Ambivalence - The Crazy Maker

Ambivalence - am·biv·a·lence /amˈbivələns/ (noun).

The state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone, simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (such as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action, continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite), or uncertainty as to which approach to follow.

The word ambivalence is often misused to mean apathy or indifference, when in fact, it actually means strong feelings in opposition to each other, not the absence of feelings.

After betrayal, it is normal and expected to have all kinds of feelings. Most of them are pretty terrible as you would expect, but there are surprising feelings of love, connection, desire, bonding, and things along those lines that really can catch us off guard. It does not mean you are crazy, weak, or pathetic. It means you are normal. It is all instinctual and can be really frustrating as we seemingly lose control of ourselves and our rational thinking. "I don't want to love him, it would be easier to hate him after what he did, so why do I still feel this?"

For many of us, we navigate the waters of hysterical bonding (also see this) for a while, which is the most confusing tangle of emotions I have ever experienced. Following disclosure, being angry was easy. Being sad was easy. Very unpleasant, but easy. Simple. No confusion about having those feelings. Enter hysterical bonding - the twisted scenario in which, following the revelation of betrayal, the couple feels so much closer and more connected (since the secret is now shared). The level of relational intimacy is at an all time high, and the desire for physical intimacy often follows, sometimes in an almost primal way. It is an attempt by both parties to connect and heal the wound, even without conscious understanding that is what is going on. Juxtaposed amidst the intense shock, grief, and anger, hysterical bonding with the partner who betrayed you is so confusing and can sometimes feel like a loss of control or even self-betrayal. From a rational standpoint, why would I want to share myself intimately with someone who treated me with such disregard and abuse of my trust? If you have ever experienced this you know what I mean. If you are in this phase now, just know it's ok, it's normal, and there is nothing wrong with you.

Over time, as the hysterical bonding subsided for us and things leveled out a bit, I experienced a phenomenon that was intensely frustrating for both of us, and without explanation or words to process it. Amidst the ongoing pain, we would have experiences of true, deep connection, that were meaningful and rewarding. We were intentional about trying new activities and taking trips to prioritize our relationship, sharing new experiences and creating new memories. In these times, we were focused solely on each other, and by all standards they should have felt safe and exclusive. Sometimes they did, at least for a while, but often, I would become overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts and reminders, escalating my fear to a point where I would spiral and withdraw, physically and emotionally. My husband would be confused and understandably frustrated, asking what happened? We were just having this nice moment and now you are angry at me? I think sometimes he thought I went out of my way to spoil good times. It was confusing and frustrating for me as well, as it made it seem like I could never relax and enjoy anything, and I started to wonder if I was subconsciously self-sabotaging our efforts. This left me feeling hopeless and angry with myself, like I was clearly just not forgiving enough and not cut out for healing. I just assumed I was a failure or not trying hard enough.

And then I learned about attachment ambivalence.

Attachment ambivalence refers to the innate need for relational safety and security from the very person who has taken it from us, in which our survival instinct is at war with itself. The ambivalence created by betrayal can generate unpredictable and confusing feelings and behavior. It's not unusual to vacillate between wanting to be close and wanting to run away. The need to be close is intense, but the fear caused by betrayal and deception can overpower it and cause you to pull away. Without understanding what is going on, betrayed partners can be left confused by their own contradictory thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

It is a very normal response to trauma, instinctually reminding the wounded party of the offense in an effort to protect against future danger. As humans, our brains are wired for safety, sometimes at the expense of growth and healing. Humans can survive as a species without happiness but we can't survive without safety, so safety is instinctually prioritized, whether we realize it or not. As a result, our brains are often more naturally negative than positive, scanning for danger to make sure we are ok, before expanding toward more rewarding processes of connection, growth, and healing. That's why we can't just "get over it" or "put it in the past" if we haven't productively processed the situation enough to feel safe.

