Relational Ambivalence: Should I Stay or Should I Go? (Part I)

This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “Relational Ambivalence: Should I Stay or Should I Go? (Part I).” To listen to this episode, click here.

In this article, we are going to begin to unpack the question, “Should I stay or should I go?” Yep, we are talking about Relational Ambivalence. Because this topic is so big, we have created a two-part series. This is Part I, and we will drop Part II in a separate article. Here’s the overview of what I am going to cover:

First, I am going to define and operationalize ambivalence, and I am going to propose and argue that Relational Ambivalence is a relational process. In other words, it is a feeling that lives inside of one partner, but it plays out in the space between partners. I will also give you three Relational Self-Awareness questions to help you understand this idea more deeply.

Next, I am going to offer some ideas about why Relational ambivalence might be more common, and more upsetting, right now.

And finally, I am going to invite you to step into a different perspective on patience.

As a little preview, in the next article, I am going to talk you through 7 practices that can help you move from stuck to clear when grappling with varying degrees of relational ambivalence.

Three Things to Keep in Mind Before We Start

  1. This is a huge topic. As always, I trust that you will take what lands for you and leave the rest. If you know my work, you know that I am not going to tell you what to do. There is no point in this article where I will say, “If you are feeling this and this, you should break up, but if you are feeling this and this, you should stay.” Rather, over the course of this article and the next one, I am going to offer you perspectives, points of reflection, a bit of research, and some practices that can loosen the stuckness and help you create more clarity and ease inside of you. 
  2. Ambivalence is a feeling that can arise at any point in a relationship’s journey, but as I did my research for this episode, I was thinking about three scenarios. (1) “I am early in dating someone, but I don’t know whether to become exclusive,” (2)  “I have been dating someone, but I don’t know if this relationship is enough,” and (3) “I am partnered or married, but I don’t know if I want to stay in this relationship.” Each of these scenarios presents a different landscape of risks, benefits, thresholds and consequences for staying or leaving, as does your age, your gender, and your relationship history. So again, my goal for you in this episode is to take what feels helpful, leave the rest, and feel a ton of freedom to adapt this content to your unique situation.
  3. I am going to be talking about relationship dynamics that fall into the “normative” range, not situations of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse. In situations of abuse, the question of stay or go is complicated by trauma, potentially dependence, and the need for safety planning.

Part I: Defining and Operationalizing Relational Ambivalence

Let’s get clear on what we’re talking about. I went looking for some really good definitions of ambivalence, and here’s what I found in an academic article by Palmberger from 2019. Ambivalence is:

  • “Simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (such as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action.” 
  • “Continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite).” 
  • “Uncertainty as to which approach to follow.” 

Ambivalence is an emotional/cognitive/behavioral oscillation between “I’m in and I want this,” and “I’m out and I don’t want this.” It’s an internal tug of war.

Here’s where I’m going to get tricky on you. Although we are defining ambivalence as an internal experience, an internal tug of war, ambivalence has relational consequences. What happens inside of me impacts the we. This is the heart of Relational Self-Awareness, isn’t it? Getting curious about how our thoughts and feelings, and the behaviors that emerge from our thoughts and feelings, affect our partner and affect the dynamic between us. Relational ambivalence is a felt experience within me that plays out between us. 

I am stressing this point because I think it’s so easy to miss. What might keep you from viewing your ambivalence as a relational dynamic? Here are a few possibilities.

  1. Perhaps you have lost sight of the fact that ambivalence plays out relationally because you have internalized some sneaky and pervasive cultural beliefs about love. We tend to approach our romantic relationships in a highly individualistic way. Either I choose you or I don’t choose you. When I hear someone saying that they are trying to figure out whether the person they are dating “checks all the boxes,” it’s like nails on a chalkboard for me. Relational Self-Awareness is about dynamics, dances, the kind of love story that the two of us would write together. Marriage and family therapist Dr. Bill Doherty says that we bring a consumer mentality into our relationships. We seem to ask, “What have you done for me lately?” When we approach a relationship that way, it makes sense that we lose sight of the fact that ambivalence lives inside of me, but it gets played out in the relational space.
  2. Perhaps you are feeling so stuck and so unsure of how to proceed that your stuckness is creating negative thoughts about yourself. You may feel so disempowered and down on yourself that you lose sight of the fact that how you “show up” shapes the dynamic. You lose sight of your power.
  3. Related to this, but a layer deeper, perhaps your core wound is that you are at risk of feeling unimportant. This wound perhaps originated in a family of origin dynamic in which your caregivers were otherwise occupied– with their own mental health challenges, work stressors, addictions, relationships dramas, whatever. Now, as you feel ambivalent about whether to stay or go, you are blind to the fact that your absence would matter to your partner. And you are blind to the fact that your partner is likely noticing the behavioral manifestations of your ambivalence.

Let’s look at two sample sequences that highlight that ambivalence arising inside of an individual affects relationship dynamics.

