Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Is Ambivalence Common When Healing from Infidelity?

The Paralysis of Ambivalence: A Two-Part Series

Part 1: Is Ambivalence Common When Healing From Infidelity?
Part 2: How Can You Move Past Ambivalence After Infidelity?

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Within the office walls of therapists who treat infidelity, you'll hear endless conversations about ambivalence. The wayward spouse may tell their mate they love them, but they're not in love with them. They likely know what they ought to do, but they may really want to be with the other person. They can't seem to make up their mind.

Ambivalence can also rock the world of the betrayed spouse. When their mate says they agree to give the marriage a chance, it instills hope. When they later say they have absolutely zero desire to work on saving the marriage, it’s devastating. It’s like experiencing whiplash while standing completely still.

Is Ambivalence Common in the Healing Process?

After 40-plus years of treating infidelity and addiction, I've come to realize that ambivalence is simply part of the grueling process of recovery. It is the stage where we consciously or subconsciously choose to keep our options open by not committing to change. This is touched upon in the book “Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change.”* In it, authors William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick share this research:

Consider next that most people who need to make a change are ambivalent about doing so. They see both reasons to change and reasons not to. They want to change and they don’t want to, all at the same time. It is a normal human experience. In fact, it is an ordinary part of the change process, a step along the way.

They also say, “If you’re ambivalent, you’re one step closer to changing.” Unfortunately, both betrayed spouses and wayward spouses can mistakenly view their mate's ambivalence as a sign that they’re not considering any form of reconciliation. In reality, ambivalence is a common part of the change process.

How Do You Recognize Ambivalence?

It's easy to spot ambivalence in one's mate, but how good are we at spotting it in ourselves?

For betrayed spouses, it's a common reaction to want to push your mate away in anger. This can happen during an intimate moment or when a trigger reminds you of what happened. A part of you may want to be with your spouse, but another part of you may jump up and say, "Oh no, I’m not going there again!" Later, your rage might give way to a desire for connection; but once you move toward your mate, anger or fear might intervene once again and cause you to push them away.

For wayward spouses, it's also common to feel ambivalent about the marriage if you’re extremely focused on your mate's ambivalence and, in turn, not focused enough on yourself. You can see your efforts to regain their trust, but you may be blind to your own increased — and projected — ambivalence about the relationship each time your mate rebuffs you.

While ambivalence is gut-wrenching, it is not proof that the marriage is over or that there is no hope. As counterintuitive as it may seem, it's a common part of the recovery process and a byproduct of the flurry of differing voices going off in one's head every day.

Which Language Are They Speaking: Ambivalence or Commitment?

What I listen for, above all voices, is a shift to the language of commitment. Are they committed to doing something? The language of ambivalence, on the other hand, says things such as, "I want to make my marriage work." But wanting to do something, such as forgiving your mate or working on the relationship, has nothing to do with actually being committed to doing it.

"Try," "need" and "want" are all words that fall short of the language of commitment. You may really want to stop stonewalling, for example, and while it’s admirable at face value, it shows a desire rather than a commitment to change. Another example: I may want to lose weight and exercise, and I will even tell you I'm going to try to lose weight, but what are the odds that I'll actually lose weight if it's something I'm only going to try to do?

Imagine Stephanie and I are doing a renewal of vows, and I say:

"Stephanie, I am going to try to love you. I really want to comfort you. I'm going to try to honor and keep you for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. I really want to forsake all others, and I will try to be faithful to only you for as long as we both shall live."

These noncommittal words stick out like sore thumbs, don’t they? The language of commitment sounds more like this:

While you may not know whether you want to stay in this relationship, it's more than possible to commit to a process of change to determine whether there's anything worth salvaging. I touch upon this in one of my Expert Q&As, which I encourage you to check out. When you make a commitment to change and personal transformation, the stage of ambivalence can be abandoned and a new course can be set.

Are you ready to start using the language of commitment and begin a new chapter? Consider signing up for EMS Weekend, our three-day program for couples. The journey you’re on might seem pretty impossible right now, but this intensive provides you with guidance, support and tools to survive and thrive after infidelity. We want to honor you, and we want to help you during this challenging time. To join me at our next EMS Weekend, either in person or virtually, register here. Space is limited.

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This isn’t another light-and-fluffy program that only scratches the surface of your pain. EMS Weekend is a safe space for you and your mate to begin moving toward acceptance, transformation and healing after infidelity. During EMS Weekend, we won’t shame the unfaithful or blame the betrayed; what we will do is pair you with expert infidelity counselors, comprehensive healing resources and a small group of other couples to heal with and learn from.

“I wanted to sleep on it to make sure I wasn’t writing this testimonial from a place of euphoria. While I’m certainly still under some sense of riding the high of a breakthrough, the emotion I feel most is relief. I slept through the night for the first time in six weeks. I know we are at the beginning, but there is hope and relief and connection where there wasn’t just days ago." — Virtual EMS Weekend participant | May 2021.

