Ryan* was up at 3am again, dreading her upcoming trip to visit her family with her boyfriend. He understood her better than any other partner she’d had, the sex was good, they lived together well, but she was often disappointed. They had few common interests, he didn’t add much to the conversation when they got together with her friends or family. He spent way too many hours playing video games, but he made her laugh when he managed to put down the controller. She wasn’t as happy as her friends seemed to be in their relationships, but she couldn’t really imagine not being together either. She watched the numbers on the clock change, as she mentally compared her relationship to every other relationship she knew, wishing she could figure out what to do.
We all have mixed feelings from time to time. It’s part of being human. Life’s pretty complex, relationships are complex, and it’s healthy to be able to hold multiple feelings at once. Sometimes, though, we are faced with a relationship or situation where we feel so mixed up, so uncertain, that we become stuck in a state of chronic ambivalence.
These states of ongoing uncertainty are usually around a major life decision. Should I have a child or not? Should I make a career switch or stay where I am? Should I stay with my partner or break up? Questions constantly rattle around in the mind, along with endless lists of pros and cons, but no sense of certainty arises. A decision seems impossible, not making a decision leaves you filled with angst.
The word decide is derived from the Latin root caedere, meaning cut. Another form of caedere is cide, meaning kill— the same root as in the words homocide, suicide and infanticide. So to decide is to cut or kill (caedere, cide) off (de) one of more possible options.
Thinking about this etymology can help to understand chronic ambivalence. To a person stuck in ambivalence, it can feel like the choice is not survivable, that either they or someone they care for may be irrevocably harmed. That may sound extreme, and of course in most situations it is not the reality, but it can feel that way. The imagined loss seems unbearable, and so it is avoided.
In Ryan’s case, there were things she had in her current relationship that she’d always wanted in a partner and hadn’t had until now. She couldn’t imagine giving that up and not knowing if she’d have it again. But she couldn’t stop judging all the things about her partner that she wished weren’t there, and worried about what it would be like for her in the long term if they stayed together. Her fantasy was that she’d make a terrible mistake and if she didn’t make the “right choice” she’d guarantee herself a miserable future.
Rumination about a difficult decision can be all-consuming and painful. However, it’s important to know that remaining ambivalent, as awful as it feels, can actually be the psyche’s way of protecting itself. Refraining from making a decision can be keep us from being overwhelmed by grief, fear, guilt, anxiety, or other difficult-to-bear states.
So, how does one get past chronic ambivalence?
First, have some compassion for yourself. The decision may seem to be one you “should be able to figure out”, but it’s not about having the smarts to analyze the information. Try to appreciate that staying ambivalent has protected you in some way, which means that there’s probably a younger, more vulnerable part of you that has needed protection.
I think of what meditation instructor Vinny Ferraro says, “hating myself into better behavior didn’t work.” The same is true here. Trying to argue, judge, push or hate yourself into a decision isn’t likely to help this younger part feel cared for.
Second, instead paying attention to all the thoughts about the decision, try to ask yourself what you might be feeling if you weren’t caught up in rumination. Are you terrified? Afraid the grief will be too big to bear? Afraid of how much someone else might suffer if you land on a decision?
Next, attend to those underlying feelings. If it were an easy choice, it would have been made already, so whatever you choose is going to have some pain. You can handle it, and can get help in handling it.
Give yourself as much space as you need to grieve what needs to be grieved. Reach out for support from friends, but be mindful of who you talk with. Friends may want to try to help by offering their opinions, but taking in lots of opinions can stir up the rumination again, and bring you further away from your own knowing.
If you don’t have people in your life who can sit with painful feelings, reach out to a therapist. A good therapist will help you find your own wisdom and work through the pain that may come. As you are able to lovingly attend to your more vulnerable self, you will be better equipped to handle any action that needs to follow your decision.
“Life can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards.”
*Fictional composite and not a real patient