It’s been so long since I’ve posted on this blog that I almost feel I’ve lost my nerve, lost my ability to write my truth. Maybe the act of writing one’s truth is like a muscle. The more you use it the stronger it gets, but if you don’t exercise it, it goes weak. I feel like I’ve come over all self-conscious, all cautious about sharing my feelings. But I’m sure I can get my boldness back.
I’ve actually drafted two posts in the past five weeks but didn’t publish either of them. One needed rethinking (more about that later). And my perfectionism and procrastination – and perhaps my ambivalence (more about that later too) – got the better of me with the second. This blog is a mash up of those two (love that phrase ‘mash up’).
Quite a lot has happened since I last posted – a camping trip to wet Wales, a visit to sunny Barcelona, a heatwave in Britain, nine rejections, albeit very complimentary ones, from top publishers for my book – but perhaps the main thing to report is that I’ve started dating. Not online dating or going on dates with a number of people to check them out, which I had been doing. But dating one person. Giving a relationship a shot.
Maybe that’s why I’ve gone all shy. This is unfamiliar territory. I haven’t been here for a while. Or maybe I’ve never been here. Because I think I start every relationship as a different person in many respects – as someone who’s learned from her past experiences, someone who’s grown, someone who’s got to know herself a little better, someone who’s more willing to try things out and someone who’s progressively more capable of having a relationship (at least I hope so, otherwise I want my therapy money back!). But despite all that, it still feels like an emotional minefield.
I guess my absence from this site and my decision not to post previous drafts has something to do with the fact the person I’m dating has been a long-standing follower of this blog and therefore I imagine he’s reading. So I now have a bit of a balancing act to perform – to write my truth as I’ve been doing for the past two years, but not to use this space to try to manipulate him in any way through what I share here or to say things that I’m too afraid to speak out. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t press ‘send’ on my first draft post – somehow, very subtly, I think there was an intention to manipulate and to share more than I wanted to face-to-face. I had an agenda. And I want to be mindful of that.
So, the fact I’m dating someone, attempting a relationship, is pretty big news. But the even bigger news is that I’m telling you about it. Blogging about it. Posting it on the Internet in indelible ink.
Why is this big news? The answer is ambivalence.
As many of my close friends will know (since they’ve often been on the receiving end of panicked phone calls when I’ve had to make a decision – about holiday destinations, times of flights, boyfriends, purchases of shoes, tents, bicycles, the list goes on) I often struggle to commit to a particular course of action. Turkey or Spain for my yoga break? The brown or the black boots (perhaps I can afford both)? Should I date the guy or not?
My long-suffering friends have heard my endless musings over the years and witnessed my paralysis when faced with choices. And then, once I’ve made a decision, they’ve also been subjected to my second-guessing – Spain would have been warmer and cheaper. The black boots would go with more things. The tent’s too small. And what about that other guy?
In my world, the proverbial grass is pretty much always greener.
I’ve blogged about decision-making before. In Decision fatigue?, I wrote about how choosing one thing over another evokes a sense of loss – when we take a particular course of action, we’re literally killing off the other option. And for those who’ve had a lot of loss in their lives or who come from a place where there was very little (love, money, treats etc), this can be challenging.
Ambivalence, in many ways, is very similar to indecision but I think it runs deeper.
Ambivalence is defined as ‘a continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite)’ or ‘uncertainty as to which approach to follow’. But it’s also ‘simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (such as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action’.
I’ve struggled a lot with ambivalence over the years but perhaps I wasn’t aware until now how debilitating it has been. I can look back on my distant and recent past – via my memory or this blog – and uncover moments of chronic ambivalence that sapped my energy and stole some of my joy. Take my Mexico trip – I was torn about going (adventure in a faraway land versus cosy, safe Christmas with the family); torn about renting my flat out (the much-needed income versus the prospect of damage and the need to clean and declutter); torn about where to spend Christmas (a Mexican beach or a Mexican city) and how to get there (plane or bus) and where to stay (backpackers versus smart hotel); and I was torn about staying on longer in Mexico or coming home, so much so that I wasted a whole morning ruminating, weighing the pros and cons of each course of action and, yes, making a panicked Skype call to one of those long-suffering friends back home.
In one way, then, I was quite heartened when my therapist suggested recently that my ambivalence could be yet another form of addiction. A compulsive behaviour. An avoidance or displacement tactic. Something – just like the compulsion to overeat or overwork – that takes me away from feeling my feelings. Something I’m hooked into and powerless over (powerless in the sense that fighting it won’t work. I need to accept it, surrender to it and thereby diffuse its power over me, just like with the overeating).
