Esther Perel's Blog - The Myth of Unconditional Love in Romantic Relationships - Deepstash
Esther Perel's Blog - The Myth of Unconditional Love in Romantic Relationships

Esther Perel's Blog - The Myth of Unconditional Love in Romantic Relationships

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Esther Perel's Blog - The Myth of Unconditional Love in Romantic Relationships

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Relational Ambivalence

Relational Ambivalence is the experience of contradictory thoughts and feelings—of love and hate, attraction and disgust, excitement and fear, contempt and envy—toward someone with whom we are in a relationship.

 We are taught that love is unconditional, passion is absolute, and that finding “the one” should clear us of all doubt. But relationships are never black and white. We learn that romantic love is supposed to flood us with certainty and thus there is no room for ambivalence. But ambivalence is as intrinsic to relationships as love itself.

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I Love To Hate You

We experience relational ambivalence with our parents and our siblings. We feel the tug between the parts of us that are forever entwined with them and the parts of us that want to separate ourselves.

We experience it with our children, those beings who teach us a love we’ve never known as well as an unparalleled frustration that can incite harmful thoughts.

We experience it with our friends, the ones we don’t really want to see but end up feeling obligated to invite to our wedding.

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Till Death Do Us Part

When it comes to romantic relationships, “till death do us part” isn’t just a vow, it’s a plan. But what happens when plans change? What happens when we’re not meeting each others’ needs? What happens when we make mistakes or when the person we love behaves in a way we can’t tolerate? How about when the relationship gets tainted with lies, betrayal, or duplicity? 

We suddenly remember that love can hurt, and hurt deeply. And one of the most challenging experiences of ambivalence is when we find ourselves still loving the person who has hurt us deeply.

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The Three Options

Ambivalence is an uncomfortable feeling. Heavy with contradictions, it makes us doubt our feelings and choices. It can cause us to think we’ve failed or that, no matter what decision we make, we will fail. This discomfort makes us crave a definitive answer. So we force ourselves one way or the other. It usually falls along three lines:

  • Option 1: We Leave. We cut and run. 
  • Option 2: We justify staying even though it doesn’t feel right.
  • Option 3: We hold the ambivalence.

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 We often think we need to resolve the tension and come to a resolution. Sometimes we do (in abusive relationships, especially). In most situations, however, holding the ambivalence is, in itself, a form of radical acceptance.  

This option asks us to sit with the feeling of ambivalence for a while. Stop trying to justify, stop negotiating, and just sit with it. Can we accept that we can wholly love a person without having to love every part of them?  Maybe it’s healthy to allow ourselves to really, really not like the person we love sometimes.

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