This article explores commitment ambivalence, where one partner wants to move forward together and the other may freeze, not knowing whether to commit to the next level or leave. The ambivalent partner, the one caught between choosing and not choosing, usually has thoughts like these:
“Am I ready to be with you for the rest of my life?”
“But what about my attractions to others?”
“When I’m with you, sometimes I’m bored.”
“I’m comfortable with you, but is that enough?”
“I love you, but am I in love with you?”
“Am I ready to support a family?”
“Do I want to give up my freedom to travel, choose another career or love someone else?”
Situations that Promote Ambivalence
Such questions cause lots of pain in relationships. There are many reasons people get cold feet. Perhaps love has developed asymmetrically, with one more intensely attracted than the other. Or, a woman feels the pressure of the biological clock, knowing that before age 35 she’s most likely to bear healthy children. She turns toward her partner and asks, “Where’s this relationship going?” She’s ready to move ahead with life, to start a family, and her partner suddenly freezes. Maybe it’s a stage of life issue. A partner – of any gender preference – is young and not ready to settle down. Maybe their lifestyles are diverging. One partner’s career is taking off and the other is unemployed, or she travels for work while he stays home with the kids. For many life’s stresses overwhelm their fun together or worse, such as coping with a child’s illness or feeling overwhelmed by a death in the family. One partner may be frustrated by the other’s unresolved addictions, mental health or other problems. For others, an attraction or affair leads one or both to question their relationship. A couple may have communication problems that are made worse by unresolved resentments. Such relationships may be marked by anger, resentment, stonewalling or withdrawal. Ambivalence may arise for reasons that are more difficult to discern, such as unresolved attachment issues with parents or caregivers. These can create confusing feelings and interactions. Finally, some people simply have an easier time choosing than others.
Are You the One?
With music, movies and novels celebrating love’s magic and exploiting its agonies, it’s no wonder so many ask this question and then doubt their relationship. Perhaps you find yourself split between thinking and feeling. You want to do the right thing but feel uneasy. If you’re so unsure, maybe the relationship doesn’t have what it takes – whatever that is. What should love offer? Can you possibly have it all? Many caught in such confusion don’t understand that:
- Love isn’t just a feeling
- The strongest passions don’t guarantee a relationship will last
- Romance reactivates unmet needs that influence feelings about a partner
- Romance can’t eliminate suffering or boredom
- Romance can’t overcome all personal problems
- Passion and rationality can help each other; neither has to win
- Checklists alone can’t make happy marriages
- Ambivalence can only be resolved from within
Let’s explore these in more detail.
Love isn’t just a feeling. It’s how you treat another even if you don’t feel like it. Think of parents awakened in the middle of the night by a sick child. They may not feel like getting up but they do anyway, out of love. Love can certainly elicit many feelings, including appreciation, admiration, devotion and loyalty. You probably also know that there are many kinds of love including love between parent and child, student and mentor, brothers and sisters, friends and sweethearts. The bottom line here is that if you ask your feelings for the truth about your relationship, you’re likely to come up with many impressions, so these alone aren’t the answer.
The strongest passions don’t guarantee a relationship will last. How often have you seen people madly in love but later their relationship dramatically crashes? The chemistry of that madness can combine someone meeting your ideal image of the beloved and a salve for one’s deepest wounds. Infatuation (quickly falling for a stranger) is both less and more than it seems. It’s less because this is the compelling brain chemistry of mating at its primal peak. After about a year, the infatuated brain returns to its previous state (Tierney, 2000). Infatuation is also “more” than it may seem to those who avoid its vulnerability. Although impersonal, the intensity of new love can awaken transcendent states of consciousness and an intuitive connection between people that is more than illusion. If you’re meeting at the level of unconscious wounding, you’ll inevitably fail to meet each other’s needs and may feel intensely abandoned when that happens. Even if you have a beautiful meeting between souls, can that connection survive your personalities, your life circumstances?
