We experience a host of emotions and reactions as a marriage ends: from anger and blame, to regret and tears, to freedom and a sense of relief. Our feelings can change on a dime or linger for awhile. They aren’t always compatible and they don’t always make sense. We might think: *Am I supposed to feel this way?* And we might find ourselves wondering what is happening to us and why.
We all grieve, following the end of a marriage/partnership, in our own unique way. There are also some common, and sometimes conflicting, feelings and reactions along the way. In other words, as we work through the loss, we are bound to end up experiencing some ambivalence. Which can be confusing and disconcerting.
“Ambivalence occurs in intimate relationships when there is a coexistence of opposing emotions and desires towards the other person that creates an uncertainty about … the relationship”. (Delyse Ledgard, Psychology Today).
So, since ambivalence seems to be inevitable to some degree, it may be worth pondering what the silver lining is in all of this. Could there be some new understandings of ourselves and our relationships to discover through making sense of our ambivalence?
Since your marriage/partnership ended, have you felt both relief and regret? How about frustration one moment and disappointment the next? Let’s take a look at the perspectives of a couple, Naomi and Owen, who ended their 18 year marriage. How does ambivalence show up for each of them?
Naomi worked part time outside the home and the rest of her time was spent parenting their three children and running their busy household. Owen was an accountant who worked long hours especially during tax season. Their responsibilities as parents and their work schedules left little time for them as a couple. This resulted in what they described as *a constant tension in their relationship*. They did not have the tools they needed to resolve conflict effectively and, so over the years, they grew further and further apart emotionally. The atmosphere of their marriage was one of distance and disdain. And yet they remained married, parenting their children, renovating the family home, pursuing their own interests and ignoring the lack of intimate closeness and connection. In a nutshell, it was too good to leave, and too bad to stay.
When the children hit their teens and became more independent, Naomi *woke up* to the relationship emptiness and suggested that they go to couples counselling. After a few months it became apparent to both of them that they were not moving forward and they decided to separate. Owen was the one to initiate this move. Naomi did not protest.
Over the next few months Naomi struggled with a host of competing emotions. There was a part of her that felt angry and betrayed by Owen for never putting her and their marriage first. It felt like Owen was married to his job and not to her. He would make time for the kids but not for their marriage. She felt rejected, hurt and unappreciated. At other times she felt sad and regretful, even guilty. Perhaps, she thought, if she had tried harder, handled things differently, been more open and spontaneous, then, maybe, they would have made it and found more happiness and contentment.
Owen felt his own set of competing feelings and reactions. He felt guilty for being the one to officially end the marriage. He was worried about Naomi; that she had a tendency toward depression and perhaps this break-up would escalate her depressive mood. He even wondered if they should get back together and make the best of things. However, he didn’t show these feelings around Naomi. Instead he appeared either irritable and short-tempered or cool and distant whenever they spoke to each during the time of the separation and divorce. There was no outward expression of his feelings of regret and genuine concern for Naomi.
We can see how ambivalence showed up for each of them during the marriage and the divorce. So, what is the silver-lining of ambivalence?
As they reflected on their relationship, Naomi and Owen came to realize that there were things each of them could have done differently. And that nothing is black and white. That feelings come and go and that sharing them with someone you trust is really powerful. Telling our stories allows us to feel connected and less isolated and lonely. Being willing to show up and be vulnerable takes courage.
“I used to loath ambivalence; now I adore it. Ambivalence is my new best friend.” Suzanne Finnamore
What would happen if we normalize ambivalence? If we create space, even in an ending, to talk about our whole range of feelings? Would we be better able to respond in ways that feel in keeping with our values and beliefs? What might happen if we are open-hearted and curious, even as things are ending?
*For purposes of confidentiality Naomi and Owen are a composite of women we know, have worked with and who have attended our workshops.
Judy Grout MSW RSW and Amy Greenleaf Brassert MSW RSW are both therapists with a passion for healthy relationships that foster a sense of well-being. Together they cofounded Relationships from the Inside Out and they design and deliver workshops for people going through relationship transitions from divorce to dating.
Upcoming workshop: Divorcing is Hard to Do. Co-facilitated with Debbie Shawn MSW RSW and Edit Farun, AccFM, Q.Med on Tuesday, June 21, 2016 from 7:00 – 8:30 pm (Doors open at 6:45) at CSI Spadina, *Innovation Lab*, 215 Spadina Avenue, Toronto.
Register by sending an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org