Updated: Nov 25
Most of us, probably more frequently than we’d like, will have found ourselves in the grip of relational ambivalence, either playing the role of victim or perpetrator.
This is mostly a painful and confusing experience for both parties, but especially so when one identifies with the victim end of the polarity, where it can threaten to derail self-confidence dramatically. Often the subject of therapy, and a source of much dissatisfaction, I want to explore this dynamic at a level beyond what our emotional responses suggest to be true about the origins of the ambivalence. My intention here is to challenge the unexamined assumptions that cause unnecessary suffering, and hopefully liberate you from being confined to either victim or perpetrator in this awkward relational dance.
First a disclaimer. I will be using some psychodynamic jargon to explain unconscious processes, but will do my best to define my terms. In the context of this essay, true self, authentic self, and inner child all refer to the same dimension of the psyche.
A signature of these troubled bonds is the flip-flopping between the illusion of deep intimacy and jarring estrangement that follows hard on its heels. Although the intimacy certainly feels real and profound, it is frequently a kind of premature merging born of the mutual and secret need to be rescued by a parental figure. It is indicative of two complementary but insecure attachment styles dove-tailing in such a way as to arouse overwhelming early-life fears and needs in both parties. Research suggests that such attachment styles are relatively static, but can be affected positively by entering into relationship with people who have a more secure attachment style. Unfortunately, as logic dictates, such people spend less time on the dating market and more time committed to functional relationships. This condemns the mass of single people to a frustrating merry-go-round of re-enacting a familiar and dysfunctional attempt at healing old wounds. Ambivalent attachment is not confined to the realm of romance, but can equally appear in platonic friendships, or other kinds of close relationship. This includes the therapeutic relationship where the therapist’s basic responsibility, among others, is to be a secure partner or consistent parent, with the intention of encouraging a reparative attachment.
Ambivalence suggests someone who is in two minds about something. In this context, it is a person who both wants and avoids intimacy. This manifests, broadly, as two different relational styles, commonly known as avoidant and anxious. Seemingly on opposite ends of an attachment spectrum, they are different manifestations of the same basic developmental wounding, that is the absence of a secure primary attachment. In the avoidant’s case, they are consciously dismissive of intimacy, while unconsciously fearing that their needs are too great for anyone to meet. Having disowned or disconnected from their needs at an early age, usually due to having a primary caregiver that was emotionally or physically absent and overbearing, those needs remain stuck at an early developmental stage. As a response to the intolerable pain of having their needs ignored, in order to survive psychologically, they have dissociated from their vulnerable child self and over-identified with a defended self that is pathologically self-contained. While other aspects of the individual will have evolved in sync with their biological age, the emotional life of the individual, when released from suppression, will appear overwhelming and threatening to an ego-self that identifies as being free of needs, and usually a helper for others.
This is mirrored by the anxiously attached who crave intimacy, and become quickly dependent in relationships. They compulsively seek out an ‘other’ in whom they can lose themselves so as to avoid encountering the grief of their original attachment wound. In this case, the individual has learned from their primary attachment figure, that they cannot rely on someone to consistently meet their needs, and so they compulsively grasp. Like the avoidant, their emotional life remains stuck at an earlier developmental stage. As an adult, the child within is frozen in time, forever reaching for a parent who had only breadcrumbs to give. Consequently, in the effort to heal, they find someone with whom they can re-enact this dynamic; usually an avoidant. Preferring a familiar misery to the pain of becoming conscious of their wound, in adulthood they can be the victim of ‘breadcrumbing’ (sporadic and unreliable attention and affection).
For the sake of clarity, I have presented these two as being distinct from each other, although in reality these styles are often not so clearly delineated, but instead overlap and are sometimes displayed by the same individual depending on the relational style of their partner. Again, insecure attachment styles lie along a spectrum and can be further defined as various combinations of the two basic types.
When these two distinct styles constellate in a relationship, they fit together in such a way that each triggers the yearnings and then the fears of the other. You may have already noticed that each style leads with an approach that embodies the unconscious fear of the other, while affirming their respective defences. This creates a deep attraction, or feeling of familiarity, as each brings a sense of wholeness to the other, and from the perspective of the wise psyche that wishes to grow and heal, an opportunity to integrate that which has been denied. A curious thing happens if this kind of connection develops beyond the initial infatuation. Both individuals protest loudly that their partner is either too needy, or too cold, while being secretly pleased that they appear to collude with their defences. As the threat of real intimacy deepens, the avoidant pushes away to discharge anxieties related to a loss of self, whereas the anxious partner pulls closer to discharge fears of abandonment. This initiates a cyclical push-pull dynamic that can be very difficult for either to leave.
A different story unfolds just below the surface where the unconscious of each begins to stir. For the unmoved avoidant, an attachment slowly forms but is not consciously registered until the anxious partner gets wise to the dynamic and tries to end the relationship. Consequently, the avoidant is thrown into a catastrophic regression and scrambles to pull the anxious partner in again with promises of change. This is contrasted with the anxious partner who gradually becomes aware of the depth of subverted need in their partner, and can no longer project onto them their withholding parent.
Each becomes exposed, through the evolving attachment, to their ungrieved childhood wound.
