My job would be much easier as a marriage therapist if every couple came in with a unified set of desires for their marital futures. Unfortunately, many couples come in with mixed agendas. Commonly, one partner is entirely committed to saving the marriage, while one partner is ambivalent.
Ambivalent partners can be absolutely crazy-making for their spouses. They seem paralyzed about deciding whether or not to continue the marital relationship, because often they don’t like the looks of any of their options. They commonly report that they don’t want to get divorced because, “It’s not the right thing to do,” or because they “Don’t want to mess up the children,” but at the same time, they don’t feel like getting close to their partners either. Sometimes they are emotionally attached to partners outside the marriage.
Because neither option looks desirable to them, they show up to therapy physically, but tend to drag their feet in therapy, staying emotionally disconnected and inaccessible in the marital relationship. They show up just enough to keep their spouses hopeful that they will fully engage and the marriage will eventually improve.
The more committed partners often get stuck in the partner’s indecisiveness, because their own decisions seem contingent on the ambivalent partners’ decisions. Over time, those more committed spouses report feeling like they are being manipulated and forced into making a decision about divorce due to the ambivalent spouse’s indecision.
In my opinion, some ambivalent partners are hoping their spouses will decide to pull the plug on the marriage so they don’t have to make that decision or take responsibility for that decision.
Ambivalence can last an indefinite amount of time, and in the meantime, the clock is ticking, children are growing up, and spouses are getting older.
I never have great answers for people in this situation. It’s never my job to talk someone into staying in a marriage they don’t want to be in. I’m not a marriage salesperson, even though I’m happy to help people stay married that so desire. I’m also not the marital therapy godmother. As much as I would like one, I don’t have a magic wand to make someone fall instantly “in love,” with a long-term partner.
I treat ambivalence in part by having the ambivalent spouses clarify and own the ambivalence. By identifying and verbalizing the parts that want to stay married and the parts that don’t, they can sometimes over time decide whether or not they want to lean into the marriage or get completely out. I try to get them to identify their fears, which often keep people stuck. I will clarify that failing to make a decision is making a decision–it’s just a more passive (and painful) approach to decision-making.
Sometimes, if the marriage starts to feel safer so ambivalent partners can engage with more acceptance, they will. This isn’t always the case.
Being married to an ambivalent partner is incredibly stressful.
Here are some practical suggestions for people who see their marriages dying the slow death of ambivalence to try to gain clarity for moving forward.
- Gather information. I tell people to use what is available to get intentionally informed, and to write it down. Past behavior and present behavior are valuable information. Past behavior is also highly correlated (though not predictive) with future behavior. If you realize that two years ago your spouse was saying the exact same thing as today, and that actions haven’t changed, that is important information. By explicitly identifying patterns, you can gain clarity about future decisions.
- Ask trusted others close to the situation to help you make sense out of what is happening. Identify people close to you who understand your situation and have your best interests at heart and ask what they think. Are several people seeing and telling you the same thing? That’s important.
- Write down what life will be like in 5 years or 10 years if nothing has changed, except now you and your children are that much older. When people actually write this down for me, they develop more clarity about decision-making. Often the response is, “Oh……yeah.”
- Identify your own greatest fear and create a plan for dealing with it. Many, if not most of us, get stuck in indecisiveness because we are afraid. The anxiety we can conjure about what might happen is almost always more mentally painful than actually experiencing it. Face the fact that your worst fear could happen, but create a plan for what you will do when it does, even if it will be uncomfortable. For example, are you afraid your kids will be adversely affected by a divorce? Then imagine how you will talk to them to mitigate negative effects and identify resources for helping children in divorce scenarios. Score more points for actually imagining this case scenario over and over until you can imagine handling it. (Kids are always affected, which is why divorce isn’t my favorite choice, but sometimes it’s a necessary choice, and there are resources to help)
- Identify your support resources. Friends and family are obvious choices, but some people overlook broader community support. Now there are even support groups online for just about any challenge. Find out what is available to you. Look up websites and books. If you are afraid of earning capability, talk to people who have been where you are now and have moved past it. Talk to people, talk to people, talk to people.
- Identify your identity outside of your marital relationship. If you aren’t in a romantic attachment relationship, what are your other meaningful relationships? What kind of friend do you want to be? What kind of parent or grandparent? What kind of community member or human being at large? What skills do you want to develop? What are you curious about?
- If your marriage has spiritual or religious significance, reinforce that spiritual or religious relationship in order to achieve peace and confidence. People who see their marriages as spiritually significant can develop confidence that Deity, or whomever they honor and respect as a guiding force, understands their pure intentions. I believe people in these situations can attain peace they need to move forward in decision-making, even if the decision is painful.
- Allow yourself time and space to grieve. I don’t believe we get out of this life without feeling deep grief and loss. Losing relationships are some of the most painful emotional experiences we have as human beings. It’s normal to feel pain that a relationship is ending. I’m big on creating grieving rituals to make space for allowing yourself to feel pain while setting boundaries around grief in an intentional way so it doesn’t take over your life. Since it’s common for some pain to hang on indefinitely, I’m also big on a mindfulness approach in which you can feel pain but still know that you can function.
I really, really, really wish this were easier. It’s just not. Many people end up having to make decisions they don’t want to make. Even though it’s not likely to bring comfort, I want to end by pointing out that ambivalent marriages, while painful, are actually not uncommon. You may feel alone, but I can assure you that you are not. There might be someone out there who can benefit from your experience. Finding that person may actually help you feel more resolved.
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