Does ambivalence in a relationship = no go?
February 1, 2013 2:56 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with intense ambivalent feelings in a relationship, especially when they may be colored by a mood disorder?

Meta AskMe stuff: I've read a lot of AskMes in the vicinity of this question. There are a few standard lines, and two stand out: (1) "if you're unsure about a relationship, that's already your answer" and (2) "it's the effort you put into making things good that creates a great relationship, not just some magical love in and of itself." In other words, folks seem to say that you shouldn't overthink and force a relationship to work, but on the other hand, deliberate action is what builds a successful relationship.

Special snowflake relationship stuff: I've been struggling to rebuild a relationship the second time around with my partner (we dated for a year, I decided I needed to focus on building a life post-college and she traveled for about a year, started seeing each other as friends, we started dating several months after that and have been dating again for about 3 months) There are times where things feel really good and connected, and these are mostly times I feel the most "on" and happy. There are other times where I start to crave space very immediately, ruminate and feel disconnected. I love and respect my partner. We build each other up, and are affectionate and happy in everyday moments, generally speaking. But there are times where I get frustrated by my partner's negativity, or I start to get (hyper-)focused on my own career and plans. Looking back over the last three months, we've had moments of brightness and happiness, but my overall impression has been "pretty good." I'm torn because deep down I recognize two truths: (1) I genuinely love her and want the best for her, and (2) I just can't muster up what it takes to maintain the effort that I know the relationship needs about half the time, where I get moody and retreat into my personal space of doubt. FWIW, when I broke up with her, I struggled with a similar ambivalence, and it's been a recurring theme of every relationship I've had, really.

Special snowflake mood stuff: I have GAD, possibly bipolar, and some kind of attachment stuff going on. I tend to kind of radically re-think my entire world every 7-10 days, feel like everything that was once the solid ground to stand on is up-in-the-air, and just kind of become less functional in general (though still keep up my job etc). I'm finally getting thorough treatment and may be starting meds soon. When I first started expression relationship doubts (almost immediately after starting stuff up again,) my counselor suggested that I focus on getting some stability in my life and not overthinking everything to death. Fair point, and it's been helpful to focus on a more acceptance & commitment perspective. But now when I bring up issues, my counselor has said "well maybe there's something there, maybe it's not the best match for you now."

Point of action: My counselor mentioned letting my partner know I'm struggling with mood things and am trying to understand how it relates to being together, and that I'll attack it from a medical perspective/try hard, but also letting her know that's where I'm at with our relationship. I've told her more or less that, and my partner has been receptive and just kind of worried about me. But I feel the relationship fraying, and am fighting two impulses -- work hard to make things better and just act forcefully until I feel the way I want to, or to work towards the demise of the relationship/start wrapping up and communicate this clearly to my partner.

Question: What do I do? How can I approach this kind of impasse in a way that's healthy in terms of our relationship and also in terms of establishing the kinds of patterns for relationship problem-solving that I need to be a happy human being in this regard?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think either of those two pieces of advice apply to a depressed/anxious person. Mood disorders color your perspective on everything, and they can make you a not-very-reliable witness to your own emotions. You could be in a great relationship and still feel ambivalent or negative about it when you're depressed. And you're not going to have much energy for putting effort into anything, particularly a relationship.

You've already been pretty honest to your girlfriend about where you are mentally, so I would suggest putting off any big relationship moves - like deciding whether you should end things - until after you've gotten yourself to a better place. If you can, think of the relationship as in a holding pattern for now. Once you've started meds and gotten stabilized otherwise, then you can revisit with a clearer head.
posted by ella wren at 3:26 PM on February 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yes. If there aren't any big objective warning signs in your relationship, you don't know how much of this is your own ambivalence towards anything/anyone, or ambivalence towards this relationship in particular - I have known people like this, dissatisfied with everything, who have assumed that the "right" relationship would make them instantly feel happy and fulfilled 100% of the time, and jumped from partner to partner for literally decades unable to apparently find that magical unicorn that made everything better.

At the same time though, your partner isn't going to be happy long-term with someone whose attitude towards her is ambivalent. Obviously. She deserves better. This is not an invitation for you to self-flagellate and say "might as well dump her, she deserves better." It's a challenge that you need to decide NOW if you are willing to work hard on yourself, to get to the place where you can be consistent enough to tell what is overall truly good and healthy for you and what isn't. And then, if this relationship isn't good for you, then it isn't. BUT if you stay with her you need to be able to make a conscious effort to cope maturely with the times of disconnection (i.e. letting her know it's not about her, doing things to recharge your batteries alone with a clear endpoint like "I need to be alone for a couple of hours" and then coming back and having a little coffee date or something to reconnect afterwards, etc) and make a choice to do things that encourage intimacy.

