The Hamlet Syndrome Revisited: Overcoming Ambivalence
It is, in my judgment, the most pervasive reason why relationships don’t get off the ground. Or why they get sabotaged even though they appear to have hope and promise. It’s why relationships that start off with so much closeness and passion gradually grow stale, distant and cold.
It is called ambivalence.
Ambivalence is about receiving the double message “ I want you more than anything, but I have a lot of other priorities as well, so don’t expect a lot from me,” or “I want our relationship to be as intimate as possible, but I’m not going to allow myself to get too close—just in case things don’t work out between us,” or “You’re the most important person in the world to me, but all the same I’m going to take another lover on the side, just in case.”
Similar to Hamlet, in his famous quote “’To be or not to be” soliloquy, you act indecisive, half-hearted and non-committal, thereby dampening or sabotaging the very relationship you claim to value so much.
Why do we act ambivalent in our intimate relationships? Because we are afraid. We fear being exposed. We don’t want to be rejected. We’re afraid of making the same mistakes we’ve made in the past. We fear allowing ourselves to become too vulnerable. We don’t want to risk being dumped and abandoned. We fear being known. We’re afraid of being tied down and trapped. We don’t want to feel engulfed. We fear losing our independence. We don’t want to be controlled. We’re afraid that anyone who gets to know us too well won’t want us anymore.
And that’s just a partial list.
This whole thing makes us nervous, frightened and reluctant. So what do we do? We act lukewarm, preoccupied, busy, unreliable, non-committal, judgmental, quick to anger or mistrusting toward our intimate partner—or we choose someone who behaves those ways toward us. Either way, we are protected and safe.
But not happy.
If this describes you, or a recent relationship or yours, here’s what you can do:
- Name your fears. Give voice to your feelings. What threatens you? Exactly what are you afraid of or worried about? Write down your answers; they will be easier to explore and ponder.
- Learn how to calm and reassure yourself. The goal is to reduce your anxiety so you can act wisely and effectively.
- Name your ambivalence. Is it you who’s ambivalent—or your partner—or both of you? What are you feeling ambivalent about? See if you can put definition to why you are reluctant or reserved in this relationship.
- See if you can name your partner’s ambivalence. What is s/he so hesitant about? Why, would you guess, is s/he so reluctant?
- Openly discuss all of this with your partner. Especially address any fears you have about not feeling good enough, not measuring up or being rejected.
Hopefully the two of you will be able to resolve the ambivalence in your relationship, thereby allowing your intimacy to move to the next level of closeness, trust and commitment.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
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