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Acknowledging ambivalence is best way to cope

This is Part Two, continuing our discussion from the Nov. 23 View about "love/hate relationships," known clinically as the universal human experience of ambivalence. I’m turning my attention to the specific ambivalence we experience by falling in love and/or getting married.

Everyone knows that falling in love is a most sublime joy. But what no one tells you is that falling in love also is a holy terror. It is regularly ego-rigorous and, from time to time, ego-intolerable.

And if you would love me/I will protest/And tell you to save your time/And then I’ll come back/With my very next breath/And ask you to spend some time/Trying to help me understand what you mean/When you say that it’s all worthwhile/That there’s something for you/In seeing me through/The foolishness of my life.

All great love affairs have some degree of "approach/avoid." Most marriages have periods of time when the partners complain they feel neglected or that the spark is gone. But, when more deeply examined, these same partners discover they have made choices subtle and not-so-subtle making sure no truly vulnerable intimacy is possible. They are at once longing for connection and fleeing from it.

These periods of ambivalence are not, surprisingly enough, evidence of what is going wrong in a relationship. Quite the contrary, new rounds of ambivalence are the only possible consequence for what’s going right in a relationship. To wit: The partners are succeeding in growing ever-deepening levels of love, intimacy and interdependence. Which, in turn, must force increasingly provocative encounters with disquieting, harrowing vulnerability.

And if you would love me/I’ll call my friends/A bishop, a knight, a pawn/ The king is in check/And I will protect/His image so wise and strong/ If I let you see the empty places in me/Then you might want to change your mind/That’s why I push you away/To make sure you stay/And so you get left behind.

If we truly value enduring commitments, the necessary act of courage is to make conscious our ambivalence. We admit and embrace the uninvited guests of envy, spite, competition, fear of abandonment, insecurity, etc. We enjoy the times that love makes us delirious with joy but are equally ready to admit the times that our love for our mate makes us want to rage at our mate for having the audacity to make us love this much. Yes! It’s my mate’s fault that I’m standing shivering, vulnerable and naked before the work of great love!

Couples so often shake their heads in embarrassment about "fighting over stupid things." Toasters. Socks. The rules about installing new toilet paper rolls. I’m convinced much of marital bickering serves to cyclically wedge a space, a refuge from a closeness grown uncomfortable. Rather than say, "I’m going for a walk (by myself)," or, "I want to plan a weekend to visit my sister," we create separateness with irritability, withholding or outright conflict.

So if you would love me/I’ll do my best/To share the days of my life/I’ll stop using words/Like a bullet-proof vest/I’ll try to let you inside/But I gotta tell you that I don’t always know/When I’m running from your loving me/I know how to hide/How to defend my pride/But then you’re the one who bleeds.

I’m saying that all great love affairs experience some degree of "love/hate." For most of us, ambivalence is ordinary, normal and we learn to manage it. Even thrive with it.

But there are types of ambivalence bearing evidence of more serious issues and, in some cases, evidence for pathology in the relationship. Even danger. At the top of this list is the prototypical domestic violence relationship.

Perpetrators of domestic violence are provoked to violence in two primary ways.

One is obvious: the perpetrator’s felt loss of control over the mate. But lesser known is the alternate route to the perpetrator’s rage: the mate got too close, emotionally speaking. The perpetrator experienced an intimacy and therefore a vulnerability.

Other people, while not committing/experiencing acts of physical violence in marriage, can and do exhibit another type of disturbing — not normal — ambivalence.

I’m referring to couples with frequent cycles of reactive hostility pingponging back to cosmic sex and breathless romance. "Frequent" here can mean two to five such highs and lows in a given week. The participants are beaten to an emotional pulp.

For some folks, these slingshot highs and lows are near addictive.

The cycles create powerful bonds. Just not healthy bonds. Certainly not happy bonds.

Originally published in View News, Nov. 30, 2010.

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