Among the many misconceptions that people have about love – that it’s only a feeling, that the feeling of being “in love” should exist from day one, that attraction is static and based on external attributes – the faulty belief that often gets swept under the rug more than any other is that love is ambivalent. What does this mean? It means that:
- Love includes doubt
- Love includes indifference
- Love includes boredom
- Love includes numbness
- Love includes irritation
- Love includes the need for space
- Love includes doubt
- Love includes – dare I use such a strong word – hate
We live in a culture that thrives off of definitive answers, which essentially means that we squeeze life into dualism: you can either feel happy or sad (but never both at the same time). You can either feel attracted or not attracted, but certainly not both within the span of an hour. You can either feel certain or doubtful, but not vacillate between these two poles in the same relationship.
But this is not how the human heart works. Our hearts are nuanced and textured, mysterious and subtle. And our emotions are as fleeting as clouds moving across the sky: we can feel happy one moment and sad the next and that’s okay. We can feel attracted and not attracted almost simultaneously. And nowhere do we see this more clearly and painfully than in the realm of romantic love. Why? Because nowhere do we risk our hearts so completely and make ourselves more vulnerable to the possibility of being hurt. And nowhere does the template of old hurts project themselves more directly than onto our partners.
Coaching clients sometimes say to me, “I’ve never been hurt by love. I had a great childhood and I can’t remember any painful experiences with my parents. They were very loving.” To which I respond, “Even with the most loving parents in the world, there’s still pain. And even if you weren’t directly hurt by your parents, it’s not possible to grow through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood without being hurt by love. We’re hurt by friends, siblings, first lovers, and teachers, to name a few.” Where we love, we risk. And where we risk, we get hurt. Most of this hurt isn’t intentional, but because we’re human and, thus, imperfect in the art of loving, we invariably hurt and are hurt by others.
We can be hurt in a variety of ways. Sometimes the hurt is in the form of enmeshment: a parent or early relationship where the boundaries between self and other are too loose and the fear of being steamrolled or losing yourself emerges. Sometimes the hurt is in the form of abandonment: an early relationship where you felt rejected or were literally abandoned. And most people experience some form of both.
Thus the following dualities arise: I love you, go away. Come close, but not too close. Wait don’t go. Come back. This is love’s ambivalence. This is how the fear of losing yourself and loving another appears in intimate relationships.
Love’s ambivalence applies not only to romantic love but to all forms of love: with parents, friends, neighbors, children. This principle recently came up with a client when she was talking about her young child:
“I love him so much but sometimes I just want him to go away,” she shared.
“Of course you do! You need space. You get irritated. You love him but you don’t always like him. This is all completely normal.”
Some part of us knows that this is normal in other relationships where we have an implicit understanding that it’s okay to span the spectrum of feelings. We know that we don’t always like our kids. We know that our parents can irritate us. When a clients asks me, “Is it normal that I feel irritated with my partner?” I respond, “If you spent every day with your best friend, would you feel irritated?” We can acknowledge the ambivalence in other relationships without questioning the core bond of love.
But when it comes to romantic love, everything changes. Inundated by our popular culture that jams the fantasy version of love down our throats and psyches, we believe that our love for our partners should be unblemished by ambivalence. We then make decisions – often irreversible ones – based on this faulty mindset.
The paradox is that the more we learn about love, the less ambivalent it becomes. It’s not that we stop feeling irritated or bored or disconnected; it’s that we recognize these experiences as normal byproducts of being in close emotional relationship with another human being and we stop giving them so much power. We also learn to decipher the messages inside the various manifestations of ambivalence, which means that when irritation arrives, for example, we can ask, “What is it that I’m needing?” When we learn the basic Love Laws and Loving Actions that underscore a romantic relationship, we can move toward all of our emotional responses in a way that opens our heart and creates more connection with ourselves and our partners. With the connection intact, the offshoots of ambivalence begin to lose their power.
These Laws and Actions can be learned. You don’t have to live your life behind the wall of fear and anxiety that causes your heart to shut down and your perception to be altered. When the seeds of ambivalence take root – when we don’t know how to work with the boredom, irritation, and even hatred that show up in intimate relationships – they fester into unsightly weeds and alter our perceptions. Fear is extraordinary in its power to change perceptions, and as all forms of ambivalence are cousins of fear, we must ultimately learn to work with the fear effectively so that we can open our hearts and eyes to real love and real attraction. What is learned can be unlearned and replaced with truth. This is the path of opening your heart.
If you would like to learn to work effectively with the powerful effects of ambivalent love, please join me for my next round of Open Your Heart: A 30-day program to feel more love and attraction for your partner. It begins on March 10, 2018, and I look forward to seeing you there.