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Living With Ambivalence About People You Love

Sometimes you don't like the people you love.

Key points

  • Ambivalence is the simultaneous existence of opposite feelings. It is normal to feel ambivalent at times.
  • Tolerating ambivalence is a crucial skill for maintaining intimate relationships, but people often feel guilty when they are ambivalent.
  • Accepting yourself, other people, and life as having good and bad aspects is a defining characteristic of mental health.
Samrat Khadry/Unsplash
Source: Samrat Khadry/Unsplash

Ambivalence is normal, and accepting it can be an emotional relief, yet many people feel that ambivalent feelings require ending a relationship. Tolerating ambivalence is a crucial skill for maintaining intimate relationships, but people often feel guilty when they are ambivalent.

The figures in fairytales are not ambivalent. They are never both good and bad, but good or bad. Fairytales simplify situations by presenting polarized characters–the stupid brother and the clever brother; the virtuous sister and the vile sister; the evil parent and the good parent.

Fairytales such as Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk exemplify children's pre-ambivalent thinking. Unfortunately, some adults remain stuck in this view of people and are not able to tolerate ambivalence.

Tina is a 35-year-old professional woman referred to me because she was depressed and had a history of panic attacks. On the phone, she asked me if I was the kind of therapist who did not talk. She did not want that kind of therapist.

Would I talk? I assured her that I am not a silent therapist, and she decided to come to a first appointment. Tina was ambivalent about beginning therapy before she met me, but she did not want to experience the ambivalence. Instead, she talked about the “good” kind of therapy and the “bad” kind of therapy.

When Tina came to the first session, she talked for 45 minutes non-stop. She said, "My Mom is the greatest Mom in the whole world. We are buddies. She’s my best friend. I can talk to my Mom about anything."

Later, Tina told me that her father had a serious illness and her mother wanted to confide in her about it. Tina asked her mother not to talk about it, that she was the daughter, not the mother. So, it seemed that Tina’s mother being her best friend was not entirely wonderful. It sounded like there was a history of her mother wanting Tina to take care of her, and Tina did not like it. But Tina could not integrate the mother to who she felt so close and the mother who had no boundaries and spoke to her about inappropriate things.

At the end of the session, I told Tina my fee and asked her to pay for the first session, and told her that from now on, I would bill her at the end of the month. She said she did not bring a check and could not pay me, but she would bring a check to the next session.

In the second session, Tina came a few minutes late and said she went to West 12th Street instead of East 12th Street, which is why she was late. She said she rushed and forgot her checkbook. It was clear to me that Tina was ambivalent about being in therapy. She did not bring a check to our first consultation; she went to the wrong address, and she “forgot” her checkbook.

I asked if she thought her confusion might reflect her feelings about beginning therapy. Tina insisted that she was “just forgetful.” However, she began to tell me that she was upset that I did not talk during the last session.

Tina told me she wanted a therapist who talked. I said I had not said anything because she had a lot to say, and I did not want to interrupt her. She said no, she wanted me to talk; then, she talked non-stop for the rest of the session.

She told me that her former boyfriend broke up with her while she was on a business trip and got another woman pregnant. Nevertheless, she continued seeing him while he lived with the other woman. At the end of the story, she told me he was “a really good person.”

I asked, “Do you think it’s curious that you feel he’s a really good person despite his behavior?”

She said that was interesting, and the session ended.

In the third session, Tina brought a check for two sessions. I thought that was strange because it was neither the payment for the first session as I had requested originally nor was it the total she owed for three sessions.

She said she liked what I said last time and wanted me to talk more. Then she started to talk about her father. She said, “My Dad’s a really great guy, but he’s sick now.” She said that her father was a traveling salesman during most of her childhood, and she was alone with her mother.

When he came home, he expected them to change everything to how he liked it. She spent the session talking about how angry she was at her father for being frequently absent and overly controlling when he was present.

Before our next session, I got a phone message from Tina.

“I’ve decided to stop seeing you. I don’t want to do this kind of therapy.”

I called her to ask her to come in and talk about what was bothering her about “this kind of therapy.” She refused.

I thought about what she meant by “this kind of therapy.”

In her first session, Tina told me she had been in therapy previously to help her deal with panic attacks. That therapy focused on the symptom: panic attacks. She learned to talk herself out of the attacks, but she never learned what was causing the extreme anxiety underlying them. Tina did not want to experience the hurt and anger she felt at her mother and father, but she expressed it in sessions with me; it came pouring out of her as soon as she sat down. She did not want to do that. She wanted me to talk so she would not get in touch with her anger.

However, when I did talk, I pointed out a disconnect between how her boyfriend treated her and how she described him. She wanted to keep her boyfriend “a good person,” her mother “the greatest Mom,” and her Dad “a great guy.” She wanted some other kind of therapy to get over her depression and panic attacks without having to experience painful feelings.

Tina was full of ambivalence–both consciously and unconsciously. She was ambivalent about beginning psychotherapy, as evidenced by her phone question before coming to the first session. She had already been in the kind of therapy that deals only with symptoms.

On the one hand, she knew this was not that kind of therapy, and that was why she was calling me rather than her old therapist. Part of her wanted to find out what was causing her panic attacks and depression. Yet, the unconscious part of her ambivalence about psychotherapy was her fear that understanding what was causing her anxiety and depression would mean losing her mother, father, and boyfriend.

Tina’s conscious ambivalence about psychotherapy reflected her unconscious fear of losing the most important people in her life. If she had been willing to come back and discuss her ambivalence, I might have been able to explain that allowing herself to experience hurt and anger would not necessarily result in giving up the people she loved.

“Ambivalence” is the simultaneous existence of opposite feelings. Most of us hate it. It is an uncomfortable state. We want to feel one way or the other. In common parlance, “ambivalence” tends to have a pejorative connotation–as if it is a problem if you feel ambivalent.

Ambivalence is unavoidable, so not being able to tolerate it is a problem. Being able to accept yourself, other people, and life as having good and bad aspects is a defining characteristic of mental health. The alternative to tolerating ambivalence is seeing people like characters in fairy tales–“good” or “bad,” as Tina does, rather than good and bad.

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