Gay & Lesbian Services of Western New York

Relationship Ambivalence

A reader asks, “My boyfriend keeps leaving and coming back. After we are together for a while he says that he needs his space but then when we are apart for awhile he wants to come back. I love him but this on again/off again stuff is getting to me. What should I do?”

I am sure it is “getting to you” and I bet lots of readers can relate to your experience and some would say cut your loses and let him stay gone. Bluntly, if this continues, that may be the outcome but let me flesh out a possible issue and offer some ideas to consider.

While your boyfriend’s (this happens in women’s relationships too!) reluctance to commit may stem from a number of things like fear of or difficulty with intimacy, compulsive sexual drive or issues in your relationship with each other that are not being addressed and resolved, his behavior could also reflect his own ambivalence about whether to be in a relationship or not. Ambivalence to some degree is a normal part of life and decision making, including the decision to partner. Whenever we make a choice, say to couple, we achieve a gain but we also incur a loss. In coupling we gain a measure of security, predictability, regularity of sexual/affectional expression, the sense of being cared for and wanted and much more. However, we also pay a price or loss, most notably our personal freedom and independence, a degree of privacy, variety and so on.

Part of the gift of commitment is not just what you bring to the relationship but also what you give up for the relationship.

People rarely commit without some ambivalence and while in the getting together stage we tend to think about what we are getting, after the initial glow starts to wear off attention can shift to what we are missing. This may be what is occurring in your relationship. Our culture is becoming more immediate and with that a desire not to “miss out”. So we have cell phones and call waiting so we don’t miss a call, or TiVo so we don’t miss a TV show, etc. When a person starts to pay more attention to what they are missing by coupling, ambivalence increases and sometimes the person acts out by leaving or cheating. Once out of the relationship the person may look back with regret and want to return. In adolescent and young adult relationships in particular ambivalence can run very high as there are strong pushes to couple up and experience a feeling of love and intimacy just as there are strong pulls to have individual freedom and keeping options open and hence the he/she loves me…loves me not behavior.

You might consider these ideas:

1) Accept that ambivalence is normal and not someone’s fault. Sometimes it is easier to talk about things if they are to be expected and there isn’t finger pointing.

2) Encourage/allow talk with your partner about the naturalness of ambivalence so you can also talk about the desire to act/not act on it.

3) The feeling is natural but acting it out by coming and going is hurtful and destructive so set limits for yourself and your partner on behavior and what is acceptable. If your partner believes he/she can come and go then they probably will and you and they will lose respect for you.

4) Accept that some people are just not ready to commit or really do not want or need to and if you partner is one of them let him/her go and find someone more available. Staying in a relationship like you described can wear away your self esteem and trust of others. Don’t pay that price.

In a subsequent edition I’ll expand on this topic by focusing on the question of whether or not straight and gay relationships are different and are there different pressures on gay relationships?

Are there? What do you think? Let me know!

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