John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Marital Ambivalence

Marital Ambivalence: Should You Stay? Or Should You Go?

Often people will come to therapy when they are trying to decide if they want to stay married.

On the one hand, something isn't working, they’re not happy, they’re fed up, or they’ve lost whatever love they once felt. On the other hand, they do not want to be divorced, alone, without the kids, broke, or stressed out by nightmarish legal proceedings. The thought of staying feels unbearable, but the thought of leaving feels equally unbearable. In short, they're caught on the horns of a dilemma.

Therapists tend to have a lot of respect for dilemmas. They make people crazy. Or at least they make people feel crazy. Which isn’t the same thing.

By definition, a dilemma is when we are being forced to pick the best of bad alternatives. We study the options, but they all look bad. No matter which direction we go, we see hardship, discomfort, or emotional pain ahead. And we'd rather avoid going down that road, thank you very much.

But can we?

In a true dilemma, we can't. And that's precisely what makes us feel crazy. Sometimes we secretly hope for miracle to resolve it. Surely they're has to be an option that won't cause such distress and havoc, right? Perhaps if we try not to pick an option for as long as possible something new will pop on the horizon? Please?

Well, maybe. But I doubt it. Generally the options to most dilemmas are relatively easy to identify. The problem isn't knowing what the options are; it's that we don't like them.

When people feel ambivalent about their marriages, they will often disengage emotionally from their spouse but not leave. This can be painful for both parties, but it makes a certain amount of sense. After all, dismantling a marriage isn't easy and the stakes are generally high. Better to try a holding pattern, least you jump before you are ready.

And this will probably work for a while.

But eventually, you'll be forced to choose. Because your spouse, who is on the other side of your dilemma and is probably feeling hurt, angry, or confused, will lose patience. Oh, he or she may tolerate your ambivalence for a time. Indeed, your spouse may even try to woo you back. But if you fail to re-engage in the relationship in a meaningful way, even a patient person will eventually tire of the arrangement.

This is often the moment when people will consult a therapist. Sometimes it's person who is ambivalent, other times it's the person who’s lost patience.

No therapist should try to solve a personal dilemma for you. Dilemmas are part of the human condition; sooner or later, most of us will get caught in some form of one. This is simply part of being human. None of us is exempt from pain or hardship.

What a therapist can do, however, is help you clarify your true feelings (which is often more difficult than it sounds). And he can help you think through the ramifications of the options, whatever they are. What he can't do is make the decision for you.

I suppose dilemmas teach us not only what it means to be human, but what it means to be an adult. Because sometimes the only solution to pain is face it, experience, and bear it. This is one of the ways we become grown-ups.