  • Sequence 1: I feel ambivalent→ I retreat or hesitate making plans or take a while to respond to their texts→ my partner reacts and retreats→ I “code” them as unavailable and become more ambivalent.
  • Sequence 2: I feel ambivalent→ I become critical because I am focusing on what I’m not getting instead of what I am getting→ my partner becomes defensive or critical or shut down→ I “code” them as hostile or unavailable and become more ambivalent.

Finally, I want to point out that there’s a relationship between investment and ambivalence. The less I invest in the relationship, the more ambivalent I feel. The more ambivalent I feel, the less I invest in the relationship. The paradox here is that full investment, full accountability, full effort on your part may actually be a more efficient route to clarity. If you’re taking responsibility for your side of the street so to speak, you will be better able to discern the next step that feels good and right for you.

See what happens when you start to look at Relational Ambivalence as a dynamic, as a dance between you and your partner. Here are a three questions you can ask yourself:

  1. What am I avoiding talking about with my partner because I am unsure about staying versus going?
  2. If I felt fully invested in this relationship, what would I be doing differently?
  3. If someone asked my partner about my level of commitment, how would my partner respond? What would be the cue or the clues or the tells that my partner might be using to assess my level of commitment?

Part II: Why is Relational Ambivalence more common these days?

Lately, I have been inundated with this question of “Should I stay or should I go?”– from clients, students, listeners, and followers. For sure this reflects a number of factors—it’s “multiply determined,” as psychologists say. But I have some ideas about why this feeling of relational stuckness may be more common than ever.

Biggest picture: Many of you have heard me talk about the “role-to-soul” shift, the fact that our model of intimate relationships has largely shifted from a “role-to-role” structure to a “soul-to-soul” structure. Historically, relationships have been highly role-bound arrangements. What it meant to be a good husband or a good wife was clearly defined. By the way, I use the words husband and wife intentionally, because when we are talking about role-bound relationship structures, we’re talking about heterosexuality being assumed and normative and the only way to be. It’s one of the reasons why this shift away from role-bound relationship structures is so important—because it creates the possibility for diverse and inclusive relationships! But when intimate relationships were role-to-role arrangements, as long as he was providing and she was tending the home and the children, people were good to go. There was not much to complain about. I love that we have raised the bar. I love that we are wanting and needing soul-to-soul relationships. I love that we want to be seen, heard, and understood in our relationships. I love that we want our partner to celebrate our uniqueness and that we want to witness and support our partner’s evolution. I’m here for all of that. But this is a radically elevated set of expectations. It means that we have to be willing to put in the work. We have to be willing to practice Relational Self-Awareness. It also means that we can feel more easily confused about the viability of a relationship. As Esther Perel says, “Historically we have asked, “Am I happy here?” and today we ask, “Could I be happier somewhere else?”” These are very different questions, and the question we tend to ask today, “Could I be happier somewhere else?” can set us up for relational ambivalence.

Tighter picture: We are living through a time of questioning and deconstructing so many institutions like health care, criminal justice, education, etc. We are asking questions like, Who was this institution built to serve? Whose interests does this institution protect? Whose needs are not being considered or taken into account, and why? It makes sense that we are asking the same of the institutions of intimacy: sexual monogamy and marriage. I am going to keep supporting people loving each other in ways that feel nourishing and right for them. I am also going to keep imagining how sexual monogamy and marriage can be reimagined in ways that are deeply inclusive and built on equity and Relational Self-Awareness.

Tightest picture: We are living through a time of a collective trauma of a global pandemic and the massive blast radius that has resulted. Crisis = turning point. I have every confidence that we will all divide our life stories into the time before COVID and the time after COVID (whatever that means). For some of us, we will divide our lives up that way because we experienced the immensely personal trauma of losing someone we loved or because we served on the front lines during those critical months. But for all of us, we experienced disruption and uncertainty on some level, and all of the thoughts, feelings, and shifts in sense of self that go along with disruption and uncertainty!

Living through a pandemic affects our intimate relationships. Research from prior disasters has found that when there are collective crises with protracted periods of recovery, you see a spike in both the marriage rate and the divorce rate. It’s as if some people say, “Life’s too short to languish in a relationship that is just okay” and other people say, “Life’s too short to mess around with casual relationships. I want to go all in.”

A few months ago, I collected some data on Instagram. Not scientifically rigorous for sure, but a bit of a finger on the pulse of what folks are experiencing. I heard from nearly 2,000 people from around the world and asked them about major life changes they had experienced during the first two years of the pandemic. 29% of respondents experienced a big move (another city, another state, another country), 47% experienced a job change, and 54% experienced a change in their relationship status. Of that 54%, 38% went from single to partnered/married, 62% went from partnered/married to single/divorced, and 70% reported that they went through more than one relationship status change. Bottom line: Lots of flux!

When I think about why relational ambivalence and struggles with commitment might be more common during this time of upheaval, I think about the fact that commitment is antithetical to uncertainty. In the face of uncertainty, our urge may be to remain agile, not tied down, able to pivot and adapt and respond quickly. Intimate partnership slows us down. We are making decisions for two. What I choose affects you. What you need affects me. Our fates are entwined. This is a lovely part of commitment, that sense that you have someone in the trenches with you. But it is also a heavy part of commitment and one that can feel like a burden during a time of upheaval. So, it might just feel harder to become and stay committed.

