tell yourself that if you don’t choose option A, you can still have option B, but you never come round to its fruits because you never choose option B. Instead, you bounce back and forth between the two like a pinball avoiding the gobble hole.

Chronic ambivalence is a form of choosing to stay the same instead of choosing to get better. Allowing (or perpetuating) yourself never to take action may feel familiar and, in turn, seem safe; the reality is that this preemptive stance will hit an expiration date at an undetermined time. And that expiration date will likely occur less thoughtfully and potentially be more destructive than if you acted with volition and proactively made a choice. Because while there is wisdom in not being rash or choosing a partner thoughtlessly, like all things, you’re aiming for a sweet spot, and that sweet spot is not keeping a loved one on hold for years while you decide if their snoring or loud chewing are dealbreakers.

Chronic ambivalence allows you to think you are keeping all options open when the reality is you are narrowing your choices. Think about it; if you go to a restaurant and keep sending back the food, will you ever be satiated? Keep doing it enough, and will the chef even want to cook for you? If you’re going to have a healthy marriage, that requires showing up for the whole mess (and magic) of it. Not handpicking the pieces you’d like or trying to customize another human being. I’m not saying you can’t make requests or (skillfully) assert influence. I’m just saying that nobody wants to be on probation post: nuptial, baby, living together (you get the gist), and that having half-a-marriage comes at a cost far greater than the perceived gains.

Chronic ambivalence is inherently lacking in mutuality — a bedrock for healthy relationships. By nature, chronic ambivalence is unfair. When one person is committed to the relationship during the good (or bad), and the other leans out (or in) depending on how the wind blows, resentment is bound to follow. This means that if you are giving yourself wholeheartedly to a half-hearted partner, it may fall on you to shift things, insist on mutuality, or leave.

Chronic ambivalence is hurtful to be on the receiving end of (so intentions do not matter). It does not matter if you think your partner is a good person or you want-to-want to be with them. Continuing to give your love tentatively while simultaneously benefitting from your partner’s commitment to you may ultimately land you with a spouse who is shutting down and increasingly turning outside of your marriage to find fulfillment or connection elsewhere because being on the receiving end of chronic ambivalence sucks (even if you are nice as pie about it).

Chronic ambivalence is, by nature, a low-commitment stance that erodes trust. It’s normal to have what Gottman calls comparison-level alternatives. Those moments when you compare what you have to alternatives you don’t. To ask yourself, am I happiest with this (job, town, school, etc.)? The problem is when you continually do that in regards to your partner (who I will call option A) and land on something other than them (option B) and, despite that, continue to show up (often feebly) in a relationship where you quietly fantasize (at least part of the time) about leaving. Your partner knows this, senses it, even if they never utter a word — trust me.

Chronic ambivalence is a way to avoid living the repercussions of your actions. As long as you don’t leave your relationship, you don’t have to navigate the fallout and grief from severing a marriage. Likewise, as long as you remain half-hearted, you don’t have to work through whatever your blocks to intimacy are. You continually bypass vulnerability, a byproduct of showing up. It’s a safe way never to live, which leads me to the next point —

Chronic ambivalence is a waste of life because you essentially put days, weeks, and likely even years on hold. You are showing up half-heartedly for love (and life) — it’s a lukewarm way of living in the world, and this world is never a given; it could end in the blink of an eye. Do you genuinely want to spend your days stuck in maybe?

Breaking out of chronic ambivalence means choosing to run headlong into heartbreak because, ultimately, I think there are some things we can never know. Most poignantly, we cannot know the trajectories of choices we will never make. Roads not taken are landscapes that we will never travel. There is grief there for sure. When you pick a partner, you choose a set of problems and a set of qualities that you (hopefully) find endearing. You say goodbye to other possible lives: the lover who was more artist than scientist, the girlfriend who valued spark over manners, the guy who dreamed of five babies and a farm. Each is a ship that sailed, and part of grace is gently waving them on, then turning towards where you’ve staked your heart — the bounty before you — and opening up your arms.

Chronic ambivalence = sometimes you must choose your torment. Ask yourself, what is the worst that will happen if you throw yourself entirely into your relationship? And likewise, what is the worst that will happen if you cut your losses and leave? Chances are both scenarios will result in considerable pain and a handful of gains. It’s been my experience that sometimes, chronic ambivalence is an outgrowth of that truth, that hurt is coming, and you are trying to thwart the inevitable. Still, avoid as you might, you may be forced to choose the lesser of two considerably painful choices, which gets into gambling because the truth is —

Chronic ambivalence is all about risk (and your tolerance of it). Loving is not for the faint of heart. Eventually, if you love, you will find yourself facedown in the arena. There are blood, sweat, and tears to be had. Critics (maybe your partner, maybe your own) shout from above. And ultimately love involves loss, no matter how long it lasts, because someday, somehow, someone must go, and nothing is permanent, no matter how much we will it so (and lord knows I’ve willed it so).

So I try to take that in when I struggle with chronic ambivalence in all its manifestations. I try to remember that I have little choice concerning if I will get heartbroken but some semblance of control (on a good day) in how I get heartbroken. It’s a sober reminder that even love on a dull day, a hard day, and a lonely day is a gift. That risk is inherent in being alive, and that love is a courageous and powerful life-stance even when we choose to walk away from it because sometimes that’s the most loving thing we can do.

Are you on the fence about whether to stay or leave your marriage? Do you feel you have tried everything but still feel trapped in relationship-limbo-hell? Join me for my Free Webinar, Is My Marriage Worth Saving? I will be offering it on three different dates in October and will be available to answer all of your questions, including options for working with me.

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