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6 Ways Out of the Relationship Ambivalence Trap

Should I stay or should I go?

Key points

  • Many couples get stuck in relationship ambivalence for years, unclear whether to keep trying to improve things or let the relationship end.
  • Once ambivalence takes hold, it becomes the focal point, creating entrapping vicious cycles of thoughts and feelings that lead us nowhere.
  • As you break the chains of ambivalence, ask, “What happens if we break our current patterns? What would our relationship look like next?”
Vera Arsic/Pexels
Source: Vera Arsic/Pexels

Tears streamed down Sheri’s face as she and Justin talked themselves in circles. They were not happy in their marriage, but the alternative of letting it go felt untenable.

How could that ever be a happier option? They had been together for decades, had kids, and had a life together. Should they keep trying to make this work, or were they entrenching themselves deeper and deeper into frustration and resentment? They felt trapped in cycles they had long tried to change, and hope was draining out.

She urgently wanted him to see that she was at a breaking point with his chronic stress and negativity. Justin was unhappy, too. He was frustrated that Sheri was often removing herself, retreating from him. “To protect me from your barking,” she would say. He shook his head sadly. They were both lonely.

They sat in my therapy room at an impasse. They were both in pain from years of this ongoing struggle, feeling hurt, lonely, and misunderstood. As their patterns had become more entrenched, they had experienced fewer and fewer times of connection, felt less and less at ease in the other’s company, and became more and more concerned that they might not find a way back to happiness.

They were trapped in a cycle they knew they couldn’t maintain, and they had come to therapy in a deep state of relationship ambivalence: neither wanted to stay in the relationship anymore, yet neither wanted to let it go. They both valued the family structure they had with their kids. Neither wanted to feel “responsible” for disrupting divorce.

Both had been raised to “tough it out and make it work” and felt ashamed for even considering divorce. So maybe, they mused, we should hang on. They were breathless.

Klaus Nielsen/Pexels
Source: Klaus Nielsen/Pexels

These cycles can feel inextricable, and we can accidentally stay stuck in them for years and years, never making progress towards change, toiling away in a relationship low in joy and high in ambivalence.

Over time, the ambivalence itself takes center stage. The focus stops being on the relationship dynamics themselves or the possibility of something more positive in the future, whether together or not. Instead, the focus becomes the very question, “Should I stay or should I go?”

Many couples get stuck in this ambivalence, where it feels like there’s no good solution, no winning options. It feels like quicksand. The harder they try to find a way out, the deeper the mire. Once ambivalence kicks in, we often get stuck in some cognitive and emotional loops that feel like one of those escape rooms–a space designed to feel impossible to exit.

So how can we pull ourselves out of the grips of the sticky ambivalence and make space to move forward?

1. The first step is to reframe the question. Let go of “Should I stay or should I go?” What we know at this stage of the game is that you want out–you want out of the version of the relationship that currently exists. One way or another, it is time to exit the old version of the relationship and create something new.

The real question is, “What is the new version of our relationship going to be?”

But don’t jump to whether that means staying together or separating. Don’t go there yet, because the truth is we don’t know. If you spend energy trying to answer a question you don’t yet know the answer to, you will exhaust yourself, getting nowhere. That takes you back to the quicksand, expending effort that just sinks you deeper into the problem.

The question at this point, as you break the chains of ambivalence, isn’t about the structure of the relationship–together vs. apart. The question is: “What happens if we break our current patterns? What would our relationship look like next?”

ShotPot/Pexels
Source: ShotPot/Pexels

2. Identify what changes you can make. This is important. To see what something different can look like, you have to focus on what you can do differently. Don’t play your role anymore in the cycles that exist.

Let’s look at Sheri and Justin as an example. Sheri has long been trapped in the thought that she needs Justin to be less negative so she can feel happier; Justin has been trapped in the thought that he needs Sheri to be more soothing when he’s in his negative space. They have both fallen into the “If only you would…” trap.

This is classic enmeshment. “I can’t because you…” “I have to because you…” We don’t have the power to change each other, so when we feel like we can’t experience something new until the other person changes, we are powerless.

Sheri could experiment. What would happen if, instead of retreating, she shared with Justin in the moment that his negativity felt scary to her? What would happen if she practiced differentiating from Justin so she could acknowledge his bad moods without taking on the energy he was emitting? What would happen if she explored her internal response to his moods–what might she learn about herself that would set her free from her current pattern?

Maybe she has an automatic old fear response from past experiences, and the present isn’t as scary as she fears. Or maybe she’ll learn that her body is giving her some critical information about a true lack of safety in the present. When she learns to trust her body and her intuition, she will have more clarity about needing out of her relationship with Justin.

Likewise, Justin could explore his behaviors, feelings, patterns, responses, and history. He could work on taking responsibility for regulating his moods. He could practice attuning more to his impact on others and asking gently for the support he needs. He could explore his attachment history and learn about why Sheri’s retreat triggers anger rather than concern.

Marta Wave/Pexels
Source: Marta Wave/Pexels

There’s no promise that changing your approach will create the change you always hoped for in your partner, but that’s the point.

To break out of ambivalence, we must focus on ourselves, our behaviors, and our automatic responses, not because it might be the way to finally change our partner, but because it’s the only way to grow.

You get to take that growth into your next relationship; whether that means the next version of your relationship with your current partner, yourself, or someone new. Breaking out of ambivalent patterns means stepping into your own growth and seeing what happens next.

3. Don’t analyze every moment. As you experiment and make some shifts, it’s tempting to view every minute together as data. “I tried something new. Did it work?” “Does this new experience feel hopeful or hopeless?” “Was that change effective, or is the raw truth that effective change isn’t possible?”

Resist the urge to over-analyze. Change takes time. Consider tabling the possibility of ending the relationship for some agreed-upon time. Can you both agree to focus on changing old relational habits for six months to see what a new version of being tougher feels like? When you find your mind wandering back to familiar ruts of ambivalence, you can simply remind yourself that the only question, for now, is, “In what ways do I want to grow?”

The part of you that has been trying to decide whether to stay or go is exhausted. Give that part a break and focus instead on bringing new growth and self-awareness. In six months, you can see how new you feels in the updated version of the relationship

4. Promise that you will not force yourself to stay forever in a relationship you need to leave. Perhaps ironically, the only realistic way to temporarily take the thought of leaving off the table is to assure yourself that you are not trapped into staying. Therefore, another key factor in breaking out of ambivalence is releasing the fears of separation and divorce.

Powerful cultural and familial forces suggest that marriages are meant to last forever. For many, letting a marriage end triggers shame, failure, and fear. Fully explicating the political and specifically patriarchal roots of this would require a separate post (or book!), but for our purposes, the internalization of the edict that marriage must last forever sets us up to spend years in the ambivalence trap.

When we believe that there can be no good outcomes from ending a relationship, we are left with the entrapping thought, "I’m not happy in it, but I can’t be happy out of it.” We terrorize ourselves with the idea that our kids, hearts, and families will forever be broken.

Felipe Balduino/Pexels
Source: Felipe Balduino/Pexels

Not only does the “I have to stay” message block a healthy ending, but it also blocks an authentic re-beginning. When we are convinced we have to do something, we can’t choose it because we want it.

A voice of shame and fear telling you that you must stay together or all will be lost is not likely to be your best guide to an open and joyful connection. Backing yourself into a corner leads to helplessness, hopelessness, and resentment.

Work on releasing the fear and the shame. Permit yourself to accept any and all paths forward as having equal value. Allow yourself to imagine the unexpected joy in letting go, in the new connections that might follow, and the expanded modern version of your family that you could grow into.

This paves the way for a positive ending for relationships ready to end. But it also opens the door to recommitting. There is far less possibility in the things we feel we have to do than the things we choose out of authentic desire.

5. Avoid grief avoidance. While it’s important not to expect destruction as a result of choosing to end the relationship, it’s also important not to expect a grief-free path; whether you decide to stay together or not. There is loss, regardless. If you stay, you let go of the future potentialities that exist if you were to let go. If you let go, you lose the hopes and expectations for your future and the relationship and family structure that is your current status quo.

This doesn’t mean that the answer is not to make a choice.

When we expect a grief-free path, we are understandably stymied. We can’t make any choices because no path is without pain and struggle. So be ready to accept the grief, regardless. Grief doesn’t mean you are making a wrong choice. It means you are living a human life. Step out of dichotomous thinking that suggests a right and a wrong, a better and a worse, a more and less painful option. This idea breeds ambivalence. Practice expanding your field of vision to accept that there is grief either way. Ultimately, this gives you great freedom.

6. Finally, let go of the idea that “you’ll just know.” Many couples stay stuck in the liminal land of ambivalence because they await to be struck by certainty. Some people experience certainty. One or both come to know without a shadow of a doubt that it is time to let go or fully and deeply recommit.

However, waiting for certainty is sometimes as fruitless as waiting for an option that holds no grief. Just like sadness, uncertainty is often an unavoidable part of the process. In part, this is because change is simply scary, and it’s hard to feel certain about something unknown. And in part, this is because there often isn’t only one wish within us.

We can have parts that want to hold on and keep working, believe new versions of our relationship exist and hold onto being together despite imperfections. We can have parts that want to let ourselves outgrow a relationship and permit ourselves to let go and move on. Sometimes we have to leap without having full certainty and see what happens next.

Garon Piceli/Pexels
Source: Garon Piceli/Pexels

The you reading this is not the same one who will be making that decision. You have new parts of yourself to bring to life and new insights and perspectives to develop.

Don’t exhaust yourself trying to make a decision yet. The growth you invest in now comes with you into whatever happens next. Let the growth come before the decision.

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