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3 Things to Do When You're Not Sure About Your Relationship

Do you know what you really want?

Key points

  • Relationship ambivalence means that that one or both people feel chronically disconnected and dissatisfied, but not enough to leave each other.
  • Ambivalence is common in long-term relationships.
  • Learning to deal with painful emotions helps couples engage in ways that build their connection rather than undermine it.

Do you complain about how your partner isn’t there for you or constantly drives you crazy? Do you feel like you don’t really know each other anymore? Do you have fantasies of your partner leaving (or even dying)? Do you wonder if someone else would be a better mate for you? Do you feel stuck in a relationship that’s going nowhere?

“Should I stay or should I leave?”

This indecision is an expression of relationship ambivalence. It’s an indication that one or both people feel chronically disconnected and dissatisfied in the relationship—but it’s not bad enough to send them packing.

Ambivalence is common in long-term relationships because, on the one hand, it’s easy to drift apart over the years, but on the other hand, the lengthy and often colorful involvement means the stakes are much higher and separation is much more complicated.

Staying connected and satisfied over many years requires ongoing devotion, energy, and communication skills. It’s easy to neglect a relationship that busy, overwhelmed partners assume is solid or take for granted. But like any living thing, a long-term relationship will not thrive unless it’s nurtured through such actions as:

  • Keeping the lines of communication open
  • Discussing tough topics skillfully
  • Dealing with the feelings that come up
  • Offering each other warmth and positive support
  • Spending quality time together

Ambivalence often creeps in over time, as hard discussions are put off, resentments and misunderstandings build, and distance grows. The relationship may start with: “You’re great, we’re fine.” But it can slowly turn into: “Who are you and why do I stay?”

Unfortunately, even if you do stay, ambivalence in and of itself can actually hurt your relationship. That’s because when you’re feeling ambivalent, your sense of commitment declines. You’re less likely to put effort into improving communication, discussing tough topics, or spending time together. So the disconnection and dissatisfaction remain, and perhaps deepen. There’s a chill in the air, and both of you stay stuck in the vicious cycle of a stagnant relationship.

Indeed, ambivalence is just plain stressful and can take a toll on your health due to chronic conflict, isolation, and disappointment.

“Is my relationship suffering from ambivalence?”

Ambivalence is a two-way street: If one of you is feeling disconnected and dissatisfied, chances are the other is, too. And it doesn’t matter who started it, because together, you’ve created your relationship dynamic. Detecting your own ambivalence takes self-awareness, a cup of honesty, a dash of courage, and a spoonful of responsibility. First, you must bravely admit that your relationship isn’t as fulfilling as you want it to be—and then you must notice that you aren’t really doing anything about it.

That’s ambivalence at work.

How to Deal With Ambivalence

Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

If you’re tired of being in neutral, make a decision about the relationship so you can either get out or get it going again. Getting out makes sense if the relationship is unbearable or dangerous. But if you find yourself sticking around in spite of your dissatisfaction, this presents an invaluable opportunity for personal growth. And if you and your partner can commit to working together to improve your connection and satisfaction, you can’t lose.

Even if the relationship doesn’t last, at least you will know you tried, so you’ll have less doubt and regret in hindsight. And even if you're doing it solo, you’ll likely gain some new insights and skills that you get to keep, no matter what happens. Your resulting self-improvement will enable you to create a better relationship—with your partner if you stay, or with a future partner if you go.

The key is getting in touch with what you truly want, and learning to express it in a way that will be heard and respected.

Here are three skills to master, based on the work of Julia Colwell, Ph.D., author of The Relationship Ride:

  1. Learn to handle your painful feelings.
    When painful feelings are triggered, learn to stop, breathe, and identify where you sense constriction in your body. Your body can tell you what's truly going on emotionally for you. For example, the lump in your throat typically indicates sadness. Tension in your jaw, arms, or hands can indicate anger. Twinges or flutters in your abdomen can indicate fear. Name the feeling (silently or aloud), breathe more deeply and let the feeling dissipate as your physiology calms. This mindfulness-based stress reduction can help you recover your equanimity, so you can reengage with your partner in ways that build your connection instead of undermining it.
  2. Identify what it is you really want.
    When you are triggered, it's a sure sign that your needs or desires are being ignored or thwarted. As calm returns, express in simple terms what it is you truly want. Not, “I want you to stop acting like an idiot,” but something true about you such as: “I want to feel understood." "I want to stay home and cook tonight." “I want to save money for important goals.” “I want to spend time doing things we both enjoy.” This invites your partner to know you and your needs better, which builds connection. This also invites him or her to help you get what you want, which leads to more satisfaction. When the endeavor is mutual, you can invite each other to express your hearts’ desires and work out ways to both get what you want. The result is a more rewarding partnership.
  3. Avoid making arguable statements.
    Arguable statements only lead to arguments. Examples: “You always do…” “I never get...” “You’re so…” “You’re just trying to…” “My way is better." Your partner will inevitably disagree! Criticisms, judgments, assessments, even observations, and memories of what just happened—they're all arguable. These statements will not get you what you want unless you’re actually wanting an argument. Instead, only say what's not arguable, which basically consists of two things: (a) Sensations in your body, which indicate your feelings, and (b) What it is you really want. Your body doesn't lie, and what you want is simply what you want. See skills #1 and #2.
Deborah L. Davis
Source: Deborah L. Davis

These three skills are simple, yet powerfully effective for building connection and satisfaction in a relationship. But acquiring them is easier said than done. Old habits are hard to break, and new habits require mindfulness and practice, with mistakes inevitable along the way. Patience is key. So is attention to detail—and learning to slow down.

Celebrate small improvements in communication. Rest on the assurance that you can get what you truly want. Enjoy more positive moments and fewer arguments.

Whether you make this a mutual effort or go it alone, these skills can help you navigate your way toward a more peaceful and fulfilling existence.

Bottom line: Don't bother trying to figure out if your marriage is worth saving. Letting go of that will free you from pesky, draining indecision. Instead, put your energy toward trying to improve it, and reap all the benefits.

More from Deborah L. Davis Ph.D.
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