Sometimes a client will tell me that their spouse doesn’t treat them very well, and will ponder aloud why they remain in the relationship.
An “Ambivalent Relationship” is one in which one spouse is warm and caring only some of the time. Once they believe their partner feels valued and is emotionally committed to the relationship, they become distant and removed. This slow and steady “approach-avoidant” behaviour can continue for years, bamboozling the partner. It is crazy-making, and causes the partner to feel crazy.
Initially, the spouse woos their partner by being emotionally available. Once their partner is drawn in, they withdraw and become more critical of the partner. When the spouse begins to sense they may lose their partner, they again shower their partner with physical, emotional, and sexual attention. Once the partner feels secure in the relationship, the spouse pulls away again.
Healthy relationships demonstrate a different approach. In close relationships, two people look to each other to validate their significant feelings. For example, when one person expresses frustration over a situation, the other will vailidate that person’s right to be angry.
Conversely, in an ambivalent relationship, emotions are validated some of the time but not at other times. This kind of mixed response is confusing because the partner does not understand why their emotions are validated by their spouse only some of the time. One day they are made to feel important and the next they feel invisible. In a situation like this, even the most secure individual will feel upside-down and will question their sanity.
Not surprisingly, it is the spouse who is inconsistent in their behaviour, who is behind this ambivalant behaviour, that needs the most help.
It is important to realize that the recipient of the ambivalent behaviour can develop “relationship hopelessness.” This means they believe that no matter what they do, they cannot influence any relationship. Relationship hopelessness can become a theme that runs through subsequent relationships, causing the individual to believe no good can come from stepping out of a bad relationship because their next relationship will simply be more of the same.
— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta