Idealization, Devaluation and Ambivalence


If you want to have a better understanding of object-relations theory, how dualistic thinking can lead to psychosis and what it means to be a healthy grown-up, watch the embedded video on psychotherapist Melanie Klein and read the full text of the article linked below. In doing so, you should have a better understanding of the ways in which ambivalence (when recognized and attended to) can actually be healthy and how failure to overcome dualistic thinking (all-or-nothing, black-and-white, all-good or all-bad) can lead to a chronic pattern of ambivalence in adulthood.

The full article can be found HERE

A Chronic Pattern of Ambivalence

So if the nature of ambivalence is the inability to resolve an internal conflict that results in a lack of presence; a common way of expressing this is confusion. Ambivalence and confusion can be temporary states in all relationships, as we take time to resolve opposing or new information. However, where ambivalence becomes a chronic response to the world, confusion can become a defensive stance that protects us from being fully present. Expressing confusion habitually regarding what we want or need reinforces our sense of helplessness. “I don’t know” does not give us a sense of mastery over our world, nor does it give our partner anything to go on. The inability of either partner to move forward in the relationship, either to leave or to move closer, reinforces this helplessness. This chronic pattern becomes a problem in relationships by inhibiting deeper intimacy.

A chronic pattern of ambivalence typically generates a dynamic in relationships where one partner is identified as uncommitted and the other as wanting commitment. Each partner will develop behaviors around this conflict in an attempt to pull their partner closer, or push them away. Each partner is expressing a particular role in the conflict over being in the relationship or out of it, but essentially both partners are creating the ambivalent tension between them by being identified with one end of the polarity.

In other words, if we were to reduce this to a simple yes and no—the two ends of a polarity would be, “yes I want more with you” and “no I do not want more with you.” Partners are identified with either yes or no, and between them creating a stalemate. We can assume from this that both partners have not resolved their own internal ambivalence as neither of them can commit themselves to either being in or out of the relationship, and neither of them, in this dynamic, are fully engaged with the other. Often as one moves away the other will express more desire for the relationship, and the ‘certainty’ expressed by the committed partner is a desire to hold on in reaction to the greater pulling away of the other.

Because ambivalence pulls the individual and the relationship in different directions there is an atmosphere of uncertainty and unpredictability that creates instability between the partners. There can be an atmosphere of impending doom and dissolution of the relationship. Partners often breakup many times, or threaten to breakup. As time goes on the relationship takes on the characteristics of an emotional roller coaster where they alternate between feeling hopeful and breaking up. Within this atmosphere, it can be very difficult for both partners to be themselves, and be open with each other. When faced with the possibility that it will end at any moment, anything that either of them believes could cause the relationship to end will be denied or held back. As each partner withholds aspects of himself or herself from the other, this creates distance, and thereby increases anxiety over the possibility of separation. It becomes a vicious circle.

Typically, the partner who expresses commitment feels hurt and rejected by the other. The feeling that they are not good enough for the other to fully commit to them creates a reaction of trying to please, in the hopes of increasing the other partner’s desire to stay. The partner who carries more uncertainty often feels guilty that they are not able to give more, and finds it increasingly difficult to voice their true feelings. They start to dance around each other—trying to anticipate how the other is going to react, and holding back thoughts, feelings, or desires if they think their partner will react badly to them. In this way the relationship becomes more and more dishonest.

Both partners are in a relationship that isn’t the way they want it to be, but neither is able to leave. This is the essence of ambivalence. The preoccupation with separation, either wanting more separation, or being afraid of separation from the other, is the foundation of the anxiety that the relationship sits on. This preoccupation means that each individual cannot rest in the relationship; it is not a place of sanctuary and support but a place of deprivation. Even though there may be times where both partners can have fun and feel connected it is short lived, as both partners carry an underlying dissatisfaction that doesn’t get resolved. A lot of time and energy gets taken up dealing with this underlying anxiety and deprivation.