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.
If Karen felt one hundred percent sure that she wanted to buy the larger apartment, the decision would not require choosing between two options. It’s the ambivalent feelings that require making a choice. She’s ambivalent because there will be a gain and a loss whatever choice Karen makes. If she chooses the new apartment she will gain the space and the good feeling about herself. But she will lose the discretionary money she now has and have anxiety about meeting her mortgage payments. There is no “right” decision for everyone. We all have different tolerances for risk and anxiety. The best Karen can do is to make a “good” decision based on thinking through the gains and losses. She may make a good decision, but still regret it later when she has the wisdom of hindsight.
Tolerating ambivalence is essential for being able to make decisions. You may feel paralyzed about making decisions because you think you can’t make a decision if you feel ambivalent. In reality, you can’t make a decision without feeling ambivalent. Decisions involve making a choice and choice implies that there are positives and negatives on both sides. It is normal and healthy to make decisions while feeling ambivalent. The crucial issue is the balance of the positive and negative feelings.
Roberta Satow, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist in Manhattan and author of Doing the Right Thing: Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents Even if They Didn’t Take Care of You (Jeremy Tarcher, paperback 2006). Please visit http://www.robertasatow.com/#psychotherapy-psychoanalysis