Should I Stay, or Should I Go Now?

Ambivalence in Marriage? Call in: Discernment Counseling

By Caralee Frederic
LCSW

Tom is unsure whether his marriage will make it or not. He’s had an affair, he feels guilty, but he also feels some relief and uncertainty about whether he wants to work to make the marriage better. Janice, his wife, is also uncertain whether they can survive this. She desperately wants to make the marriage work. She loves him, the life they’ve created, and definitely doesn’t want to hurt their kids. But she feels so deeply hurt and angry. She knew their relationship wasn’t perfect, but she never suspected Tom would cheat on her. Now, she doesn’t know who he is or what they had together. Can their marriage really be repaired, healed and happy again? 

The couple described above is a fictional couple, illustrating one of many scenarios that couples experience when they feel ambivalent about whether or not their relationship can continue, that it is damaged “beyond repair,” or when partners have  conflicting desires–one partner wants out and the other wants to stay in. Or, they may want the relationship to continue but they’re leery of counseling and don’t really understand what it would be like, what it would require of them, and if it would actually help enough. 

What is Ambivalence?

Ambivalence is more commonly experienced than we like to admit. It’s actually a very normal feeling to have under any number of circumstances.  One definition of ambivalence is: “the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about someone or something”. It’s often described as “one foot in and one foot out”. Ambivalence is a very important feeling to pay attention to and to address with couples. 

Most often in marriage/couples counseling, the assumption is made that the couple enters therapy with the intention to improve their relationship happiness, improve their skills and understanding of one another and to get more of what they hoped for from marriage or the relationship. And as Gottman Marriage therapists, we have robust tools that tell us when a couple is on the same page or not in regards to their commitment levels, the energy spent on thinking about or pursuing divorce, and their overall satisfaction in the relationship. But what about ambivalence? Until Discernment Counseling was developed, we didn’t really have a great way to address it in a way that honors where both partners are coming from.  

What does the research say?

William Doherty, Ph.D and some of his Family Law colleagues, developed Discernment Counseling specifically to address the ambivalence many couples experience when they are considering and even have already filed for divorce. From their research, they found that 25-35% of divorcing individuals, who are parents, are not certain divorce is the best or only option to solve their marital problems. In addition, they found that 30% of divorcing partners would be interested in a reconciliation service if the courts provided it. These figures are for individual partners. When matched as couples, more than 10% of couples have BOTH partners expressing at least some interest in a reconciliation service. If surveyed early in the divorce process, rather than later, the figures are even higher. 

Discernment Counseling: How does it help?

We have all heard the horror stories of couples spending tens of thousands of dollars in court, fighting each other. We’ve witnessed the damage from the emotional shrapnel that spews out, cutting everyone involved, especially a couple’s children.  Much of the damage can be linked to the complex mixture of emotions involved, especially ambivalence. For example: If part of me wants this to work and part of me doesn’t, or if I want it to work and my partner doesn’t, it’s easy to continue generating hurt, angry, vengeful feelings and actions, and it’s easy to assign blame and fault to the other person. Frankly, it gets ugly fast! 

In Discernment Counseling, we acknowledge openly that there is ambivalence, and  that needs to be addressed. It’s not only important to talk about it, it’s absolutely essential!  We address it head on in the 1-5 sessions of Discernment Counseling, look at it from every angle, and assess pros and cons of all options. We clarify the goals of gaining clarity and confidence moving forward for each partner, based on a deeper understanding of the relationship patterns and “my own part” – or what each person would need to change or work on. Whether this relationship can be reconciled or not, there is personal growth needed by each person, and we assist in identifying what that would look like for each party. 

We identify the 3 Paths to choose from – Path 1 – As Is: I’m not leaving but I’m not willing or able to work to improve the relationship now; Path 2 – Divorce or Separation and Path 3 – An “all in” effort, doing whatever it takes, working on the relationship and self for a period of 6 months, with reconciliation in mind and divorce “off the table”. We only ask for 6 months to honor the choice to lay aside ambivalence for a brief period of time to see if progress can be made. After 6 months, we pause to re-assess the progress made, the commitment levels, thoughts and feelings of each partner. As couples consider all 3 paths, they have the chance to “turn over every stone” and consider the reality each path has to offer. 

The Results: More Clarity and Confidence.

Nearly every couple we’ve worked with, offering Discernment Counseling, has expressed their gratitude for the process, regardless of which path they chose. We often see a look of relief on the faces of couples when we introduce it as an option. 

If you or your partner are considering divorce or are divided on your commitment to the marriage or the process of marriage counseling, consider this brief but effective intervention. You can cut through the ambivalence to find what is right for you, your relationship, and your family. Nothing feels better than clarity and confidence moving forward!