Relationships Blindsided by Ambivalent Love

A new client came to see me. Sally was distraught because her spouse had suddenly told her that he wanted out of the relationship. She pulled two cards out of her purse. Her spouse had given them to her in the last 6 months. One card was given to her in November on their anniversary. In it, he wrote how much he loved, valued and appreciated her. In the more recent card, given to her three months later on Valentine’s Day¬† he expressed his love for her just as passionately.

Sally was shocked that he could go from being so in love with her, so solidly in the marriage, to suddenly wanting to end it. She was in despair that he did not want to try to repair the relationship or even give her a chance. She was bewildered at how this could have happened to her. She did not see it coming.

Most of this session focused on her shock and bafflement at how this situation could have happened. She claimed this was totally out of the blue. She was still in denial that her marriage was threatened and it was too soon to accept the reality. Her trust in herself had been shattered. Her self-esteem had suffered a serious blow.

Toward the end of the session she started to mention times that she had sensed that something was just not quite right. Most of those times she simply dismissed her doubts. There were so many positive indicators that everything was solid between them. Occasionally, she would approach her spouse with the mixed message she was getting from him and he would reassure her. She said she would think of the cards he’d given her and dismiss any doubts she might have.

Sally was getting conflicting messages from her spouse but she did not notice. Aside from minor ups and downs, her experience was that the marriage was going well. Mostly she would only hear one of the messages – the one she wanted to hear – that things were good between them. Occasionally she would hear both messages and check it out with her spouse. Again, she got from him what she wanted – reassurance that their relationship was solid. She based her way of being in the relationship on it.

This is an extreme case of one spouse being ambivalent in a relationship and the other being 100% committed. I have not seen situations like this often, yet often enough to know that it probably happens more frequently than we realize. In this case, Sally’s spouse was able to hide his ambivalence by doing all the ‘right’ things at all the ‘right’ times.

Most couples in troubled relationships do not go through what Sally and her spouse experienced. It is more common for both partners to be aware that one or both partners are ambivalent about their relationship. Mixed message are frequent and vary with where each is on the Pendulum Swing – just thinking about staying/leaving and acting on staying/leaving.

Some spouses know their relationship is in serious trouble and deliberately ignore the negative part of the mixed messages. They do not do anything to change the situation.

Fearing confrontation they put their head in the sand. They assume it is just a bad patch and hope things will get better soon.

Other couples regularly fight about the mixed messages. Focus is on the negative message sent, usually escalating the distress between them.

One thing is for sure, any partner who is ambivalent about his or her relationship sends mixed messages. There is a range of mixed messages between obvious and subtle. There will be lots of double messages in unhealthy relationships. Even in healthy relationships, while going through the transition from one developmental stage to another, one or both partners may feel ambivalent until the couple consolidates their changes at the next stage.

How the partners handle their own ambivalence and/or their partner’s ambivalence is what is important. Unless there are unusual circumstances it is not healthy to hide your ambivalence about your relationship. I have seen so many people who have not told their partners what is troubling them about their relationships. They have just assumed that nothing can be done and they start to disengage. Their partner does not even have a chance to address the issues because they are not aware that one exists.

When issues are effectively dealt with, many relationships can be repaired .

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea Mackay

Note: Clients referred to in this entry are fictitious.

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