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Ambivalence: Wanting Opposite Things

Yes, pull yourself together. But in which direction?

A friend is sad. He keeps losing his circle of friends. He misses them. Why do they always leave?

They don’t; he does. He has been ambitious, switching careers and moving more than most, always seeking more leverage in his social welfare work. Apparently, he wants to change and he wants things to stay the same.

We often want opposite things. I can count many such ambivalences in my personal history:

  • For my work, I wanted cutting-edge speculative ventures but was disappointed when I wasn’t getting the returns I would have had by going into conventional, mainstream work.
  • I wanted the freedom of a freelancer and the steady income and security of salaried work.
  • I wanted to have the freedom to say what I thought and I wanted everyone to like me.
  • I wanted to write up only novel, edgy ideas but also wanted my writing to be as popular as mainstream ideas.
  • For a margin of security, I wanted romantic partners who needed me more than I needed them, but I also wanted real equality.
  • I wanted romantic novelty and reliably stability in my partnerships.
  • I wanted unencumbered freedom and a reliable, doting partner.

Before noticing my romantic ambivalences, I thought I was looking for a compatible romantic partner. Once I noticed my ambivalences, I realized the incompatibility was in me. I couldn’t expect to find a partner who could meet my opposite desires any more than we can hope to find a square circle.

We all face social pressures to seem consistent, single-minded in our pursuits. Consistency makes people trust us. They know what we want and therefore how to interact with us. Self-simplified single-mindedness is a social norm.

So we put on a good face, trying to avoid looking two-faced, hypocritical, like we’re talking out both sides of our mouths even when we’re really of two minds, hating something we also need, loving something we also reject.

Another friend talked my ear off recently about how completely awful his ex was. The conversation shifted to missing old partners. I asked him if he’d ever missed any partner. “Of course!” he said as though it was obvious. He missed that ex terribly.

To appear to be of one mind when we’re actually of two opposite minds, we often try to project one mind onto someone we’re venting at.

Another friend talked long and hard about how crazy his ex was even though he was still trying to stay her friend, even having sex with her after the relationship was officially over.

I listened neutrally, unwilling to side with him against his ex just because he’s my friend. Besides I didn’t have a position on it other than a generalization I made long ago: The pressures of intimacy often bring out the worst in people. Soon he was attacking me for defending her even though earlier in the conversation he was defending her.

Another friend expressed his own ambivalence about proposing marriage. He laid out the arguments pro and con then making a strong case for not marrying. When I said it sounded like he was leaning against marriage, he started to make the case for marrying as though he was all for it and I was somehow against it.

People say what they need to hear. Often we need to hear consistency from ourselves and so project onto others the uncomfortable half of what we feel ourselves.

It’s best to avoid standing between a person and their ambivalences, for example weighing in when someone is giving animated voice to their opposing impulses. It can be helpful to make room for them to voice their ambivalences honestly, admitting that they’re in doubt, torn between options. It can be a kindness to make people feel safe enough that they have to pretend that they’re single-minded when they’re of two opposite minds.

When you’re of two minds, seeking a square circle that reality can’t offer you, it’s best to recognize it, accept your ambivalence and deal with your ambivalence responsibly. With each of my own ambivalences, I’ve made a choice by now.

Since I couldn’t have my opposite desires met, something had to give, a had to weigh in consciously to break the tie game of my ambivalence.

In each case, I opted for one appetite over the other. For example, choosing freelance speculative work over salaried and mainstream work, opinionated over loved by everyone, and single over partnered.

Ambivalence has a long natural history that plays out in each of us. If evolution is a trial and error process, then we are each trial with the potential for error. We humans, aware of how evolution works including cultural evolution, we’re going to be ambivalent. We say, "Let the best plan win, and it damned well better be mine.” In capitalism and even in science, we’re going to be torn between our loyalty to the process and loyalty to our team.

There’s a political dimension to this, too. Big social movements are people speaking in one voice with simple clear goals when, in fact, the diversity that populates a movement wants opposite things. People will flock to a movement that gives them that false sense of single-minded clarity. They’ll overlook the movement’s ambivalence-generated hypocrisy because it feels so good to pretend they’re of one mind, clear, woke, and unambivalent.

Should such a movement come to power, its ambivalences will surface. Successful movements tend to either splinter or prevent splintering through aggressive top-down control as happened with Soviet, Chinese, Cuban, and North Korean Communism, as happened in the Lutheran Protestant movement centuries ago, and which seems to be happening with the Trump movement these days.