Have you ever wished someone you love would change? Wished they would eat healthier or quit smoking. Wished they would stop spending so much money on things they can’t afford? Wished they would go see a doctor since they are so clearly depressed? If the answer is yes, you probably have some experience interacting with your loved one’s ambivalence about change.

Waffling, lacking resolve, vacillating, wavering, hemming and hawing are all value-laden words we use to describe a state of ambivalence. Due to the stigma around substance use disorders, there are even more negatively charged words to describe the ambivalence many people feel as they approach changing their use of substances. Denial, character flaws, selfishness and needing to hit rock bottom are just a few, and there are many, many more. All of these paint ambivalence as something that is negative; it’s a problem that we have to overcome or grow out of. Unfortunately, seeing ambivalence in this light can quickly lead you to feeling frustrated and even judgemental towards someone who is ambivalent and you can miss the reality that ambivalence is a state we all experience as we go about our day and make decisions.

You can see ambivalence in your own life on a daily basis! As you drive home from work feeling tired, do you order pizza or take the time to cook myself a well-rounded, healthy dinner? You are trying to stick to that diet, so you’re pulled to cook dinner. And, at the same time, you really want to just order pizza and make it easy! That is ambivalence in action, on a smaller scale. If you blow that up, it can look like trying to decide between having a drink and feeling relaxed after work, or having to work even more at the end of the day in order to avoid that drink (and feel good about keeping your goals). By acknowledging the normalcy of ambivalence you will be less frustrated by it and in turn you can communicate more effectively in the face of it.

Rolling with Ambivalence

Even when we are prepared for it, it can be difficult to roll with someone’s ambivalence. Here are some tips to make ambivalence a little bit easier to sit with.

  1. Remember: Ambivalence Is Normal. If you feel strongly that someone should change some part of their behavior in a particular direction, this can be hard to remember. Feeling one way about a potential change, like excited and motivated and also another, like sad and doubtful is human nature.
  2. It’s normal to get stuck in a state of ambivalence. You might have a good reason for changing, but then start to think about the good reasons for things to stay the same. The reasons for not changing are how you got into the habit in the first place! and they can then lead you to avoid thinking about any of it since acknowledging ambivalence can feel uncomfortable.
  3. Don’t Take Sides. When you feel ambivalent and someone strongly argues one side of the decision, like telling you that you need to stop drinking, it is natural to argue for the opposite side. If someone comes down hard on one side, it’s natural to want to even out the scales of ambivalence by arguing the other side and in arguing that other side, you may get convinced it weighs more! You may think you will break through to someone by strongly pointing out one side of a decision, but there is a significant risk you will just be pushing them to hang onto the other side with more tenacity.
  4. The way to find a pathway through ambivalence is to shed light on both sides of the coin – making space for the validity of both the reasons to stay the same and also the reasons for change. This reduces the person’s pull to fight for one side (which is usually the opposite side you want them to take!) and gives them space to find their way through the ambivalence.

Having this frame of understanding about ambivalence can help us lessen our frustration. When we really let it sink in that ambivalence is normal and that it’s common for people to get stuck there sometimes, then it’s easier to resist telling someone what they should do since you know it may push them in the other direction. Instead, you can start to have meaningful conversations that include asking open-ended questions and reflecting back what you’re hearing (on both sides of the argument!). You can even affirm your ability to understand why they feel stuck.

A conversation where Option A and Option B are both seen clearly and non-judgmentally in the light of day (by the person who really needs to decide) is often the kind of conversation that helps to resolve ambivalence and makes way for change to happen.

For more helpful communication strategies to consider in the face of ambivalence, see Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding, by William R Miller