Couples often have ambivalent feelings about their partner

David Ludden

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In fairytales, the prince and princess get married and live happily ever after. In reality, husbands and wives have to deal with each other’s annoying habits, no matter how committed they are to each other.

Conflict is inevitable in any relationship. The difference then between a good and a bad relationship is how the couple deals with that conflict. Happy couples use conflict to motivate change that will improve the relationship, while unhappy couples use it to dominate their partner or hurt them.

By “conflict,” we don’t just mean the arguments that all couples have now and then. Rather, much of the conflict remains internal to each of the partners. For instance, your spouse may have a habit you find annoying, such as squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube, but you just don’t feel like making an issue out of it. Still, it gnaws at you.

Mixed feelings for your partner are normal.

According to a recent article by Dutch psychologist Ruddy Faure and colleagues, it’s normal for people in intimate relationships to hold both positive and negative attitudes about their partner at the same time—“I really love my partner, but….”

Sometimes these ambivalent attitudes are explicit. That is, we’re aware that we hold conflicting attitudes toward our spouse. This can cause considerable emotional turmoil, and we’re motivated to overcome it, either by changing our attitudes to make them consistent or else by leaving the relationship altogether.

However, ambivalent attitudes are often implicit. That is, people may be unaware—or unwilling to admit—that they have conflicting attitudes toward their partner. Since these attitudes don’t rise to the level of conscious awareness, people may not notice the emotional distress they cause. Nevertheless, Faure and colleagues argue, they still linger in memory and may motivate people to make changes that will improve the relationship.

Over the last few decades, implicit attitudes research has shown that people often hold racist, sexist, or other biased attitudes, even though they strenuously deny them. In a typical implicit attitude task, participants briefly view a picture followed by a word, such as “happiness” or “anger,” which they have to categorize as good or bad.

The picture triggers a particular bias, such as feelings about Black or White persons when testing for racism, and this influences how quickly the participant responds to the task. For instance, if a White person harbors implicit racism, they’ll respond faster to the “good” words if they see a White person and faster to “bad” words if they see a Black person.

Mixed feelings can motivate change.

Faure and colleagues created their own version of the implicit attitude task to test for implicit ambivalence in newlywed couples. In this case, the picture prime was of either themself, their partner, or an attractive stranger of the opposite sex. Quite a few of the participants responded quickly to both the “good” and “bad” words when primed by a picture of their spouse, suggesting that they held ambivalent implicit attitudes toward them.

The researchers also asked the participants to report on their marital satisfaction. Since these were newlyweds, most reported being quite happy in their marriages—even the ones who’d displayed high levels of ambivalence in the implicit attitudes task. This finding confirms that these people were unaware, or at least unwilling to admit, that they were dissatisfied with some aspects of their partner.

Finally, the participants were asked to check off a list of common marital problems, such as sex and communication, which were issues in their marriage. They also indicated how much they were willing to make changes in these problem areas to improve their relationship.

As expected, respondents who displayed high levels of implicit ambivalent attitudes toward their partner were also more likely to say they were willing to change for the sake of the relationship. Furthermore, a four-month follow-up showed that these people experienced an increase in marital satisfaction over that time period—and so did their spouse! In other words, not only did having conflicting feelings about their partner motivate them to work on their marriage, their efforts paid off.

Learning to accept mixed feelings

People have a psychological need for their beliefs to be consistent. When their attitudes conflict, people experience a sort of emotional distress known as cognitive dissonance, and they’re motivated to find a way to resolve the inconsistency in their thoughts.

In this study, persons who felt both positive and negative emotions toward their spouse were motivated to change themselves to make the marriage happier. This could mean changing an attitude about your spouse, such as no longer being bothered by that mangled toothpaste tube. Or it could mean changing your behavior to satisfy your partner, such as making a greater effort to put your dirty laundry into the hamper rather than tossing it on the bathroom floor, thus motivating them to make the changes you want.

Faure and colleagues interpret these changes as attempts to resolve cognitive dissonance about mixed attitudes toward a spouse. However, we can also see this as the normal process that all couples go through as they adjust to their new life together. Relationships require compromise and a willingness to adapt, and cognitive dissonance stemming from mixed feelings about your spouse can be a strong motivator for change.

A hallmark of emotional intelligence is understanding that conflicting feelings, even for a loved one, are normal. Rather than distressing over them, the mature approach is to simply acknowledge them for what they are. Your partner is a real person, not a fantasy, so they’ll never meet all your expectations—and that’s just fine.

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David Ludden is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College. As the author of two books and a popular blog for Psychology Today, he mainly writes about communication in relationships and the things couples can do to have more satisfying interactions.

Lawrenceville, GA
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