Skip to content

The Pain Of Emotional Ambivalence

The Pain Of Emotional Ambivalence

Once, when I was in primary school, I saw a few words scribbled on a desk, in an older student’s handwriting: “I love you, and I hate you.” The sentence impressed me greatly. It had never occurred to me previously that one could love and hate somebody at the same time. I had not yet been introduced to the idea of emotional ambivalence.

I now think it likely that part of the reason the words written in ink on the desk in the classroom made such an impression on me was that I had already experienced emotional ambivalence. I just didn’t know that that was what I felt. The sentence at once illuminated parts of my own emotional life and informed me that I was not alone or different: other people—as evidenced by the author of the sentence—could feel that way too.

I already knew at the time that people—small children, especially—might make conflicting statements about their feelings for someone. A child upset that he or she is not getting his or her way might say to a parent or a sibling, “I hate you.” However, I think I grasped intuitively that such statements are often hollow and inauthentic, an expression of powerlessness and frustration.

Related: How To Let Yourself Feel Your Feelings

When we are very young, we don’t have many ways of securing for ourselves the things we want, and we don’t have the power to make other people give us those things either. We somehow learn that we might get our way if we persuade others that our love for them is conditional—that it depends on whether they do as we like. If they don’t, we say we hate them, hoping to inflict enough pain for them to change their minds.

We all, however, including children, may experience true emotional ambivalence. (Freud went so far as to suggest that all children are deeply ambivalent toward a same-sex parent.) We may have positive and negative feelings for the same object at the same time. What I would like to do here is discuss this phenomenon in more detail, focusing on ambivalent attitudes toward people. Why do we ever feel ambivalent?

Sometimes, people’s characters are complex. We like someone’s sense of humor but not her unreliability, or we appreciate a person’s courage but think he lacks compassion. At other times, however, the source of ambivalence is different: it has to do not so much with the other’s character but with the other’s relationship with us specifically.

Thus, you may love an uncle but have the feeling he has a tendency to compare you to his own son, and you find that off-putting, or you love your sister but think she is too flirty with your spouse or else is trying to “steal your friends.”

Emotional ambivalence is often painful, especially ambivalence of the second sort, having to do with your particular relationship with the other, not with the other’s character.

The Roman poet Catullus, who may have been the first author to document the state that interests me here, noted this pain.

In a poem for his lover, whom he called Lesbia (likely not her real name), Catullus wrote:

“I hate and I love. Why I do this, perhaps you ask.
I know not, but I feel it happening and I am tortured.”

An ambivalent relationship with a loved one may be more painful than a plainly bad one. A bad relationship is like cold weather we know how to prepare for—we may either not go out at all (read: cut contact) or else go prepared, dressed appropriately (that is, we activate our defense mechanisms). An ambivalent one is a bit like weather that changes on you. You cannot possibly know what to do or what to wear. Just as you relax, ready to take in the warmth, a cold wave engulfs you.

Related: 5 Signs Of Unhealthy Attachment In Relationships

Pages: 1 2

Iskra Fileva Ph.D.

Iskra Fileva, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In her academic work, she specializes in moral psychology and issues at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry. The focus of her current research is on the connections and tensions between conscious and unconscious motivation, the nature of moral emotions, and the boundary between bad character and personality disorders. She is, however, interested in all things human: how and what we remember, how we achieve intimacy, what makes some people good at relating to others, why we misunderstand each other, why we fear death, whether adults understand a child's mind, and many others. She enjoys writing for a non-academic audience and has previously written for The New York Times.View Author posts