Another feature of the global pandemic that likely affects our love lives is immense decision fatigue. Is this gathering safe? Should I travel? Can I see my grandmother? Do I return to work or look for a job where I can be hybrid or remote? Should we eat indoors or outdoors? And 10,000 more decisions that we have made. If you are struggling in your intimate relationship, it might be hard to decide whether to stay or go because you are tapped out on making decisions. 

The last thing I want to say is that the experience of a collision between the problems of the world and your life is a new experience for people with privilege. The nature of privilege is that it acts like a shield, protecting people from feeling the impact of macro system problems. The pandemic has destroyed that shield. For sure, people who occupy one or more marginalized identities have borne the brunt of the pandemic, but the pandemic has left nobody’s life untouched. If you have lived for decades with that sense that the problems of the world happen over there, and my life happens over here, this experience is quite disorienting. And, I would argue, that it may feel especially disorienting to reckon with the fact that the pandemic has affected our love lives. I had a graduate student whose wedding date had to change because of the pandemic and she said to me, “In no world did I imagine that my wedding date would change.” It was disorienting to have to pivot because of a global crisis. Disorientation affects our emotions and it affects our relationship dynamics.

I cannot tell you how many hours I’ve spent in couples therapy sessions over the past two plus years sitting with the question: “What’s you? What’s me? What’s COVID?” Although we can’t ever figure out the answer to that question with 100% certainty, the context matters, and it matters a lot. The context helps us be compassionate and patient with ourselves and each other. The context helps us have a bit of grace when things feel hard or unclear. Just an FYI, this piece about the pandemic is something that Esther Perel and I talked about in Episode 1 of Reimagining Love. If you haven’t listened to this episode of my podcast, I highly recommend it!

Part III: Perspective on Patience

I want to wrap this episode up by talking about patience. It’s really hard to be in a place of uncertainty. It’s stressful, emotionally taxing, and, as I said earlier, it can affect your sense of self-esteem or self-confidence. I want to invite you to remember that if you are in a relationship and you are not actively choosing to leave, you are choosing to stay. In not making a decision to leave, you are staying. For now. For today. 

I want you to see what happens if you reframe your staying as a choice. Rather than stuck, you are currently in. This reframe can help you remember that you’re a protagonist in the story of your life. You have agency as evidenced by the fact you remain in the relationship. That’s a kind of choice. There is a beautiful quote from French sculptor, Auguste Rodin that says, “Patience is also a form of action.”

I want you to see what happens if you view your staying as an act of patience. Perhaps the opposite of ambivalence is not certainty, but patience. Patience is a grace I want to invite you to offer yourself, one that is important for either ultimate outcome and one that is important whether you’re leaning towards staying or towards going. The process from confused to clear is always going to teach you something, whether you end up deciding that the relationship must end, or whether you decide to invest more.

  1. Notice what happens inside of you when you consider this reframe? What do you feel in your body? Where do you feel it?
  2. Check in with yourself: What stories do you attach to patience? Where do those stories come from?
  3. Complete this sentence: People who are patient are…
  4. If you complete that sentence in a critical way (People who are patient are weak or self-abandoning or suckers) check in. Whose voice is that?
  5. You can take this a step further and write a letter to self about why you are staying the course. I am saying literally sit down, and writing: Dear Self, I am staying in this relationship for now because…. In writing this letter you might find it helpful to do something I call “Widening the Lens of Progress.” Reflect on where your relationship stands now versus six months ago. Now versus a year ago. Sometimes when a moment or a chapter is painful, we get a bit myopic. We lose sight of the bigger picture. And that bigger picture might be that the trend line is going up. When you widen the lens of progress you might see that the two of you are more committed than six months ago, or handling moments of upset with more compassion and care than a year ago. This certainly may not be the case, but I am just planting that seed. Writing this letter to yourself might be illuminating. Write mindfully and without expectation. Engage in the process without attachment to any particular outcome. 
  6. Sometimes I am in conversation with a client or a student who has made the choice to leave the relationship, and it took them some time to come to that decision, and they will say, “Why did I wait so long?” or “I wasted so much time.” In those conversations, I encourage that person to not beat themselves up for the time they spent in confusion or stuck-ness. Perhaps they needed to hang in there for a while to feel into that decision. Perhaps they needed to practice patience to reach the decision they ultimately made, and that couldn’t have come any sooner. If you’re in this spot, your letter to self should include: I am committed to not beating myself up for the time I spent stuck, and if/when I notice that I am beating myself up, I will practice self-compassion and remember to trust my process.

The final quote I will leave you with is from an unknown source, and it says, “Patience is waiting while working.” You have worked by reading this article. You will work by allowing this content to settle inside of you in the coming days. And we will pick up our work in the next article, Should I Stay or Should I Go? Getting Unstuck from Relational Ambivalence. 

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