3 Ways That 'Relationship Doubt' Can Infiltrate More Than Just Your Love Life

Having cold feet can affect more than just your relationship. Here's how it happens, the damage it can cause, as well as how to remedy it.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 07, 2024

Relationship ambivalence, or doubt, refers to having mixed or conflicting feelings about one's partner or the relationship itself. It is characterized by experiencing both positive and negative emotions simultaneously or alternating between them.

Research shows that it is common to experience such ambivalence. This can stem from various factors, including unresolved conflicts, differences in values or goals, doubts about compatibility, fear of commitment or external pressures. It can lead to feelings of confusion, stress, frustration and indecision, making it challenging to navigate the relationship effectively.

A 2023 study examined the effects of relationship doubt on well-being and found that specific types of ambivalence were associated with lower personal and relational well-being.

Here are the three types of relationship ambivalence:

  1. Explicit ambivalence. Often referred to as "felt ambivalence," this type reflects the conscious experience of mixed emotions due to conflicting views about one's partner. For instance, you feel torn between feeling deeply in love with your partner and feeling resentful towards them for not spending enough quality time with you.
  2. Implicit-explicit ambivalence. This type refers to a mismatch between what one might objectively report about their relationship or partner (explicit evaluations) and what their automatic, underlying feelings are (implicit evaluations). For instance, you openly express love and appreciation for your partner but deep down, you feel a sense of discomfort and doubt about the long-term compatibility of your relationship.
  3. Implicit ambivalence. This type refers to having strong underlying positive and negative automatic evaluations rather than conscious, explicit evaluations of a partner. For instance, you may feel both warmth and resentment towards your partner without being fully aware of these conflicting emotions.

How Relationship Ambivalence Affects Well-Being

The first type of relationship ambivalence has been associated with experiencing physiological symptoms such as high stress levels and blood pressure as well as negative interpersonal effects such as less positive relationship interactions, lower intimacy or even thoughts of ending the relationship.

Researchers found that, of all types, the explicit type of relationship ambivalence was significantly associated with lower personal and relationship well-being, with subjective ambivalence showing an especially strong association and negatively impacting relationship outcomes. This is likely due to the conscious awareness of the discomfort of having conflicting partner evaluations.

Interestingly, research also shows that experiencing implicit ambivalence may have long-term benefits as it can motivate romantic partners to resolve internal conflicts and improve their relationship.

Researchers suggest this may be because humans are naturally inclined to view their partners positively and return to inner states of emotional consistency, which drives them to fortify the relationship, without even consciously knowing that they are doing so.

While internal factors may play a role in restoring relational stability, here are a few proactive ways to fight detrimental forms of relationship ambivalence and strengthen your bond:

  • Identify core issues. Take time to identify any underlying issues or sources of ambivalence in the relationship. This may involve discussing past conflicts, unmet needs or areas of disagreement. Once identified, work together to address these issues constructively, seeking compromise and understanding.
  • Introspect. Take time to reflect on your own feelings and motivations within the relationship. Consider how your own thoughts, beliefs and behaviors may contribute to feelings of ambivalence. Gradually build tolerance around uncomfortable emotions about your partner or your relationship to start addressing them openly.
  • Communicate openly. Encourage honest and open communication about your feelings, needs and concerns. Discussing ambivalent feelings openly can help you both understand each other better and work towards solutions together.
  • Nurture your emotional connection. Focus on building and maintaining emotional intimacy in your relationship. Spend quality time together, engage in activities that you both enjoy and prioritize moments of connection and closeness. This can help reduce feelings of ambivalence and boost overall relationship satisfaction.
  • Assume the best of your partner. It is easy to become adversarial and defensive when dealing with feelings of ambivalence towards a partner. It is important to remember that you are on the same side and that in healthy partnerships, your partner likely means well. Cultivate a mindset of empathy, gratitude and appreciation for their positive qualities and contributions to the relationship while holding space for the fact that they are not perfect and may need to engage in self-improvement, like anyone else.
  • Seek professional help. Consider seeking guidance from a couples' therapist or counselor if you are struggling to navigate relationship ambivalence on your own.

The journey to overcoming relationship ambivalence requires dedication, patience and a willingness to confront discomfort. By actively addressing ambivalence and implementing strategies to strengthen their bond, couples can cultivate healthier, more resilient partnerships built on mutual understanding and support.

Are you holding feelings of ambivalence toward your partner? Take the Authenticity In Relationships Scale to know if it's a cause for concern.

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