Feelings of ambivalence towards your romantic partner are linked to reduced personal and relational well-being, according to new research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. The new findings provide insight into how having mixed feelings in relationships can influence relationship outcomes.
“I am interested in ambivalence (i.e., mixed and conflicting feelings) because ambivalence is a common and consequential experience in life, including in our closest relationships,” said study author Giulia Zoppolat, a PhD candidate in social psychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
“However, the topic has not received that much attention in the relationships literature. Most people experience ambivalence at one point or another in their relationship, with consequences on their health and relationship outcomes.”
“For example, people who are in ambivalent relationships tend to experience greater stress and anxiety and have more conflict with their partner. This ambivalence can be difficult to manage, even more so than purely negative relationships, because people care a lot about their ambivalent relationships.”
To investigate ambivalence, the researchers conducted four studies involving couples and individuals in romantic relationships in the Netherlands. They recruited participants through local recruitment agencies, personal approaches, and social media. The studies included 1,134 individuals in total.
The four studies generally followed a similar structure. Couples or individuals participated in an intake session, either in a lab or online. They completed a series of questionnaires and an implicit task to assess their ambivalence towards their partners.
After the intake session, participants entered the Diary Phase, where they received daily diary questionnaires via email for a specified number of days. They were instructed to complete the surveys independently, in a quiet environment, and separate from their partner. Some studies also included follow-up questionnaires sent to participants at later time points.
Ambivalence was measured using different types of assessments depending on the study. Objective ambivalence was derived from items measuring positive and negative feelings towards the partner and calculated using a formula known as the Griffin formula. Subjective ambivalence was assessed by participants rating the extent to which they felt they had mixed feelings towards their partner.
Implicit-explicit ambivalence was calculated by comparing explicit evaluations (e.g., self-reported satisfaction with the relationship) with implicit partner evaluations measured through indirect performance-based tasks. The implicit partner evaluations were assessed using various validated tests specific to each study.
The researchers also measured participants’ well-being using established measures in relationship science. Personal well-being included life satisfaction, stress levels, physical health, anxiety, depression, and mood. Relational well-being encompassed commitment, thoughts of breakup, perception of breakup likelihood, conflict, relationship difficulties, and security in the relationship.
The results showed that overall, ambivalence was negatively associated with personal well-being and relational well-being. This means that when individuals held both positive and negative evaluations towards their partner simultaneously, they experienced lower levels of well-being.
The study also found that the type of ambivalence mattered. Objective ambivalence, which refers to explicitly holding both positive and negative evaluations, and subjective ambivalence, which reflects the direct experience of conflict, were significantly and negatively associated with both personal and relational well-being.
This means that when individuals felt torn or conflicted in their evaluations of their partner, they experienced lower levels of well-being. Subjective ambivalence had a stronger negative association with relational well-being compared to objective ambivalence.
On the other hand, implicit types of ambivalence, namely implicit-explicit ambivalence and implicit ambivalence, did not show significant associations with well-being. This suggests that the unconscious or automatic evaluations that individuals may hold alongside their explicit evaluations did not have a significant impact on well-being.
“Ambivalence is a common experience in relationships, but there are different ways in which we can experience our mixed and conflicting feelings,” Zoppolat told PsyPost. “We can be aware of them, or they can be more implicit (i.e., more like gut reactions). Being aware of your ambivalence is the most distressing and difficult type of ambivalence to manage.”
Importantly, the associations between ambivalence and well-being held even when controlling for individuals’ general positive or negative feelings towards their partner. This highlights the unique distressing nature of ambivalence and its influence on well-being beyond overall relationship evaluations.
“Explicitly being aware of one’s ambivalence is a distressing experience for most people,” Zoppolat said. “However, it can act as an alarm bell that something is not quite right. This provides an opportunity for people to acknowledge their experience and do something to change it, for example by investing positively in the relationship or assessing whether it is a healthy one to be in altogether.”
The study, “A Systematic Study of Ambivalence and Well-Being in Romantic Relationships“, was authored by Giulia Zoppolat, Francesca Righetti, Ruddy Faure, and Iris K. Schneider.