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

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

Welcome back! Today we’re doing another deep dive as Part 2 of our series about Relational Ambivalence. Hopefully you have already read the first part of this series. If not, please check out the previous blog article, Relational Ambivalence: Should I Stay or Should I Go? (Part I). In that article, I helped you bring Relational Self-Awareness to this feeling of stuckness and lack of clarity. If you’re all caught up and ready to go, keep on reading.

         In the last article, I talked about what Relational Ambivalence is, and I challenged you to view Relational Ambivalence as an experience that happens inside of you but that plays out between you and your partner. I talked about why Relational Ambivalence might be more common than ever. And then I offered you a perspective on patience.

         I hope that by breaking this important content into two parts, I’ve given you some time to digest and reflect on that first part, because today what I am going to offer you are eight things you can do that can help you move from stuckness to clarity. By way of preview, these eight strategies are:

  1. Couples Therapy
  2. Individual Therapy
  3. Motivation Check
  4. “What is blocking my knowing?”
  5. The Empty Chairs Exercise
  6. Personal Epistemologies
  7. Devotion to small choices
  8. Journal prompts

As I said in Part I of this series, because Relational Ambivalence can occur at any stage of relationship development, some of this content is going to feel more relevant to your situation and some is going to feel less relevant. You get to take what feels helpful and leave the rest! 

Reminder that there’s a bodacious and bountiful handout that accompanies these two articles. Head to to grab your copy. Additionally, I wrote an article a while back called “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” The article reviews some interesting data I gathered on Instagram.

Strategy #1: Couples Therapy

Your ambivalence about your relationship does not happen in a vacuum. It arises out of some concern you’re experiencing in the relationship. Is this amount of fighting “normal” or healthy? Why won’t my partner open up to me? Something feels off with our sexual connection. I don’t know if we want the same things in life. Can I get my needs met in this relationship?

If any or all of these are fueling your Relational Ambivalence, couples therapy can help. I am a huge fan and a huge advocate for it. Couples therapy will change your relationship dynamic. It will help you understand yourselves and each other more deeply, and it will help you change how you talk to each other and relate to each other. Creating healthier patterns, rituals, and rules of engagement is very likely to help you feel more committed and hopeful about the viability of the relationship! Couples therapy can help you get unstuck!

Further, I advocate for something called a dose-based approach to couples therapy. I like couples to seek the support of a trained professional early and often. Perhaps they do a dose of couples therapy around their first significant commitment milestone, like moving in together or considering getting engaged. And then they come back and do another dose of couples therapy around the transition to marriage or as they explore whether and when to start a family. Transitions tend to kick up a lot of dust within us and in the space between ourselves and our partners, so transitions are a great time for support. In fact, you may be experiencing Relational Ambivalence precisely because you are approaching a relationship milestone or a transition or because one of you wants to approach a relationship milestone (like moving in together or getting married) and the other one isn’t so sure. As someone who has been doing couples therapy for a minute, I love it when I get to see couples on and off over a long period of time. However, you certainly don’t need to see the same therapist for each dose of your couples work as different approaches to couples work can offer different benefits.

Here are two final notes before we move on. First, I want you to keep in mind that someone can be a kick-ass individual therapist and a not-so-great couples therapist. This is because couples work is a specific field of psychotherapy. When you’re looking to partner with a couples therapist, if they have LMFT after their name, you can rest assured that they have been trained to work with couples, because they are a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. But there are also social workers, counselors, and licensed clinical psychologists (like yours truly!) who have received specialized training to work with couples, so just make sure you ask a potential candidate about their training in couples therapy. In both of my books, Loving Bravely and Taking Sexy Back, you’ll find additional resources about how to connect with a therapist.

Second, if the two of you are in a really challenging place, talking openly about divorce or break up, rather than traditional couples therapy, you might want to consider something called Discernment Counseling. This is an approach to couples work developed by Dr. Bill Doherty and designed for this situation. It’s almost like pre-couples therapy. In traditional couples therapy, the relationship is the client, so the therapist is working on improving the relationship. But this may not be appropriate when one partner is what Doherty calls “a leaning out partner.” Relationship work can feel like pressure. So, discernment counseling is a time-limited and highly strategic approach designed to get couples to a place of deciding: stay together and do couples therapy or break up. 

