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What If Your Ambivalence Can’t Be Resolved?

When you’re of two minds about something, how do you “negotiate” between them?

Ambiguous Image/Wikipedia
Source: Ambiguous Image/Wikipedia

There’s a common belief that with the right mind set virtually all conflicts are resolvable. But in many instances, making such an assumption is simply unrealistic: a fiction, a fantasy.

As a therapist, over the years I’ve encountered many situations in which a client was struggling mightily with ambivalence. In fact, their beleaguered feelings of indecision were precisely what propelled them into therapy. And counseling them was no easy task. For frankly, no simple resolution to their dilemma existed. Their emotional vacillations and second-guessing were so laden with complexity that at times it was extremely challenging for me not to get sucked into the vortex of their quandary. Not only did their disturbing predicament feel all too real—or “justified”—it was sufficiently intricate, or convoluted, that it soon became apparent that no definitive solution was likely to emerge for them.

In such circumstances, my chief professional responsibility has centered on helping the individual better grasp what was at stake—or at risk—in choosing either of the alternatives over which they were anguishing. They already recognized that they had to get off the fence at some point. But what wasn’t clear to them was how they could do so without being saddled with regret—regardless of which side of the fence they came down on. (And doubtless, they also wanted to negotiate the softest landing possible.)

There’s an old, rather whimsical song called “It’s Illegal, It’s Immoral, or It Makes You Fat.” So naturally I attempt to assist such clients in arriving at a solution that won’t actually lead to imprisonment, intolerable guilt…or embarrassing weight gain. Beyond that I seek to prevent my own values from entering into the equation, striving to help them decide which of the (usually) two possible options will better serve them: Which is to say, more closely reflect the values they hold dear, or mirror their deepest principles and ideals. As a humanistic psychologist, I’d of course prefer that their ultimate decision come from their highest, noblest self. But at the same time, I don’t want them to make a choice that could lead to their feeling deprived, exploited, or unfulfilled. And while I generally believe that any decision nurturant to others is to be perceived positively, I view as undesirable any choice that would compel them to completely give up—or sacrifice—their own needs and desires.

Individuals entangled on the two horns of a dilemma are so because they’re almost literally of two minds about their situation. For either choice contains its own disappointments, drawbacks, and limitations. Inevitably, their final decision—while it may be the one most fitting for them—is likely to eventuate in a certain amount of apprehension and misgiving. Realistically, it can’t be anxiety-free.

The explanation for this residual ambivalence is simple enough. In such scenarios there’s always what I’d call a “values war” going on. And both sets of values have their own authenticity. They’re heartfelt and actually reflect that individual’s basic integrity. And when I use the word “values” here, I do so in the most inclusive sense. That is, I see the term as encompassing one’s attitudes, ideas, beliefs, and (closely related) moral ideals. No ready-made, or incontestable, decision is possible in such circumstances, for the values embodied—or embedded—in both sets may be forever incompatible. Which is why individuals, before arriving at their less-than-unequivocal decision, can’t help but protractedly waver between them.

It’s as though the two sides represent two internal—or infernal!—debating teams. So for such individuals to be “true” to their opposing selves (or minds) is unquestionably a most daunting task. After all, each side has its own cogent arguments to make, at the same time that the other faction’s counter-arguments must also feel about equally convincing. One’s very being, then, is caught in a maelstrom of seemingly irreconcilable opposites.

So is there a satisfactory solution for such a dilemma? I’d assert that there is, but that it can’t be expected to totally resolve the person’s prior ambivalence . Finally, it’s a matter of determining—and perhaps more from the heart than the head—which values inherent in each position deserve to be given higher priority, or weighted more heavily. Any personally satisfying conclusion must offer the individual the best possible affirmation of self. And it’s more than simply being faithful to one’s values. For the question inevitably arises: “Okay, so which values?!”

Of the many clients I’ve worked with who found themselves in such agonizing conflict, here’s just one (adapted) case, the dynamics of which had to be painstakingly explored and understood before the client was emotionally ready—and sufficiently confident—to make her decision:

Carrie, in her late 50’s and with three adult children, felt an acute need to leave her marriage of 35 years. By herself, however, she just couldn’t stop fighting a battle that regularly ended up giving her tension headaches—very much in line with her ongoing mental and emotional tension. Here were some of the positive reasons she felt it necessary (if not imperative) to leave her relationship:

