Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Ambivalent Relationships

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 12, 2010


     Monte and Marla  suffer from a deeply ambivalent relationship, which one day, after twenty-one years  tipped over the edge towards “breaking up”. They had always found each other compelling and repelling at the same time. Marla took great pride in helping Monte through difficult times. Monte took great solace in Marla’s availability and interest. At the same time, Marla could not stand Monte’s tendency towards disappointment with Marla. Monte could not stand Marla’s need to always be the “good mother.” The balancing of these factors stayed in check for many years, until Monte was vulnerable; Marla was unavailable, and Monte was disappointed. At this point, the balance for Marla was tipped towards ending the relationship because the idea of facing Monte’s disappointment was unbearable.

    Joy, thirty, was in love with Jeff for ten years. They had wonderful times together, shared intimate conversations and had a lot of mutual friends. Joy admired Jeff to the point that she returned to school and followed in his footsteps to become a doctor. As Joy went through her medical training, she began to meet other men who interested her. She began to feel that she wanted more experiences so she broke up with Jeff, but she begged him to stay “friends”. Jeff, said “no way”. After six months of Joy and Jeff being apart from one another, Joy asked Jeff to get back together. Jeff excitedly said “yes”. They were together for six months at which point, Joy felt the same way she did before and she broke up with Jeff a second time. Jeff, terribly distraught, said to me “I don’t get it.” I replied “she must be deeply ambivalent”. Jeff says “I guess, but she did not seem ambivalent when I was with her.”

     The to and fro of relationships are part of our culture. We seek happiness, while at the same time, we wonder how much pain we should endure to regain the happiness that once existed. Marla first decided that the pain was no longer worth it for her, yet later,, she relented and agreed to talk to Monte. Joy broke up with Jeff, and then returned, only to break up a second time. The pain of this ambivalence can be excruciating. Examining the ambivalence is helpful, but it does not necessarily mitigate the agony.

8 Responses to “Ambivalent Relationships”

  1. Kristin said

    The Jeff and Joy example is much more understandable to me than the Monte and Marla example. If I try to put myself into the position of each of the characters in each of these stories, I can understand the Jeff and Joy story because there are so many models in the world that we can look to understand this paradigm. I have my own set of ideas about what it means to be in a romantic or friendship relationship, which are informed in large part by my observations of the relationships of other people in the world. My ideas may or may not correspond with my partner’s, but if I picture myself in either Jeff or Joy’s position, I have an intuitive sense about how I, as Jeff or Joy, might try to find out whether my ideas of what constitutes a meaningful or satisfying relationship mesh with the other person’s. I can understand the trade-offs that Jeff and Joy would have to make in deciding to stay together or in breaking up or in doing something in between. I can understand how I, in Jeff’s position, might say, “I’m unwilling to be in a relationship with a current or former lover in which that person is seeing other people.” I can also understand how I, in Joy’s position, might say: “I am unwilling to commit to an exclusive relationship with Jeff.” I can also understand how all of the ambivalence, confusion, and pain-causing behaviors of both parties might result from trying to negotiate some middle ground between those two positions. Most significantly, I feel like if I were in either Jeff or Joy’s position, I would have understood intuitively, deep down, that this whole crazy ambivalent path might be one possible path that the relationship could take.

    The Marla and Monte relationship is incomprehensible to me. If it were a friendship, Monte might, from the start, be looking for signs from Marla about whether he was being too clingy or needy, or too open about his disappointment with Marla. In a friendship relationship, Marla might arguably have some sort of “moral” obligation to communicate some sort of sign that she was irritated by Monte’s neediness from the start. This would be a sign for Monte to back off, and if he didn’t do so, this would be a sign for Marla to leave the relationship fairly early on. If Monte wanted to maintain such a friendship, such signals might lead him to hide his neediness or disappointment in Marla for the sake of the friendship. Or, it might prompt Monte to try to figure out from Marla what she is looking for in the relationship, and would allow him to decide whether her needs fit his. There would naturally be a “negotiation” of sorts as to whether the needs of each party matched up. A good friendship or love match would come about only when these needs more or less matched.