The intensity of new love builds quickly. One partner idealizes the other who returns the favor. Pretty soon you’ve joined in a runaway feedback loop that turbocharges love’s intensity. Then when you least expect it love’s intensity is interrupted and you don’t know if you’re thirsting for a mirage. He doesn’t call the next day. She doesn’t get his joke or takes offense. He drinks too much and embarrasses her. Here’s where personality comes in. Can you stand the sudden rift? Will you take it too personally? Does this shock trigger an unresolved wound from an earlier relationship? Life circumstances also matter, as when one of you wants children and the other has already done that; or your careers, income or social backgrounds don’t match up. Only time and experience with each other can tell whether your new love will mature into a resilient bond.
Romance reactivates unmet needs that influence feelings about a partner. These needs can appear early on or when you approach a new level of commitment. Early on, one of you may hunger for constant closeness, while the other wants to connect and then have space to themselves. The example just given portrays different early attachment needs that can show themselves in other patterns too. In this instance the partner who craves constant connection may have felt too disconnected from their parents in early childhood. This can even happen with caring parents – how you felt the connection is what counts. The partner wanting connection with freedom may have been emotionally smothered in childhood or was born with a temperament soothed by quiet time alone. Such preferences may also emerge from earlier failed romances, betrayals, or unrequited love. Different needs may appear early or later. It’s especially challenging when you approach the next phase of commitment, whether moving in together or deciding to marry. The higher the stakes, the more their potential to surface hidden doubts – and some doubts that seem to be about the relationship may not have their origin there at all. In fact some people get close to commitment in several relationships and can predict they’ll pull back. Others may even marry and divorce several times and wonder, “what’s wrong with me”? This pattern suggests a conflict from early childhood, before they could think through their unease in words. Or they’ve never resolved some of the concerns discussed here.
Romance can’t eliminate suffering or boredom. Some secretly hope that meeting their soul mate will lead to happiness ever after. Others see romance as an escape from life’s drudgery. The birth of a child, a job promotion with longer hours or both can add to life’s stress. These things can also surface unresolved conflicts. For instance, a difficult childhood may challenge one’s confidence in being a good parent. But love can’t eliminate life’s turbulence, just as there’s no geographic cure for what ails us. Sometimes the cure for relationship ambivalence is recognizing external stressors and dealing with them.
Romance can’t overcome all personal problems. If you’re depressed, new love will only offer temporary relief. The same holds true for those who are anxious or have addictions or other mental health issues, both major and minor. Most of us have hang-ups and vulnerabilities and stress tends to bring these to the surface; this goes with being human. A love relationship can offer mutual support. But don’t expect love alone to solve your personal problems nor can you change someone else who’s not committed to changing for themselves.
Passion and rationality can help each other; neither has to win. Although you can’t rely on feelings alone, thinking isn’t enough, either. Both should work together. Although love isn’t just a feeling, it’s only an ideal if you don’t feel it. Happiness is a felt experience, as are contentment, appreciation, and the discomforts that signal problems needing attention. The leading relationship researcher, John Gottman, Ph.D., has even quantified the amount of happiness needed to make love last. He describes a “magic ratio” of five positive moments for every negative one. Less than this, and love will fade (Gottman and Silver, 1994). Here’s where rationality comes into play. Many relationships can be improved by paying attention to what is working well and what isn’t and taking steps to make it work. Even relationships that are going well are helped by exploring whether the couple is well-matched in beliefs, goals and lifestyles, whether they communicate well or have unresolved issues that might bring trouble once initial passions settle down. This is one of the good reasons many couples seek premarital counseling.
Checklists alone can’t make happy marriages. How many times have you met someone who seems so right on paper, but you just don’t feel that “extra something”? You get along, you’re the best of friends, but the passion just isn’t there. Can that relationship work? Ask yourself whether you’ve ever felt that potential with this person, even for moments. If you have, give such moments a chance. Fear of commitment, longing for a lost love, momentary attractions, any of these can distract from appreciating the willing partner who’s right here, now. But there’s no right answer here. You might find yourself with a lovely friend who’s just not a love match.