Strategy #2: Individual Therapy

Even though we discussed in the last article how relational ambivalence lives inside of you but affects and is affected by your relationship dynamics, it can still be really helpful to seek individual therapy to figure out whether to stay or go. Working 1:1 can help you clarify your thoughts and feelings, develop insight into why you’re feeling stuck, and explore next steps. In therapy speak, we talk about the “presenting problem”- the reason a client is seeking therapy. The presenting problem here would be, “I don’t know if this relationship is viable or worth it for me.” This is a great starting point for some individual therapy work! If you decide to bring your Relational Ambivalence to an individual therapist, there’s some stuff I want you to keep in mind:

  1. Note how I phrased the presenting problem, because it was intentional. I framed the presenting problem as, “I don’t know if this relationship is viable or worth it for me.” I did NOT define the presenting problem as, “I don’t know if this is the right relationship for me.” Nor did I say, “I don’t know if the person I am dating is The One.” That’s because those framings are too simplistic, too idealized, too perfectionistic. Relationships are too complicated to be diagnosed as “right relationship” or “wrong relationship.” The heart of Relational Self-Awareness is becoming better able to hold shades of gray, to sit with complexity. No one partner, even an awesome partner, is going to meet every one of your needs. Hilary Clinton told us that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes a village to nurture an adult. You are always going to need to outsource your needs—to friends, to colleagues, to family members, to teammates and workout buddies. So I do not want your individual therapy to be you and your therapist putting the person you’re dating under a microscope and picking them apart, weighing their attributes and peccadillos. I want your individual therapy to be an exploration of how you got to this spot, what echoes from the past are being activated in this current dynamic with your partner, and figuring out what matters most to you.
  2. You may want a therapist to listen to the facets of your ambivalence and then tell you whether you should stay or go. Remember that a therapist’s job is not to tell you what to do, but to help you realize the path that is truest to you, to listen you into a deeper understanding of what makes sense as a next step. Or on the flip side, you might be reluctant to go to individual therapy because you might be afraid that the therapist will tell you what to do. Again, it is not a therapist’s job to tell you what to do. I want your individual therapist to help you quiet the noise, identify and remove the barriers to clarity, and listen you into a deeper knowing
  3. In fact, I get really judgy really quickly when I hear stories about therapists making sweeping declarations about what people should or should not do in their lives. I cringe at stories of therapists who say things like: “Nobody should get married before age 30!” or “He’s not the one!” or “You have to do what makes you happy!” (This last one might feel a little confusing for you. Surely I want therapists to help their clients move from unhappy to happy, but especially in a highly individualistic culture like the US, we act like there’s a binary choice: either you make yourself happy or you sacrifice yourself for the sake of the relationship. That mindset may keep us from seeing a middle ground in which we cultivate more happiness for ourselves within the existing relationship. It’s also a really ineffective thing to say. If you knew what would make you happy, you would have done that by now!)

This is such an important topic that I often talk with therapists about all of this when I am doing continuing education workshops at conferences. In fact, if you are a therapist or a coach, I created an entire e-course with Psychotherapy Networker called “Loving Bravely: Helping Clients who are Single, Dating, and Single Again.” 

Individual therapy is so intimate. Your therapist is your advocate and your ally. Your therapist is in your corner, and they very likely love being in your corner. Trust me, I can get fiercely protective of my individual therapy clients! But it is also the job of your individual therapist to keep the relationship in mind even though they are just sitting with you. Your individual therapist is getting only one side of the story, told from your perspective. One of the founders of the field of family therapy was a Hungarian-American psychiatrist named Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, and he had this term: multilateral partiality. He advocated for therapists to hold the interests of all parties in mind, to see a problem or a dynamic from multiple perspectives. Your individual therapist is doing their job if they ask you about how your role in your relationship dynamic might be making things worse or keeping the relationship with your partner stuck and unhappy.

Finally, I want your therapist to assess your indirect system. Your indirect system means the people who are not in the room with you and your therapist but who are nonetheless shaping and affecting your decision-making process. This might be your mom who wants you to stay in the relationship for security. This might be your newly-divorced college roommate who is talking to you about how fun it is to have a first kiss. Who else is “casting a vote”? Your individual therapist needs to know what other forces might be fueling your inertia. And your individual therapist might help you ask for clearer boundaries with your mom or your friend, so that you can hear your own voice.

Strategy #3: Motivation Check

         For an intimate relationship to take root and grow, there needs to be commitment. Commitment means that you can reliably trust that I was here yesterday, I am here today, and I will be here tomorrow. Without commitment, it’s impossible to cultivate the yummy qualities we want in an intimate relationship: vulnerability, silliness, trust, that ability to let your guard down. Commitment has two faces:

  • Face 1: I am here because I want to be here.
  • Face 2: I am here because I said I would be here.

There’s a duality of desire and duty, want and obligation, choice and promise. The ability to sit with ease in that duality is a marker of a thriving relationship. Happy couples can hold both their love of their partner and of the relationship alongside their sense of responsibility and obligation to their partner and to their relationship. The responsibility feels more like a source of grounding than a prison.

