Dating and Mate Selection — 23 May 2004
How to deal with ambivalence during long relationships

Dating is hard enough, but dating for a long time while feeling unsure about the future of the relationship is extremely difficult. Neither partner understands fully the reasons for one person’s ambivalence, but both are left frustrated.

We have all met or heard of people who have been dating for years, even living together, without a plan for marriage or a permanent commitment due to the ambivalence of one partner. This situation is perplexing to observers, the willing partner and even to the ambivalent person.

“I don’t know why I do not feel comfortable proceeding to the next step in our relationship. He really wants to get married but I am still not sure.” This woman described how badly she feels for her partner and how confused her thoughts and emotions are about this decision. “He is wonderful, I feel happy when we are together, we have been dating for five years, but something is not right,” she says. She is hoping to gain some clarity about the “missing part” through therapy.

The reluctance to commit in spite of a seemingly good relationship often stems from intuitive awareness. The ambivalent individual finds sufficient positive aspects to the relationship to feel strong attraction to the partner. At the same time, there is an equal force of avoidance that feels very compelling. When people are in this state of attraction-avoidance pull of equal magnitude, they become immobilized and take no action. They are not ready to leave, nor are they able to be fully available to the relationship.

This state of wavering by one partner creates insecurity, fear and upset in the other partner. There may be some distance created by the committed partner for self-protection, which only confirms to the ambivalent person that the relationship does not feel “right”.

Often the indecisive partner subtly or directly attributes his or her ambivalence to certain faults of the partner. This attribution of responsibility is often vague and the faulted quality or behavior seems very small and insignificant. ” I love a certain type of music and she is not that excited about it.” The ambivalent person, upon reciting his date’s inadequacy, becomes aware of the triviality of the difference and may even feel shame. That leads him or her to discount the reason and stay in the relationship, only to re-experience further dissatisfaction with the partner.

“Since this reason sounds foolish, perhaps it is something else that bothers me, like the fact that she was married before “. Of course, this “fault” is unchangeable and creates a no win stance for both partners. Upon further questioning as to the issues associated with her having been married before, the ambivalent person is vague, discounts this possibility and proceeds to search for the real reason that this match is not “made in heaven”.

The ambivalent person suffers greatly in trying to understand the cause of his/her uncertainty. Though this individual is in pain, external blame is sought. If it is not about the partner’s failings then, “Maybe it is because we had different backgrounds, or different upbringing.” Well, that’s true of many couples who find these differences enriching rather than troubling.

What the ambivalent partner often considers only as a last resort is that the ambivalence is about him or her, not the partner or the partner’s history.

The reason that unsure partners have difficulty in articulating their lack of full enthusiasm for a relationship is that it is not only a logical process. It is one’s intuitive sense that advises the individual to be cautious. It may be born out of some reserve about trust, waning respect, subconscious fear, hints of lack of true love, or deep incompatibility. Because the day to day interactions are pleasant during dating, it is easy to quell the intuitive concerns by labeling them as unreal.

We all know that there are intuitive senses that usually guide us wisely. In other areas of life, when we have failed to heed our “gut “, and acted against it, we paid for it dearly. Why would this wise voice within us not be equally respected when it comes to a most important decision as mate selection?

It is wise to explore the reasons for ambivalence within the relationship. Sometimes it has to do with one’s insecurity about making decisions, the fear of making a mistake, fear of failure, a reluctance to mate at this point in life, immaturity, the need for more experience and exploration, rebelliousness in face of pressure, family consideration and more. Whatever the reasons, logical or intuitive, it is wise to talk to someone who is objective to sort out one’s emotions. Ignoring one’s ambivalence is unwise and may be regrettable.

If you are dating and feeling ambivalent about the relationship, please consider:

  • Making a life choice of a mate is one of the most or the most important decision you will ever make. It is worth great scrutiny.
  • Marriage, or a permanent commitment to a partner, must be done willingly, happily and enthusiastically. It may contain some specific concerns, but not those that lead to ongoing ambivalence.
  • Ambivalence is not a bad state; it is your way of realizing that the pros and cons of the relationship are about even.
  • If you know what you feel but are not clear of the reasons, explore this with a wise, objective person or a counselor.
  • Do not dismiss your ambivalent feelings and act when you are unsure. It is a script for potential trouble. You may know people, who said, “I knew while walking down the isle that I made a terrible mistake.” Don’t be one of them.
  • Trust your intuition. A long-term relationship that is still fraught with doubt- is suspect.
  • Please do not make your ambivalence the fault of your partner. Take responsibility for your concerns and deal with them until you reach a decision to leave or to commit full-heartedly.

May 23, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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