Ambivalence can only be resolved from within. This brings us to an essential truth that when it comes to choosing a life partner; you need to find the answer within. Easier said than done, of course! If every fiber of your being screams yes, you might be giving in to the mating urge and not taking the time to know each other. And if true deal breakers are turning you off, the choice is easy. But this article is about the uncomfortable situation where you’re just not sure. How can you go about making that decision?
To Choose or Not to Choose
The pioneering Swiss psychiatrist, C. G. Jung (1942/1966), wrote about holding the tension of the opposites when you’re just not sure. What he meant is to give yourself over to feeling your desire for one choice as fully as you can. Sitting with one choice fully often prompts considering the other choice, which you can then feel with full intensity. Then give it a rest. This is a way of reconciling conscious and unconscious attitudes, rational and irrational. It activates each conflicting desire and builds your ability to tolerate the feelings toward them. Your consciousness expands to consider the potentials for either more calmly, and your choice becomes clearer.
Jung’s approach is especially helpful when the ambivalence originates in unresolved attachments to parents. Young children often don’t know quite why they feel uneasy with their caregivers. They don’t have much choice in the matter but are highly dependent on the people charged with raising them. They must find ways to tolerate their early environment, even if this means splitting off some thinking or feeling and taking on roles that induce others to treat them better or at least minimize abuse. The intensity of falling in love can reactivate conflicts from early years when it approaches the intensity of childhood attachments.
Lovers often fall into childhood patterns of interaction that replay early conflicts. She withdraws, afraid his compliments will shake the steadiness of her ironic “take” on her world. He notices her wince and feels ashamed of his exuberance. Once again he feels he’s too much, so he looks away and for the first time they’re out of tune. If they don’t invest this disruption with too much significance, they’ll reconnect and attunement may come to dominate their interactions instead of isolation.
Such disruptions offer opportunities to heal or can cause confusion and further wounding. Psychoanalytic psychologists look to early experience to shape attachment styles. They describe this cycle of disconnecting and reconnecting as necessary for “building structure.” It’s how we differentiate ourselves from others and at the same time discover how we want to relate to them. Without disruptions and their subsequent healing, we couldn’t form resilient relationships. Alternatively, lovers who flee after the first few disconnects never learn to adapt to these disruptions. Love then remains a mystery externally controlled by invisible feelings and fortune.
The key to healing love’s wounds is learning to tolerate strong feelings without immediately acting on them by arguing or withdrawing. Then talk it over. This gives one a chance to figure out with your partner how the disconnect happened, which leads to better understanding each other and a stronger connection.
If you’re ambivalent about committing because such disruptions make your feelings for each other unreliable, seek to understand each other better and do this respectfully to develop more trust. If this is difficult, couples therapy may help – not with the goal of saving your relationship but of exploring it openly. Your unsteady attachment may signify the emergence of conflicted early childhood attachment that colors whether or not you feel comfortably connected to your partner. This is one of the reasons it’s usually a mistake to rush to the altar soon after falling in love. It’s also why some people seek premarital counseling, so they can anticipate the inevitable difficulties of partnering with another distinct individual. Take some time to get to know each other so if you do commit, you know yourself and each other well enough to work through insecurities and confusions about love.
To ask about a first appointment, select this link. Although experienced with emergencies, that is not my practice focus. I work with people who can reliably cope, are not at risk or in crisis, do not have thoughts of self-harm, and are seeking to grow.
Gottman, J. and Silver, N. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Jung, C. G. (1966). On the psychology of the unconscious. In R. F. C. Hull (Trans.), Two essays on analytical psychology (2nd ed., pp. 3-119). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1942)
Tierney, J. (2000). “THE BIG CITY; Programmed for breeding and bonding.” In The New York Times. July 7, 2000. Downloaded 3/15/10 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/07/07/nyregion/the-big-city-programmed-for-breeding-and-bonding/?scp=2&sq=oxytocin%20levels%20and%20infatuation&st=cse