Understanding this really helped to articulate things I was experiencing but didn't understand. It also gave me words to help explain it to my husband since we both just thought I was crazy, or being difficult at best. There were times we were having a nice day, even going away for a night or two, when I was trying my best to stay focused on us in the present, to enjoy what we were doing together. Things would be humming along reasonably well and then - boom - I would be hit with a thought that created such pain and fear I would withdraw. This happened in the blink of an eye, leaving my husband wondering what he had missed.

Once I started to understand this was a normal and reflexive response, it allowed me to have some self-compassion about derailing some of our meaningful and connective moments during recovery.

In a nutshell, in relaxed moments of connection, as a betrayed spouse you allow yourself to move close to the person who hurt you, but this puts you at more risk of being hurt again. You take your walls down and allow yourself to be connected. After moments of closeness, there can be an instinctive recoil due to the fear of vulnerability and the real risk of being close and unguarded with the person who betrayed you. I have experienced this many times, and it is so frustrating. Understanding this response stems from trauma and it is normal made me feel less crazy and allowed me to look at it more objectively as it was happening. (I also highly recommend this)

Rick Reynolds depicts the quandary well by using the metaphor of someone reaching over and intentionally and violently breaking your arm. You are confused, shocked and in tremendous pain. How could a person you love do this so callously to hurt you? Then in the next moment the offender reaches out and asks you to trust them, promising to help you if you place your swollen, bruised, and painful broken arm in their hands so they can set the bone. Does that make any logical sense? Of course not. In that scenario, most rational people would say no way am I extending my painful broken arm toward you, you just broke it! But in infidelity recovery, that is exactly what we have to do (at some point) if we are trying to reconcile. It is very counterintuitive, so it is no wonder it does not come naturally and we revert back to guardedness over and over.

This dilemma has often reminded me of that song by Sting - Fortress Around Your Heart

"...It took a day to build the city
We walked through its streets in the afternoon
As I returned across the fields I'd known
I recognized the walls that I'd once laid
Had to stop in my tracks for fear
Of walking on the mines I'd laid
And if I built this fortress around your heart
Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire
Then let me build a bridge
For I cannot fill the chasm
And let me set the battlements on fire..."

Those trenches and barbed wire were constructed around me as a result of the affair. He built them with betrayal and deception and reinforced them with each additional choice to continue to do so. The barriers protected me from allowing him to hurt me again, but now after D-day I was just supposed to take them down and open the gate? As the song references, it only took a day to build the walled city. Betrayal creates this fortress in an instant, but dismantling it is a lengthy labor of love and commitment on the part of both parties. I acknowledge it is frustrating for a truly repentant, formerly unfaithful partner to see the betrayed spouse distancing themselves over and over, but that is a protective response and a natural consequence of having been betrayed. I would never have asked to be in this defensive position, and it is agonizing and frustrating from this vantage point as well. It is not a judgment toward the unfaithful spouse, but is merely reflexive self-protection from the one person who had the singular maximum relational capacity to hurt us, and actually chose to do so.

A friend of mine said the closer she grew toward her husband following his betrayal, the more threatening it felt to her. I felt that too. The closer we became, the more capacity my husband had to hurt me - again. He already demonstrated he was both capable and willing to crush me as though I had no value. So now as I see his genuine remorse and his bids for connection, I have to try to separate the two people - the betrayer and the genuinely remorseful husband. One is very dangerous and the other is comforting. It is very hard to separate when I am trying to protect myself.

This is totally normal, even though it doesn't feel like it should be. It is a self-protective reflex, not a failure on your part. We trusted at some point, and were harmed by it. Rebuilding trust is scary and painstaking. Author Glen Williams wrote, "Trust is only gained when one person risks and doesn't get harmed. It grows as both people increasingly risk and don't get harmed in the process."

