Ambivalence

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

Two heads are better than one; you get multiple perspectives. Two eyes and two ears are better than one for the same reason; plus, you get a spare. Two legs and two feet are better than one, so you don’t have to hop everywhere you go. Two hands are better than one, so you can hold your coffee as you find your keys. Two parents are better than one, so one can follow the energetic toddler when the other is ready to drop.

But, two heads on the same body? That’s just weird. Isn’t it better to be single-minded? No one likes to be ambivalent and unable to decide, do they? It’s painful to sit on a fence, racked by doubt, hesitancy, and indecision. You’d rather be resolute and stay out of a muddied, hazy, confused quandary.

I’m not sure whether ambivalence is a single feeling or the presence of multiple conflicting feelings. It’s hard to decide. You can be sure ambivalence is not the same as indifference. Ambivalence is an excess of opinion, not a paucity of it. It’s such a glut of desire that you might rather have nothing.

Ambivalence is about the tension between two good things when you can’t have one without the other. Go one way, and the other pulls you back. You get along quite happily with not knowing whether you prefer the beer battered cod over the broiled haddock until the moment of a decision looms, your menu still open, the waitress ready, and everyone else has already ordered. At such times, you’ll never enjoy the cod because you’ll wonder if you should have had the haddock.

Ambivalence may be all about preserving liberty. Once you commit to one path, it’s harder to go back, too much is invested. As long as you remain ambivalent, you choose not to choose; thus, maximizing your freedom of choice.

On the other hand, ambivalence is just another word for cognitive dissonance, the stress you feel when you’re inconsistent. Ambivalence, or cognitive dissonance, is what you experience when you say you want to be healthy, but keep on lighting those Newports, anyway. The Newports are evidence that you don’t believe what you say you believe. If you felt the stress, you wouldn’t keep lighting them. Either that, or you’d use some mental gymnastics to resolve the dissonance; saying you’ll quit before you get lung cancer, or switch to filters. Ambivalence, in this case is progress. Making yourself squirm is a necessary prelude to change.

Why then, did F. Scott Fitzgerald say ambivalence was a sign of brilliance? “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Was he being sarcastic? Or, was he urging you to be dialectic?

Dialectics is the discourse between two opposing points of view. It resembles a debate without the two sides wanting to murder each other. The result of dialectics is not killing, it’s the creation of a third possibility which satisfies the original positions.

Let me give you an example of dialectics in action. You need people and want them around; but there’s a risk involved, and you want to be left alone. However, no one makes it through this world alone and neither can you. On the other hand, others sometimes have unreasonable demands and they can harm you if you do not look out for yourself. These opposing desires can easily make you ambivalent.

Many people are ambivalent about intimacy. The balance of these opposing desires is never static. It constantly changes, with you always monitoring the changes. When you feel too distant from your loved one, you bid for his attention. This can be an urgent desire, even if you have no other need but reassurance. You’ll reach out, tell a joke, show him something, ask a question, or make a demand. You want to know that you are still in this together. Then, when too much togetherness feels risky or stifling, you’ll withdraw, stonewall, or fight. You’ll use a third party, or a mutual activity to set between you as a way of diffusing the tension. You’ll establish boundaries.

All this back and forth; come closer/go away will drive both you and your partner mad, especially if she’s doing the same thing. You’ll never get it together. When she wants to be close, you want your space; she wants to be close because you want your space; you want your space because she wants to be close. Then, when she gives up and gives you your space, that’s when you want to be close; but she doesn’t want it anymore because having your attention feels too demanding; so now she’s the one who wants space.

Can’t you ever make up your mind between togetherness and space? Apparently not. Fortunately, those aren’t the only two choices. You can create a healthy relationship that contains the perfect proportions of both togetherness and individuality.

A healthy relationship would have things that keep you and your partner together. Shared goals, common interests, a collective identity. Your partner would respond when you really need her. You enjoy safety. You’d celebrate commonalities. You’d band together against attack and interference from outside the relationship.

A healthy, functioning relationship would also allow for separateness. You’d let each other pursue separate goals, have separate friends, possess a separate identity, and solve your own problems. You’re undisturbed when your partner turns away because you know she’ll be back. In a healthy relationship, one partner does not take advantage or harm the other. You respect your differences and recognize boundaries. A healthy relationship can do all that, while sustaining attachment because there is trust. No adult expects instant gratification and perfect harmony all the time.

This vision of a healthy relationship can describe how you can resolve many of your other ambivalences; not by choosing one side over the other, but by combining what is essential about both. In other words, instead of choosing between beer battered cod and broiled haddock, you could ask the waitress if the chef would broil the cod, or beer batter the haddock. Ambivalence does not have to be torture; it can be an invitation to creativity.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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