  • She felt emotionally abused in the relationship. Her husband, Clyde, an eminent architect in the area, showed very little interest in her—painfully unresponsive to her various feelings, interests, and needs. She found him excessively self-absorbed, critical, demanding, and controlling. The relationship, for long devoid of any sexual or emotional intimacy, felt dead to her. And not able to feel loved or cared about, she felt almost numb inside—and had so for many years. In the past, she and her husband had tried couples counseling. But though initially it seemed promising, ultimately it failed to effect any enduring change in Clyde’s callous behavior toward her.
  • Quite by accident, she’d met someone and, without intending to, fell in love with him—as he very much with her. Although she’d never planned on leaving her husband to pursue another relationship, this intensely loving connection demonstrated that what she’d so long yearned for was still possible for her. As a result, it seemed all the more crucial that she extricate herself from a marriage so cold and suffocating to her.
  • Remaining in the relationship made her feel cowardly and weak, and so negatively impacted her self-image and -respect. On the contrary, developing the inner strength to leave it felt like a challenge she just had to face. In the past, on several occasions she’d tried to stand up to her husband, but each time felt beaten down (or “put in her place”)—either through Clyde’s verbal condescension or stonewalling—such that she wound up feeling all the more oppressed, degraded, and powerless. Having, in defeat, become increasingly passive and acquiescent to Clyde’s demands over the years, her depression had increased to the point that at times she struggled to get out of bed in the morning. In short, she knew (“to save her soul,” as she put it) she had to extricate herself from the relationship, and that confronting her husband about divorce would be a desperately needed confirmation of the legitimacy of her wants and needs.

There were still other considerations strongly tilting her in the direction of leaving the relationship. But enough. Let’s look now at some of the competing factors that made her desired decision so challenging for her.

  • An unusually compassionate person, she knew that, as much as her husband could love someone, he did love her and, moreover, was emotionally very dependent on her. She felt that leaving him was a betrayal—and quite independent of her recently found, far more gratifying, relationship. She knew how hurt he would be by her departure, and she didn’t know how she could live with herself for being so “selfish” and “unfeeling.” Whenever she contemplated the reality of actually telling Clyde she’d decided to divorce him, she was overcome with guilt—which she couldn’t figure out how to resolve. Repeatedly, she’d exclaim that despite all her frustrations, her husband wasn’t that bad a man, that he did possess some admirable qualities. And, of course, she felt very guilty about her affair, not able to imagine how, if asked, she could possibly share this with her husband (yet another betrayal and more feelings of guilt). Finally, it felt as though whether she decided to stay or leave, she’d still be violating her integrity.
  • She was also in great fear of her husband’s reactions to her bringing up the subject of divorce. She’d always been intimidated by him and backed down in the face of his explosive anger and rage. So she couldn’t be at all sure whether she’d be able to “hold her own” if he mounted a case against her—for thinking not of her family’s welfare but only her own, throwing away all the years they’d been together, or being ungrateful for all he’d worked so hard to give her (and his considerable income had afforded her a lifestyle she could hardly have imagined when she married him). Additionally, he’d always kept the family finances largely secret from her, doling out money to her in demeaning ways. So she had every reason to anticipate that if she divorced him he’d do everything in his power to make sure that their final financial settlement would leave her with as little income as possible. Given her past experiences with him, she couldn’t help worrying that he’d probably be far more vengeful toward her than forgiving.
  • Having three grown children—with whom she remained very close—she’d sought to “fake” contentment, keeping them pretty much in the dark about her relational unhappiness. She knew that divorcing their father would create for them a great deal of distress. In her mind, she saw herself as “destroying” the family. And of all her values, the value of family was probably uppermost. Her son and two daughters all lived nearby, visited her and their father frequently, and—both as mother and (more recently) grandmother—she felt she might never forgive herself for putting her children in a position to take sides in a marital break-up. She greatly valued peace and harmony, and so saw leaving her relationship as destroying what she’d tried so hard to achieve.

I could easily include other details, suggesting why her decision was so fraught with conflict. But I think her perplexing situation should by now be clear enough. The good news here is that she was finally able to confront her husband, liberate herself from the relationship, and embark on a far more fulfilling life. Although her divorce was certainly arduous—and she needed much support to get through the whole ordeal—none of her worst case scenarios were realized,

In such situations, what I think most needs to be emphasized is that even though the inevitable post-decision ambivalence can never be 100 percent resolved, it’s usually mostly resolved through the well-known phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. According to this well-tested and verified theory, once we make a decision, we’re motivated (however unconsciously) to minimize any remaining regret over it by altering cognitions incompatible with (or “dissonant” to) it. In the real world almost all difficult decisions hold negative consequences. So if we’re to stop obsessing about them, we need to reduce our residual tension (vs. equanimity) by further devaluing the alternative not chosen and augmenting or amplifying the felt “rightness” or “righteousness” of the choice we did decide onas well as, quite possibly, adding additional rationalizations to support our final decision.

What all this suggests is that after arriving at a difficult choice, we’re likely to move toward ever greater (if not altogether complete) resolution. For only then can we be freed from the lingering discomfort of having forsaken the opposing beliefs and principles that had previously kept us on the decisional fence.

And obviously, our being able to successfully resolve such cognitive dissonance will greatly influence how satisfied and at peace we’ll feel about our final decision.

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© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.

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