         This third suggestion is to explore your motivation for being in the relationship. Psychologists who study motivation break motivation into two categories: approach motivations and avoidance motivations. Approach motivations are about choosing something we want. Avoidance motivations are about avoiding something we don’t want or that we fear or dread. Approach motivations for being in a relationship sound like, “ I value time together,” “I like what we are building together,” “I admire my partner as a person,” or “ I feel connected and valued in this relationship.” Avoidance motivations for being in a relationship sound like, “I am here because we have so much history together,” “I am here because I don’t want to download a dating app,” “I am here because it would take so much work to break up,” or “I am here because I don’t want to face the judgment of family and friends.”

Check in with yourself. What is the blend of motivations inside of you? A healthy intimate relationship does not rest on having 100% approach motivations and 0% avoidance motivations, but we certainly want the scales tipping in that direction! If you are being driven primarily by avoidance motivations, I want you to figure out what needs to change within yourself and with your partner so that you can experience more approach motivations, or I want you to consider other options because it is hard to feel happy and hopeful if you are being fueled 100% by avoidance motivations.

If you want to super-charge this practice of exploring your why, you can ask this gut check from my friend Mark Groves. In his Ted talk from a few years ago, linked here, he shared the story of calling off his engagement. One of his gut check alarm clock moments was asking himself the question, “Can someone love my fiancé better?” Clearly this is an abstract question, but I offer it as a point of inquiry for you.

Strategy 4: “What is blocking my knowing?”

In some episodes of my podcast Reimagining Love, you have heard me talk about constraint questions. Rather than asking, “Why did you lie?” a therapist will ask a constraint question, “What kept you from telling the truth?” A constraint question starts from the assumption that we are innately oriented toward health, but stuff gets in the way. Let’s apply a constraint question to the problem of Relational Ambivalence.

Rather than asking yourself, “Why am I so stuck?” see what happens if you instead ask yourself, “What is blocking my knowing?” This constraint question starts from the assumption that you are capable of knowing, that you are a trustworthy source of guidance in your own life, but something is getting in the way. See what bubbles up into your awareness when you ask this different question. Identifying what is blocking your knowing is a powerful first step toward shifting it. What is blocking your knowing is going to be unique to you and your situation, but here are a few possibilities of what might be getting in the way.

Sometimes what blocks our knowing is something I see all the time with my college students and graduate students. Sometimes what blocks our knowing is confusion and self-doubt that we are at a place in our lives to be making such life-altering decisions. Sometimes we doubt our ability to choose well for ourselves because we just don’t feel old enough or wise enough. We are confused about how we are at a point in our lives to make this big of a commitment. It’s like a developmental reckoning of sorts. This may be especially strong if you grew up in a family that did a lot of top-down leadership, where you were told in ways large and small, “We know what’s best for you more than you know what’s best for you.”

Lots of times what blocks our knowing is fear. Some people stay stuck because when they imagine ending the relationship, they are hit with a wave of fear of being single. They worry about what friends and family will say. They worry they won’t find another relationship. Although there are no easy fixes for fear, I know it is much easier to do something that is scary when we are able to trust ourselves. Trust ourselves to do hard things. Trust ourselves to pull in resources. It is also much easier to do something that is scary when we are able to trust the universe, when we are able to remember that we don’t have to be in charge of every step, that we can surrender even little bits of control to forces that are bigger than us, that guide and hold us.

Sometimes what blocks our knowing is unhealed trauma. Trauma is about the long-term impact of overwhelming experiences (too much, too soon) that we don’t have time or space to process. One impact of trauma is feeling disconnected from ourselves, including from our inner knowing. Addressing unhealed trauma helps us learn how to tune into ourselves and trust our inner world. From that place of deeper connection with ourselves, it becomes infinitely easier to trust our decision-making.

Strategy #5: The Empty Chairs Exercise

I predict this next one, The Empty Chairs Exercise, will land more deeply for those who identify as creative than it will for those who identify as logical. Some branches of psychotherapy use something called Chair Work. For example, my dear friend, Dr. Rhonda Goldman, who is one of the developers of Emotion-Focused Therapy, uses Chair Work to help clients do deep inner work, for example addressing self-criticism, suppressed emotions, and unfinished business from one’s family of origin. Formal Chair Work is done with the guidance and direction of a therapist, but I want to talk you through a Do-It-Yourself practice inspired by Chair Work that you can do in the comfort of your own home. You’re going to want to do this when you have 30 minutes or so, and you can take some quiet time and space for yourself. You need a journal and something to write with. And you need three chairs. If you want to set more of a scene, light a candle and play some quiet music that you love.

  • Sit down in a chair and put two chairs in front of you, forming a triangle.
  • Take some time to get quiet. Quiet your mind, close your eyes if that feels okay, take some deep breaths. Settle yourself.
  • Imagine putting the part of you that wants to stay in the relationship in one chair and imagine putting the part of you that wants to exit the relationship in the other chair.
  • Now, orient yourself to the part of you that wants to stay and get to know it a little more:

o   What does that part look like?

o   Is there a color? A shape? A size?

o   How old is that part of you?

o   Can you give it a name?