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Ambivalence

If my husband decides to truly change then I am in......If he doesn't then I am out. I am not ambivalent about that. I am however now ambivalent about whether I love him anymore. Years of abuse and now infidelity makes me really not care anymore whether he is in my life anymore. The disrespect is no longer acceptable. He has embarrassed me in front of my daughters, co-workers, and made me lose most of my feeling of self worth. I am ambivalent about the marriage. I just don't care anymore. I can't.

I understand. After all this

I understand. After all this time, I need to see he wants this as much, if not more than me.

This article helped me. I was

This article helped me. I was the betrayed. And I am ambivalent about the marriage. I'm so thankful the article could speak to my mindset. But the article helped me see that I can be committed to change, change for myself, change expected in the relationship. And that will see me through this ambivalence season one way or another. Thanks Rick.

what if im the unfaithful and the betrayed?

I had an affair in 2015. I finally confessed feb. of this year. 1 week later my husband confessed that he cheated 3 times during 2014 into 2015. We have been together since 2010 we married May 16th 2015. I cheated after marriage and he cheated before. I'm confused on how I should feel. He thinks what he did doesn't matter because it was prior to marriage. how is that? Should I be angry Do my feelings about what he did still matter?

Setting boundaries during this time

It's been 54 days since I found out. I am the betrayed. My husband is ambivalent. He says he loves me, but he keeps running to her. I finally asked him to move out until he was committed to making the marriage work. I'm not sure what all that should look like. Do I have him over to see the kids or ask him to take them elsewhere? (I had him over last night and I'm a mess today). Do I let him come and go for showers and clothes (he is living in his shop)? I don't want to nitpick and be bitter and vengeful, but I don't know how to set the boundaries that are helpful to both of us and keeps him in the lives of his children. Thoughts?

Same

Hey I’m in the same boat....can I ask you how has it all turned out for you ?

Standing

This explains my husband well. He had/is having an emotional affair with another married woman and he can't decide what he wants. Do he run off into fantasy land with her (even though she is still married) or stay with me and tried to make the marriage better than before? The only problem is, he still has daily contact with her and won't give it up. She is his escape from the stress of work and raising children. He spends hours and hours of messaging, texting, calling and video chatting with her.

His behavior drives me crazy! I want to hit him on the side of the head and knock some sense to him so he can see how obsessed he is with her! I'm
standing for our marriage. I believe our vows before God are very important and should not be broken. He can't decide since he feels that maybe God brought her into his life for a reason.

The waiting is very difficult. I went to be over with the betrayal and look forward to their relationship ending and all contact ceasing. Will it ever happen? As far as he thinks they are just really good friends. He doesn't get the fact that you can remain friends with your affair partner. The fog needs to be lifted!

I can't do anything to change him. He even said he doesn't want my help, which honestly, I can't help anyhow. He needs to come out of this on his own.

So I wait. I'm working on making myself better, which he has mentioned how I have changed! He also sees it a me competing with the OW. No!

Ambivalence

I wondering whether to stay or go at this point. Wife had 2 affairs before we separated (this is the 2nd time we separated). While we were separated and in the divorce process, we both had other sexual partners as we both thought we wanted the divorce right up until the end. Recently we both agreed to work on the marriage but she has shown absolutely no emotion with regard to her affair or what I went through. Could really use some help here. I have been watching some of the video blogs on youtube that have helped a little, but my problem is she gave a half hearted apology and has this "I dont care" attitude towards life. Its not just that she wont open up, she said she closed herself off. My guess is that it was easier to that than deal with the guilt or shame of her affair.

Ambivalence

Excellent videos today. I am the betrayer and I think you are right on!

I’m the unfaithful

I’m the unfaithful and it took me a couple weeks before I was in the right mind frame to be 100% committed to fighting for my marriage. My husband was fighting for us too until I decided I was going to all in too and then we had a couple days of bad communication and he moved out. I’ve been in therapy for 10 weeks, have been going to a recovery group for 8 weeks, got off all social media, have a tracker on my phone and am doing every single thing I can to show him I am NOT giving up on us. At this point he is ambivalent and it scares me so much. After reading this article I have a little more peace about where he is and that this is normal. Praying the Lord will move in his heart to go to an EMS weekend or attend at gateway with me in the near future.

“want to”

Funny you mention the word “want”. My spouse and I have been living apart for 4 months now. I am told time and time again, “I want to miss you.”

I k ow one way to help with that but I do t like it and think it will make things worse, leave them
Alone and reduce contact to the only essentials. Every time I try to give space, I get asked to see them. When they want space I’m contacting them. This is ridiculous.

They k ow I love them completely and they love me too but it is what seems to be miles apart. In reality it may be closer than we think but they won’t let it happen completely.

What type of affair was it?

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