Mental & Emotional Health

Living with Ambivalence

There is a social myth that we are supposed to love without ambivalence. If I love my husband, I am not supposed to fantasize about someone else. If I am a good mother, I am not supposed to feel that my children interfere in my life. But the reality is that wives and husbands can love their spouses and still fantasize about other people; and mothers both love and resent their children.

“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. I want to love my brother OR hate him—not love him AND hate him. But the reality is we love and feel angry at the same people.

In contrast to the myth, ambivalence is a healthy state and not being able to tolerate it is a problem. The person we love most is also the person who can disappoint us the most. The person we want to be with the most is also the person by whom we can feel most abandoned. The person we need to understand us the most is also the person we often feel cannot understand. Indeed, being able to accept yourself, other people, and life as a whole as having good and bad aspects is a defining characteristic of mental health. The alternative to tolerating ambivalence is seeing people and experiences as “good” OR “bad” rather than good AND bad.

Ambivalence is a part of the most loving and seemingly altruistic interactions. For example, letting a friend or family member lend you money can be fraught with ambivalence. Even when we are most grateful for what has been given us, we often envy the ability, the power, of the person who has it to give. We want to bite the hand that feeds us because we envy the fullness of it in the face of our own emptiness. The recipient may resent the ability of the lender to do so effortlessly, while the lender may resent any vacations or shopping sprees before the loan is paid back.

Having ambivalence about change as well as people is commonplace. My friend Karen lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and would like to have two bedrooms because she often has friends staying with her. She began looking for larger apartments and found a two bedroom with a terrace that was perfect. On the one hand, the two-bedroom fit her fantasy of an appropriate home for a professional woman of her age and status. On the other hand, it would require a much larger mortgage and she would feel pressured about making the payments each month. She wouldn’t be able to go to the ballet once or twice a month and out to dinner with friends whenever the opportunity arose. Karen was ambivalent and needed to make a choice. Most decisions require making a choice precisely because we are ambivalent.