My fiance' (who has depression and anxiety and is now taking meds for them and 100% better and happier, fwiw) used to be like this. He would change his mind every couple weeks about whether or not he even wanted to be in the relationship - seemingly at random (I wouldn't have put up with this so long except that we have a child, so I had extra incentive to exhaust all the options in making it work before cutting my losses. Your partner might not be that patient.) He would complain that he just didn't "feel chemistry" while simultaneously withdrawing emotionally, not communicating his own feelings, and thwarting my efforts to spend time together, get a babysitter and go on dates, be physically intimate, etcetera. Sure, those things might be actions that spring naturally to people enthralled in limerance, but in a long term relationship you do have to invest in order to reap benefits; there's a fine line between "I'm just forcing what's not there!" and the fact that if you never open up or spend one-on-one time together, no duh it's not gonna be there! There are biological things that happen when you have positive experiences together that reinforce and CREATE those happy-brain feelings of closeness and intimacy. If you don't take the steps it won't magically happen, and that's what depressed people end up lacking and why the downward spiral of withdrawal/feeling distant/withdraw more/feel even more distant gets really nasty.
posted by celtalitha at 3:46 PM on February 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

You sound a lot like me when I'm depressed. All I wanted to say is that I've never used it as the basis of breaking up-- I've usually broken up with guys when there's an obvious sign I don't want to be with them anymore. Like "I have a chance to move to City X for my education, or stay here with Boyfriend," and I realized I am a million times more excited to move to City X than to be with Boyfriend. For the record, I also have these ambivalent, troubled moments with my current boyfriend who I love a lot and have chosen to stick with many times, including a year of long-distance, because I love them so much. I really attribute it to mood issues and I feel being able to separate those from real relationship/growing apart issues is essential.
posted by stoneandstar at 4:09 PM on February 1, 2013

Oh, and my strategy is to be so familiar with the same patterns of "I just don't know where this is going! I'm afraid we don't have the right chemistry!" that I'm like, "ughh, what the fuck stoneandstar" and quit it. Also, being on an antidepressant (Wellbutrin) made identifying these patterns and shifting gears much much easier (because I always feel a little emotional distance and perspective about things).
posted by stoneandstar at 4:11 PM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

If my partner said these things to me, I'd make sure he continued to seek treatment and keep on with life as usual.

You don't say if/how you're letting your partner down, or falling short in the relationship, but in a long term thing, you don't have to be on constantly. It's okay to need some alone time to deal with your head, be good to yourself, etc etc.

Mood disorders become a problem when they are untreated and when they prevent you from doing what your partner needs. Not what you think they need, but what they need.

My relationship goes through spells where my boyfriend cannot give me what 'the media' says most women want. He tells me, I hug him, and i go without, because the other parts of our relationship are way more important.

As long as you're in treatment and you and your partner are communicating, trusting each other, getting your needs met, there's no need to preemptively sink the boat.
posted by itesser at 4:37 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

If I were in your place, I would give myself time for meds and therapy to work. I don't know if this a good relationship, or the right relationship for you, but I don't think you can really know if you radically change your world view every week. So be kind and be honest to yourself and your partner, and give yourself time to find some stability.
posted by florencetnoa at 9:43 PM on February 1, 2013

Hi! I'm similar to you. I'm in the best goddamn relationship of my life and yet sometimes, I'm anxious about it and ambivalent and not sure and blah blah blah. Right now I'm going through a great phase, where I can see clearly and just love him lots and lots. Sometimes my mind hops on a hamster wheel of insecurity, where I nitpick everything about him and the relationship, including my own opinions thereof. I'm being treated for an anxiety disorder, medically and therapeutically, and I've learned that when my mood is distorted, I just can't trust myself! I don't make good decisions when I'm anxious, and I know that if I broke off the relationship -- which honestly, sometimes I want to do -- it would be a terrible, terrible decision.

Now, maybe this relationship isn't it for you -- I can't know that, no one on the internet can know that. But listen to what ella wren said. It's so important to learn to distinguish your mood from your relationship, and for people with mood disorders, it can be SUPER hard. I feel your pain!!! I've found Sheryl Paul's site so helpful, and maybe it will be for you (it's a bit heavy on the wedding/engagement stuff, but if you ignore that and actually listen to what she's saying in her blog, honestly, it's so reassuring for anxious people in relationships).

If you identify with any of this feel free to memail me -- I LOVE talking about this, because communication is key with this kind of stuff. Add to that communication with your partner! The #1 reason I'm still with my boyfriend is because I can sit down and say "ugh, I'm having Those Feelings again" and he knows what that means and understands how to help me.
posted by good day merlock at 11:08 AM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

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