Responding to an Ambivalent Spouse


When you hear these words, your first impulse is to reach out for what you are losing. You want to grasp for your marriage and hold on to prevent rejection. Unfortunately, this natural reaction can create the opposite result from what you want. Attempting to pull your partner into the marriage can actually push him or her further away and can invite more pain than it prevents.
First, it is important to understand what your partner's message. It is a message of ambivalence, not one of rejection. When someone is completely detached, they say "I want a divorce." When someone's commitment to the marriage is uncertain they offer mixed messages such as "I love you but I'm not in love with you."
Ambivalence implies mixed emotions that prevent a clear decision. Rather than resisting your partner's message, you can help your partner to be a good decision-maker. This begins by being understanding. Show you understand that your partner is struggling and that such a struggle is painful.
I like to describe an ambivalent partner as being on the fence. It is difficult to decide which side of the fence to get off, but the fence itself is a painful place to sit.
Second, you must recognize that ambivalence is not entirely a bad thing and patience is a good response. If someone is 80% sure they want to divorce, then greater ambivalence would be moving away from divorce. Partners with little ambivalence are able to reach a decision quicker. Your partner reluctance to make a decision is a sign of this internal struggle. The last thing you want to be is impatient and push your partner to a decision he or she is really not ready to make.
Finally, understand that your partner may not talk about both sides of the decision. You may only hear the complaints he or she has about the short-comings of the relationship. You wonder if he or she has completely forgotten all the good times. Again, if one's view of the marriage is completely negative, then you ask for a divorce, but because your partner is on the fence, trust that he or she is capable of seeing reasons to remain married.
Trying to push your partner to see reasons to remain married will trigger your partner to either outwardly or inwardly produce counterarguments. Instead, you want to accept your partner's negative views and feelings, but understand these are only a part of the picture. This allows you to suggest that you would be willing to participate in an effort to improve the marriage, which is something every marriage needs!

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Check out Lee Horton, Ph.D., Psychologist, at

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