I was also heartened to read that ambivalence derives from the Latin ambi, meaning both or two ways, and valentia meaning strength. This surprised me initially. I think I’d associated ambivalence with a certain wishy-washyness, an indifference, apathy, or inertia. And I’ve definitely felt apathy or inertia towards certain things in the past.
But what I’m more familiar with is a really strong pull in two or more directions. I can be literally torn, split down the middle and it’s an intense, painful and energy-sapping experience. As those long-suffering friends have often remarked, “I’m exhausted just listening to you”.
My ambivalence has caused me distress and has wasted a lot of time. But if I can understand where it comes from and see it as a compulsive pattern of behaviour, perhaps it will lose its hold over me.
It seems I may have internalised ambivalence – it’s become part of my inner workings – because I grew up with a good amount of it: parents who were sometimes there, physically and emotionally, but other times not; who were at times incredibly loving, giving, supportive and proud, but at other times were overwhelmed with their own lives or issues, distant, or unable to give me the love and support I needed. I was on the receiving end of a ‘push-pull’ set of emotions – a sense of ‘I want you, but I don’t want you’, ‘we think you’re special versus we don’t have time for you’).
For a child, this can be very confusing, but this is the way I experienced an important part of my childhood world and this is the way I often experience the world as an adult.
And because I experienced this ambivalence in close relationships, that’s where it manifests itself most strongly today. Particularly in romantic relationships. Particularly where emotional intimacy is on offer. I’m familiar with that sense of push-pull, the feeling of ‘I want you but I don’t want you’. I have sometimes chosen to date people who behave that way towards me – because I’m drawn to repeat my past and recreate my childhood, in the hope it will work out differently this time around. And I’ve behaved that way towards men. These conflicting emotions, the feelings of push-pull and the pattern of attraction and repulsion can be mightily unsettling if you don’t know where they come from.
It also comes much more naturally to me in relationships to have one foot in and the other out, perhaps wedging the door open, rather than two feet in. It comes much more naturally to me to retreat from intimacy rather than to embrace it. And it comes much more naturally to keep my options open rather than to commit.
There it is. The C word – commitment. Even writing it makes me feel a little nervous. Because I guess commitment is the opposite of ambivalence, and even an antidote to it – it’s choosing one path and sticking to it. (I’ve written about Commitment and Phobia on this blog before, in case you’re looking for more on the topic).
So, today, I am making a concerted effort to commit to a relationship, to give it a shot and to work through my feelings every time I feel pulled in the opposite direction. Is there ambivalence? Of course there is. It’s only natural given my internal make-up. But I owe it to myself to explore whether this ambivalence belongs to my past or to my present – in other words, if it’s a self-sabotaging, dysfunctional coping mechanism that’s rooted in childhood experiences, or if it’s my intuition tapping me on the shoulder.
And I can only know that if I allow time for things to develop. Jumping ship at the first sign of a problem would be counterproductive. It’d be like moving countries in search of happiness, only to find you take your unhappy self with you – known as ‘doing a geographical’. Or switching jobs because you’re afraid to stand up to your boss – only to find you’re equally afraid to stand up to the next boss.
Relationships, at least for complex characters, will throw up their fair share of challenges and push childhood buttons. But, as has been said, they are also a place for healing. Much of our hurt happens in relationship and that’s where the healing is too – apparently.
I’m also hoping this new awareness of my internalised ambivalence will make it easier to make decisions in other areas of my life. I’m very good at starting projects or signing up to things and losing interest in them. I’m still working on my book but I’ve had some moments of real inertia and apathy around it, followed by bursts of energy and motivation. I signed up to a pop choir but missed a few rehearsals, didn’t learn my lines properly and almost bailed out of one of the end-of-term concerts (it was hot, I was tired etc). In the end, I sang in both performances, seemed to know my lines OK and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
I view commitment – sticking to a course of action – as one of those grown-up traits I’ve always really struggled with. But, as I discovered with the choir, it takes commitment to get real enjoyment out of things, to feel part of things and to get close to people. I can sit on the fringes, of a choir, of a relationship, of my life and feel separate and lonely, or I can throw myself in and see what happens.
How does this feel? Terrifying at times. But it also feels like something those mature, grown-up people do. Perhaps, at 42, I’m getting there.