- People with a high propensity for ambivalence are less prone to prejudice and see more complexity and diversity in the world.
- Love at first sight is wonderful but not a sufficient starting point for a relationship.
- An optimal selection should focus on a small number of significant positive and negative traits to which a person gives great weight.
“I’m not indecisive. I get excited too quickly and therefore make mistakes. I had no hesitation in marrying my two husbands from whom I happily divorced.” —Emily
“When I got married, I did not know my true market value. Now I am married and have wrinkles, and it is too late.” —Rebecca
In ideal love – the fairy tale – we choose our partner with no indecision, doubts, or second thoughts. Therefore, it may be surprising to learn that to develop a flourishing romantic bond, combining decisiveness with some hesitance can be valuable.
The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz claimed that our world is the best of all possible worlds, not because there is no evil in it but because we overcome evil by better appreciating the good we have. As John Milton remarked, “Knowledge of good bought dear by knowing ill.”
We can see evidence of this concept in childbirth, one of the most meaningful and painful experiences in a woman’s life. Dealing with difficulties and sadness is an essential part of our lives, and while this ambivalence is complex, it contributes significantly to a richer and more satisfying life.
Our emotional states include both positive and negative experiences and are consequently ambivalent. Indeed, a widow attending her daughter’s wedding may feel joy and sadness that the father of the bride is not present. We can see evidence of ambivalence in romantic relationships when people find themselves hating the one they love. One can think of the goodness in their partner and love them but simultaneously hate them when thinking of the humiliation they cause us.
Emotional ambivalence underlies indecision. We can see that conflicting values make it difficult to take quick, decisive action. However, this is not necessarily a wholly bad thing. If we hold multiple perspectives, including conflicting values, we are more likely to have a rich personal life with deeper views of reality. Indeed, studies have found that those with a high propensity for ambivalent perception are less prone to prejudice and see more complexity and diversity in the world.
Moderate hesitation leads to a more rational decision-making process, while great hesitation is associated with tension, worries, procrastination, and a constant feeling of discomfort. Nevertheless, an inability to decide due to chronic hesitation is rightly perceived as a mental disorder (Schneider et al., 2021).
Romantic Ambivalence: Unfinished Romantic Business
“Maria Elena used to say that only unfulfilled love can be romantic.” —Juan Antonio, from the movie Vicky, Christina, Barcelona.
Brief, intense romantic experiences tend to be incomplete, a kind of unfinished business. We are usually excited by anything incomplete, unusual, unfinished, unfulfilled, unsettled, unexplained, or uncertain. Although such experiences are often associated with sadness and frustration, we continue to seek them out.
In characterizing the perfect seducer, Robert Greene (2001) wrote of elements that maintain the incomplete nature of the romantic interaction. These include increasing ambiguity, sending mixed signals, mastering the art of insinuation, confusing desire and reality, mixing pleasure and pain, stirring desire and confusion, toning down the sexual element without getting rid of it outright, refusing to conform to any standard, being able to delay satisfaction, and not offering total satisfaction (Ben-Ze’ev & Goussinsky, 2008).
On the nature of ambivalence, a divorcee wrote:
There is something about non-permanent positive reinforcement that drives me crazy. It’s not yes that certainly supersedes vigilance, and it is certainly not no that ends the relationship. A little more / I will be better / something else; it will be mine.
Romantic ambivalence increases sexual desire, but significant ambivalence impairs romantic profundity. The core of such profundity is stability and calmness—the couple is confident in their relationship and does not need ambivalent messages to develop their love (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).
Ambivalence in Choosing a Partner
“You’re window shopping . . . You’re not buying, you’re just trying.” —Hank Williams
“I do not like ambivalence. It creates uncertainty and insecurity.” — Gaia
Our environment is ambivalent when choosing a partner: we have a choice of many people who may suit us in various degrees, with a vast range of positive and negative traits. Two primary manners of romantic choice are love at first sight and a grocery list.
Love, at first sight, is considered ideal when choosing a partner: from the very first meeting, we feel strong infatuation. The intense physical attraction strikes us like lightning and leads us decisively and without hesitation to that chosen partner. Such love, which is primarily based on superficial qualities, can serve as a basis for enduring profound love, provided that the characteristics (that will be discovered later) are not contrary to those we attribute to the person when we first meet them.
We often also choose a partner using a grocery list, in other words, a long list, which includes the desired and unwanted traits in our ideal partner, which we use to compare each potential candidate. The central role of this list is essential to filter out unsuitable candidates. This may appear a natural, appropriate method of finding a partner in an environment abundant with romantic possibilities. However, it is, in fact, mechanical and superficial and does not take into account human complexity while giving little weight to compatibility between partners. Thus, a person’s height or eye color can be as crucial as his sensitivity and generosity (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019).
Deal-Makers and Deal-Breakers
“Ambivalence is a wonderful tune to dance to. It has a rhythm all its own.” —Erica Jong
At first sight, the decisive choice when experiencing love is of great initial value, but since it is based on minimal information, the choice may likely be wrong. Moreover, not all people fall in love at first sight. Using a grocery list is based on many arbitrary characteristics that lack a significant order of priority. Consequently, the choice is not a strong one, and people feel hesitant.
An optimal choice should combine a strong decision that takes into account complexity and uncertainty. An optimal selection should focus on a small number of significant positive and negative traits to which we give great weight. Significant positive traits such as kindness, wisdom, and sensitivity are “deal-makers,” promoting enduring romantic thriving and stability. Significant negative traits, like stinginess, stupidity, egoism, and laziness, are often “deal-breakers” and represent profound unsuitability for which we may dearly pay.
An optimal choice of romantic partner should combine the above selection methods. First and foremost, we should allocate a considerable weight to deal-maker and deal-breaker properties. Then, we should give importance to our initial attraction and give even less consideration to our grocery list’s various, arbitrary properties.
This kind of choice combines the determination we want to see in love with the uncertainty and hesitation characterizing the complex, ambivalent romantic environment. Determination is expressed in the great emphasis on a few essential qualities that we want to be present or absent in our spouse and the weight of attraction. Uncertainty and hesitation are demonstrated because there are many other qualities whose value depends on personal traits and external circumstances.
Romantic life is certainly not a fairy tale; some even say that there is no happy love. However, without realizing the complex ambivalence of the romantic environment, our romantic choices are likely to be problematic and painful.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Ben-Ze'ev, A., & Goussinsky, R. (2008). In the name of love: Romantic Ideology and its victims. Oxford University Press.
Greene, R. (2001). The art of seduction. Penguin.
Schneider, I. K., Novin, S., Harreveld, F., & Genschow, O. (2021). Benefits of being ambivalent: The relationship between trait ambivalence and attribution biases. British Journal of Social Psychology, 60, 570–586.