Ambivalence challenges most close relationships

Would you kindly give me your views on love-and-do-not-like/hate relationships toward the same person?

— G.B., Las Vegas

You mean, of course, my views on all our relationships with pretty much everybody and everything that truly matters to us.

The word we toss around in therapeutic circles for this universal phenomenon is "ambivalence." Meaning "mixed feelings."

Whenever we find ourselves in love or loving someone, or whenever we find ourselves deeply, emotionally attached to anything — an institution, a value, a cause — we invariably stumble across the experience of ambivalence.

The reason is obvious, but you won’t ever find it in a Hallmark card and rarely in a film or novel. Rarely do people talk about ambivalence as the unavoidable companion of love, nor is it common for parents to teach us how to handle it when you are growing up.

Simply put, to offer your heart to someone necessarily includes giving away a tremendous amount of power and no little degree of control.

You simply can’t love deeply and stay completely in charge. Oh, people try it all the time. Some folks even normalize this ever-cautious, carefully calculated "ration stamp love." Like someone sitting on the edge of a pier with one toe in the water, who then says convincingly, "I went swimming today."

Nope. Swimming is when you let go of the pier in water so deep you can’t touch the bottom. Only swimming is swimming.

Love means giving someone the power to break your heart, to hurt you deeply. The subject of your heart’s affection is free to be present, faithful, creative and attentive to the relationship, to cherish you. He/she also is free to neglect you, to be inconstant, or mean, or even to betray you and leave you. Not to mention the inevitable pain: Your beloved is going to die. So are you.

You can see why Hallmark isn’t jumping all over this.

In the Ron Howard film "Parenthood," the family patriarch, after years of distance and antipathy with his now-adult son, finally confesses his ambivalence. He recalls to the son that, as a child, the boy was stricken with a life-threatening illness.

"I hated you for that," the elder man says simply. Meaning, of course, I hated that loving you so deeply dangled me over the fires of so much pain and anticipation of pain.

Ambivalence is why, when parents scream watching their toddler almost get hit by a car in the parking lot, they will run up and fiercely hug the toddler … and then fiercely scold or even spank the toddler. How dare you make me see clearly the vulnerability of my love for you!

Ambivalence killed Jesus. The people waved palm branches on Sunday, singing "Hosanna hey." Come Friday, they shouted to free Barabbas. Same crowd. When you stand too close to beautiful, bright lights, you find yourself deeply ambivalent about the way that light shines on parts of yourself, not so beautiful, not so bright.

Ever observe sisters? Those relationships tend to be cyclically incendiary, especially in childhood. They will, in turn, be ready to die for each other … and then hate each other to the point of metaphorical homicide.

You see this in brothers, too, but Freud observed — though never explained why — ambivalence is given its freest rein between sisters.

An accepted bit of "wisdom" in our culture is that, in marriage, being "in love" and hot sex must, of necessity, "wear off." The elders ask us to accept that. Comedians have a field day with it. But this bit of wisdom isn’t so wise. In fact, it’s crap.

It is ambivalence that erodes love and sex. Nothing more. Nothing less. The human ego finds the experience of great vulnerability — great love — both compelling and intolerable. So we seek it, find it and then promptly begin to erode it, starve it and stonewall it so as to protect ourselves. This almost always is an unconscious process.

In fact, that’s the rub: Ambivalence begins unconsciously. And we can’t manage it well unless we are willing to make it conscious. When ambivalence is made conscious, then we have choices for bearing it creatively, usefully, sometimes even playfully.

Will you meet me here again next week? I will turn this discussion to the specific ambivalence provoked by falling in love/marriage and explore the difference between "normal ambivalence" and ambivalence that might indicate serious or even dangerous pathology in a relationship.

Originally published in View News, Nov. 23, 2010.

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