By Robin Levick, MFT

Ambivalence is an important concept, and one that is often misunderstood.  It was coined in 1910 by Swiss psychologist Eugen Blueler, and it means:

1. Simultaneously experiencing or expressing opposing or contradictory feelings, beliefs, or motivations.
2. Alternately having one opinion or feeling, and then the opposite.

From ambivalence, from German Ambivalenz, from Latin ambi- (“in two ways”) + valeō (“be strong”) [wiktionary.com]

In everyday conversation, ambivalence is often used as a synonym for indecision or indifference.  It means something more though; having “simultaneous conflicting feelings” is different than not knowing, or not caring, what you feel or want. Ambivalence is a state of psychic tension in which part of you wants one thing, and part of you wants another.  This state of dynamic tension can be uncomfortable, and can manifest as anxiety. Because “knowing what you want,” “single-minded ambition,” and “whole-hearted loving” are held up as unqualified good things in our culture, ambivalence gets looked down upon or treated as weakness or deficiency.

While nobody wants to feel paralyzed, the capacity to sit with ambivalence, to embrace it, to feel the conflicting feelings and the tension within, and to wait until the whole picture is more clear before taking action, is an important skill and a marker of psychological development. Since ambivalence is inevitable in life, a lack of ability to acknowledge and experience it leads people to use problematic psychological defense mechanisms.

Ambivalence plays an important role in romantic relationships. Creating a healthy, intimate, adult relationship isn’t easy.  It is made more difficult by fantasies we internalize from fairy tales and romantic comedies, in which the former features a lack of ambivalence in a relationship, and the latter often a relationship in which one party holds all the ambivalence.  This often leaves people having doubts when they inevitably come up on ambivalence in their own, real relationships.  Thoughts spring up like, “it shouldn’t be this hard” or, “I want someone who knows what they want.”  This confuses the consuming nature of lust with the inescapable ambivalence of attaching to another human, which is both exciting and risky.  An absence of ambivalence should probably be more worrisome than the simultaneous awareness of both a desire for stability and intimacy, and a desire for freedom and independence.  Often people will complain about a partner being ambivalent towards committing to the relationship, but then come into awareness of their own ambivalence later, after their partner finally commits.  It is a sign of a healthy relationship with partners can talk openly about their conflicting desires and impulses: Their wish to be closer and their wish for more separation, their wish for security and their wish for freedom, their liking and disliking of each other, and the reality that they can sometimes feel these conflicting things at the same time.

In summary, here are 4 reasons to embrace ambivalence:

  • Greater Intimacy:

    Intimacy is facilitated by sharing your experience and having it received and understood by another. If your internal experience is ambivalence, there are multiple experiences that you might want to share, and that requires disclosing “part of me feels this way, part of me feels that way.”  If you are worried how this will be received, you might say, “I am feeling more than one thing at the same time, and I am not sure how to talk to you about that.  I am worried how it will make you feel to hear all of what I am thinking and feeling.”

  • Better Decision Making:

    Bad decisions are often made quickly in an effort to avoid the discomfort of ambivalence.  Big decisions need time to be thought through, and often more time is available if it is asked for.  “I know you would like an answer right away, but this is important and so I need time to consider it carefully.” Of course, most people have the experience of not being able to make a decision because of the intensity of their ambivalence. First, let go of any self-criticism you have for feeling ambivalent.  Next, see if you can figure out all the emotions contained in your ambivalence. Is there something you are scared of? What will you have to feel if you make either decision?  These feelings are what you likely need help with – find someone to talk to who can help you feel what you need to feel, and then come back to the decision.

  • Complex Thinking:

    Holding ambivalence illuminates the grey area.  Black and white, good and bad thinking is limiting and rigid, and often forecloses on new possibilities.  Holding ambivalence facilitates creativity, dynamic problem solving, and abstract thinking.

  • Self Awareness:

    Avoidance of ambivalence robs you of the opportunity to learn about your unconscious.  An urgent need to know one’s mind paradoxically manifests in decreased self-awareness.  Embracing ambivalence facilitates a willingness to be curious about one’s internal world.

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