    But thinking of this same story with Marla as Monte’s therapist just makes my head spin. As a therapist, Marla’s needs are not supposed to matter, I presume. I therefore picture Marla sitting stoicly by, year after year, while Monte’s neediness drives her crazy. I also picture Monte, as some sort of “model” patient, carefully informing Marla of every clingy, needy feeling toward Marla and every feeling of disappointment in Marla, which would naturally just add to Marla’s claustrophobia. I can see why Marla would finally explode! And I can see why Monte would feel betrayed and bewildered when Marla did explode! Wouldn’t the whole situation be better if Marla allowed herself (or the institution of therapy allowed Marla) to say to Monte from the beginning, “You know, Monte, you kind of drive me crazy and I’m not sure I like you all that much. I don’t think this is a match. Right now, I think I’d prefer to spend my time with patients who weren’t as needy and clingy as you are. So, goodbye!” Does that ever happen? If not, why not? If I were the patient in this story, I’d much prefer that outcome than Marla’s stoicism! In some ways, if I were Monte, I’d be happy that Marla finally exploded. At least he knows how she feels (even if he doesn’t know why she feels that way)! The notion of a therapist sitting silently by, year after year, quietly hating the patient, horrifies me!

    (I’ve been following the story and understand that it is complicated by the fact that Monte is a therapist too and that Marla and his personal lives overlap. But my impression is that Marla’s frustration with Monte results just as much from their relationship inside the therapy as outside. Obviously, I could be wrong about this!)

    • Shirah Vollmer said

      Thanks for your comments. To me,they are parallel in that they illustrate how long term relationships can work, and work reasonably well, until some situation, either internal or external changes the balance. As for the issue of a therapeutic relationship, it is both similar to other relationships and different at the same time. The similarities are the complexity of feeling states and the changes which occur over time. The difference is that there is supposed to be a more thoughtful consideration of the feelings and a thoughtful consideration for the asymmetry. The Monte/Marla story is complicated by the fact that they became colleagues such that the history challenged their professional interface.

      • Kristin said

        Yes, I definitely see the parallels between the two relationships. Another parallel is that Jeff’s feelings of love and affection for Joy are much deeper than Joy’s are for Jeff, just as Monte’s feelings of love and affection for Marla seem to be much deeper than Marla’s feelings for Monte. Is this part of the natural asymmetry in the therapeutic relationship that you are talking about in your response? Or, are the best therapy relationships those in which level of affection between the parties is balanced? (I understand the other sorts of asymmetries involved in therapeutic relationships, such as asymmetry in the amount of disclosure, the asymmetry in power, etc.) In a love or friendship relationship, a substantial asymmetry in the level of affection that each party has for the other seems like a recipe for disaster; is the same true in a therapeutic relationship?

        • I don’t know that you can say that Monte’s feelings are deeper or that Jeff’s feelings are deeper. Long relationships cannot be summed up simply. At the moment of the break-up, one person is deciding that the relationship is not working for them. This decision could be impulsive or thoughtful. It does not necessarily reflect the depth of the feelings. I think it only reflects that the balance has shifted. There is some sort of invisible equation here.

  2. Suzi said

    Ohh! THAT’s ambivalence!

    Tony said that I was but I didn’t think I was but now I see that perhaps I am but definately not all the time.

    Just wondering though… can one be ambivalent sometimes more than other times? Which, I can’t help seeing now, is quite an ambivalent state.

    I hate disappointment! It’s so yucky!

    AND… there aren’t enough different sized RED balls in the graph at the top. I think humans live in the ‘red zone’ much more than the ‘blue zone’.

    Thank you so much for this post Shirah!

  3. Shelly said

    The ambivalence sounds painful, but as long as these couples have no legal ties that bind them one to another, there is nothing to keep them together other than emotions. People’s needs for specific individuals change over time, which is why relationships come and go. However, lifelong friendships or marriages are more binding and means we either need to adapt, accept, or break up permanently. I’m sorry for these couples’ pain.

    • Hmmmm…I am not sure how the legal ties fit in, since the legality does not change the fact that some people deepen their relationships over time whereas others get farther apart. Staying married does not give us any information as to what is going on internally for the folks involved. Some relationships come and go without much pain, but others come and go with tremendous agony. Adapting is challenging; it is a big decision whether to adapt or leave. Big decisions usually come with a tremendous amount of mixed feelings. Hence, the universality of these experiences.

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