For me, it helps to remember the words of Psalm 56:4 "In God, whose word I praise - in God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?" Even if I am afraid to trust my spouse, I know I can trust God with my spouse. Putting this into practice is hard, but it is the only real guarantee in life we have. As difficult as this has been, I have grown in faith throughout this experience and maybe that was one of my personal lessons to be learned. God did not orchestrate my husband's choices, but He is certainly not going to waste them by failing to provide opportunities for us both to grow. After much work, rigorous honesty, and vulnerability between us, I do trust my husband now. I still have to fight my instinctual response toward guardedness, but I work hard every day to set the battlements on fire.

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Comments

the crazy maker

Yes, I can relate to every single word. Thank you! I pray this helps others who are not as far along in the process as I am. This does help me to further understand what I experienced was "normal."

Paulette

Thank you my friend. I wish I had understood this much sooner too. I spent a lot of time beating myself up for not doing it right or not trying hard enough, and this was all just a normal response to betrayal. I'm glad you felt validated reading this, and I hope it can spare someone else even a little bit of that confusion.

It’s interesting that I saw

It’s interesting that I saw this play out not necessarily in myself (the betrayed) but rather with my UH. I could physically see and feel him vacillate daily while he continued contact with his AP after our D-Day. When he was fully engaged with her, his ambivalence was like physical wall I was on the other side of but then he would swing back to our family and I could feel my sense of hope grow again.

It’s been almost 2 full years and while I ‘think’ the AP is now out of the picture, I still see him engage and disengage day to day, week to week, as I think he continues to struggle trying to decide to stay within the marriage or choose to leave.

Kristy_1

I'm sorry. Watching this in your UH must be very painful. I hope you are working toward your own healing regardless of what he decides to do. If you have not already done so I would strongly encourage you to attend EMS weekend. Even if your UH is still uncertain about the marriage that experience can give you both clarity and direction like nothing else out there. I wish you the best in your healing journey, whether it is together with him or on your own.

Totally relate

Dear Jen, Thank you for your beautiful article. All of this has been so true for me and even three years after disclosure I still have this dance of ambivalence. But much shorter lived and much more data to support my safety. There is a risk to be vulnerable in any relationship but after painful betrayals, it can feel overwhelming. Yes, my spouse is one in the same, the man who did things that turned my security upside down and the man who offers to help me heal. I do find solace in knowing I am not alone in craziness and my struggle to heal. Take care 💜

Elbee

Thank you so much. I also still experience the ambivalence but this is true for me too - "shorter lived and much more data to support my safety." You described that well.

You are definitely not alone. I'm sorry you are here, but glad we can walk through it together.

Timely words

These are timely words for me. This is exactly where am I at. 8 months post D Day and that "honeymoon" bonding phase is passing now and I'm left wrestling with my rational brain that desperately wants to feel safe and can't understand why I'm trying to secure it with the guy who destroyed it. It's an emotional rollercoaster, hugely disconcerting and incredibly draining. Your words explain it all so perfectly though. I know my husband senses the wrestle and the withdrawal too. I shall show him your words.

JessicaLauren

Thank you for your comment. It certainly is an emotional roller coaster, that's for sure. I'm glad you found this helpful, and hope it can help your husband understand the reason behind it and better support you in those times. I also hope maybe hearing this will let you give yourself more grace, as it is very draining but normal and natural considering what we have experienced.

This is one of the best

This is one of the best articles that has helped me in the 2 1/2 years of my recovery. I am so in this place and didn't understand it at all why I am feeling so hurt still and then want her to get closer to me. And then wanting her away from me right after getting connection again. My UW is very confused and distraught at times by my actions and reactions toward her. This makes so much sense and is dead on to what I am feeling. Thank you so much for putting into words what I am going through and helping both of us to understand.

stayingtogether4ever

Thank you. I'm so glad to hear this helped you. This situation certainly caused a lot of confusion and frustration for me and my husband, that's for sure. I hope you and your wife can face this together now that you both better understand where it's coming from. And I am so grateful that I could use my experience to help someone else so I deeply appreciate you letting me know. I wish you the best in your healing.

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