At base, both employ different mechanisms to avoid re-encountering the original parental abandonment. There lacks, however, a perfect symmetry between the two basic styles. Whereas the anxious person is more aware of their needs and thus closer to the original wound, the avoidant has an extra layer of defence that maintains the illusion of self-sufficiency. In reality, the avoidant has effectively dissociated from needs that will, nevertheless, continue to have a detrimental effect on their emotional life and even their physical health. Without awareness, unmet needs create chronic stress in the body that cannot be registered and therefore neither ameliorated. This means that the avoidant partner often ends up being the one that is most destabilized by these relationships. Whereas the anxious partner can, and often does, attach quickly to a new partner, the avoidant attaches rarely as the consequences are too threatening to an ego that identifies with being self-contained. Activation of their undeveloped attachment system releases from suppression archaic and painful need, which arouses debilitating shame. This seems to confirm that their real self is truly unlovable. The fallout of such a relationship can be an incredibly fertile time for healing if the avoidant can learn to tolerate these difficult feelings of shame, and thus transmute them into self-love. Released from suppression and integrated into the personality, their intimacy needs can now be used to propel them towards healthy relationship based on reciprocity as opposed to control. The danger here is that, instead of relating warmly to the needs of their child, the avoidant will contract around the shame and double-down on their defences, retreating further into the illusion of self-sufficiency. An opportunity will have been missed, and the suppressed child will secretly rebel against the body. The consequences are potentially grave for the individual. Avoidance of intimacy with another is really avoidance of intimacy with oneself, specifically the tender feelings of vulnerability that make up the authentic self. The real nature of this avoidance is rarely acknowledged but instead rationalized and justified in endless ways that usually displace responsibility onto the other. These stem from unrealistic expectations and perfectionist tendencies that compensate for core feelings of shame. They exert a powerful yet subtle control over oneself and others. Potential partners are subjected to a critical gaze that looks for faults in order to justify the avoidant’s distancing needs. As an unconscious defence mechanism, it works to discharge anxiety related to fear of losing one’s self in relationship. The external appearance of self-containment and stability actually conceals a fragile sense of self that has not learned how to maintain its integrity while bonding with another. While employed to push away suitable partners, this defence is ironically suspended when it comes to unsuitable partners. Partners who are either unavailable or unstable do not arouse intimacy fears, at least initially. Such people are deemed ‘safe’ because they cannot or will not reciprocate love and affection, and thus will not challenge the core belief that one is fundamentally unlovable. Confirmation of this belief is perversely preferable for the maintenance of the ego structure. This can also show up as an interest in caricatures of the desired sex who fit a shallow and bland ideal of perfection; Barbie and Ken come to mind here. Such people are, in the minds of the seducer, reduced to impersonal objects of desire, thereby rendering them devoid of humanity and incapable of real intimacy. A helpful way to make sense of all of these mental and emotional contortions is to consider them, first and foremost, as instinctual, and thus unconscious, ways to manage fear. This is useful as it brings one back to a recognition of vulnerability, and out of defensive positions. Although certainly not a fool-proof solution to fear-induced perceptual distortions, it can encourage a pause for reflection when one experiences a sudden loss of attraction or unreasonable irritation in relation to a partner, or conversely, when one is confused and fatigued by powerful attractions that end in disappointment.
What very few of us readily grasp is the tremendous power of the human mind to distort our perceptions when in the grip of unconscious fear. I will go out on a limb here and suggest that the majority of rationalisations about why someone is not a suitable partner (provided the relationship is basically loving and supportive), including feelings of unease are really displaced fears of loss, grief, abandonment and shame, and they reflect our ego's attempt to distract us from grasping it's defensive trickery. Love is a choice, not a feeling; a fact that popular depictions of romantic love do not convey. Our inability to be satisfied in love is a mirror pointing back to unhealed wounds. Until we really understand this, we are at the mercy of the ego's defensive games and unable to face ourselves and take responsibility for our unhappiness. Instead, we attribute that unhappiness to our partner's imperfections; their bumpy nose, or strange tic, their 'poor' taste in clothes or music, they way they eat, or walk or sit, and on and on. I hope I've managed to convey the comical absurdity here.
For those who identify with the anxious attachment style, a basic grasp of a somewhat complex psychodynamic term should prove useful.
Projective identification occurs when one identifies with the disowned and projected traits of another.
As a good rule of thumb, the degree to which you feel a sense of neediness in relation to a love interest (providing the interest is reciprocated to some degree), or even a friend, can often be indicative of the extent to which they judge and are dissociated from their own needs (and thus project them outwards), and your own secret need to confirm your belief that you are inadequate or unworthy of love. This is projective identification in action.
On a final note, I feel its important to acknowledge that all of this is an explication of one lens through which we can understand relationship dynamics. It is by no means the absolute truth. Sometimes, a spade is just a spade, and further analysis is not conducive to our greater fulfilment. The ways in which we connect to each other are profoundly complex and mysterious such that no single model or theory can contain all the factors at play. From right timing, to cultural familiarity, to physical aesthetics, sometimes ambivalence is just a signal that things are not in alignment such that we are ready to do the hard work of conscious commitment. My intention here is to offer one more perspective with the hope that it may illuminate confusion and pain. As with all psychological theory, it is most useful when held lightly.