  • Dialogue (out loud or in your head) with the part of you that wants to stay. Here are some questions you can ask that part:

o   What do you want me to understand about you?

o   What do you want from this relationship?

o   What are you worried about?

o   What do you want me to remember?

o   How can I advocate for you?

  • When you’re ready, orient yourself to the part of you that wants to leave and get to know that part a little more:

o   What does that part look like?

o   Is there a color? A shape? A size?

o   How old is that part of you?

o   Can you give it a name?

  • Finally, dialogue (out loud or in your head) with the part of you that wants to leave. Here are some questions you can ask that part:

o   What do you want me to understand about you?

o   What do you want from this relationship?

o   What are you worried about?

o   What do you want me to remember?

o   How can I advocate for you?

When you’re all done, take some time to journal or draw about what you experienced. Because this might be an evocative activity, make sure you practice some after care. Get some water, some fresh air, take a shower, move your body. See if you can make it so you don’t have to rush onto the next thing.

Strategy #6: Personal Epistemologies

Epistemology is a term from the world of philosophy that refers to how we know what we know—our process of knowing. Epistemology is a theory of knowledge. I think that each of us has a personal epistemology. A process that helps us reach our knowing. I submit to you that some of us are thinkers, some of us are feelers, and some of us are sensors. Some of us might be a blend. Some of us might be thinkers when it comes to one domain of life, like work, but feelers when it comes to another domain of life, like dating. I also suspect that some of us might have one personal epistemology at one phase of our lives and a different one at another phase of our lives.

I am going to talk you through the three in a little more detail. For each, I’ll give you a description and I’ll offer some risks and benefits. You can receive this personal epistemology information, and lots more information from this Relational Ambivalence series, in a lovely handout, when you head to

Personal EpistemologyDescriptionBenefitsRisks
Thinkers-You value logic and linearity-You feel comforted by making a pro/con list-You make if/then statements or assess the risks and benefits of each option.-You can feel comforted that your decision “makes sense.”-You’re missing important data from your body.
Feelers-You like to follow your heart.-You are guided toward what makes you happy and away from what makes you sad or scared.
-Emotions are data, so you’re following something that is arising from your experience of the relationship.-Emotions can reflect the stress of the situation rather than some capital T truth.-Strong emotions require containment but can lead to impulsive decision-making.
Sensers-You imagine a path forward and notice what shifts inside of your body.-You move away from constriction and toward ease.-You like to follow your gut.-You are tapping into your inner wisdom, a place that is, we hope, steadier than the discomfort of the present moment.-Your ability to be guided by what you sense in your body reflects and affirms trust in yourself.– Unless you have practices that help you quiet down and tune in, it can be hard to tease apart what is anxiety and what is a felt sense 

Identifying your personal epistemology can help you maximize your gifts and help you compensate for your limitations.

Strategy #7: Devotion to Small Choices

One of the side effects of feeling stuck is that you can start to feel down on yourself. You can take your Relational Ambivalence as reflective of a character flaw rather than of a difficult crossroads. I want to invite you to do something I call, “Devotion to Small Choices.” You make thousands of itty bitty choices all day, every day! You choose to have a green smoothie or oatmeal for breakfast. You choose to wear this blazer to work or that one. You decide whether to go for a run or head to kick boxing.

You choose to either take your mom out to lunch or have her over for dinner. Pay attention to the small choices you make all day every day. Breathe these little choices in. Notice and affirm these small choices. When you catch yourself making a small choice, say, perhaps even out loud, perhaps even while looking at yourself in the mirror, “I am someone who knows how to choose. I can stand at a crossroads and take the next step.” Obviously making a choice about a green smoothie is qualitatively different from a choice about a relationship, but your devotion to small choices reminds you that you have agency and power and that you are worthy of trusting yourself.

Strategy #8: Journal Prompt

The eighth strategy is just a series of journal prompts or questions that you can bring into a meditation session or a journaling session. These journal prompts are in the handout that you can grab at are the journal prompts:

  1. What would I choose if I had an unshakable faith in my ability to choose?
  2. What do I fear or feel that the choice to stay says about me?
  3. What do I fear or feel that the choice to leave says about me?
  4. If I choose to stay, what I want to remember is…
  5. If I choose to leave, what I want to remember is…
  6. What I know to be true about myself is…


         So there you have it, eight strategies for resolving Relational Ambivalence. We made it through our two part exploration! We covered a lot of ground. Let this content settle. I hope this information will help you feel clearer and more confident in whatever you choose next! Be well.

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