"On a scale from 1 to 7, how conflicted do you feel about your partner?" Our research team asked this question to hundreds of romantically involved couples living in the Netherlands. As it turns out, most people experience some mixed and conflicting feelings—ambivalence—at some point in their relationship, which can be fairly challenging. In fact, people are generally quite distressed about ambivalence, especially when it's about things they care about a lot (like a romantic partner).

But if we were to measure your ambivalence in a more subtle way, as a spontaneous emotional reaction, do you think those reactions would match how you answered the direct question? Research has actually found that the way you explicitly feel about your partner (typically measured through a questionnaire) does not always map onto how you feel about your partner on an implicit, gut level. It is possible, for example, to explicitly report feeling annoyed at your partner, but still maintain automatic strong positive gut-level reactions towards them. Conversely, it is also possible to state that you feel very happy with your relationship, but on a gut level feel more conflicted.

Given this, our research team wanted to know: Is it worse to feel explicit or implicit ambivalence towards a partner?

The Consequences of Ambivalence

Our research team recruited hundreds of participants of different ages (from 18 to 75 years old) and relationship stages (from 4 months to 54 years of being together) who completed a series of questionnaires and computer tasks every day for up to 14 consecutive days, and then again several months later. First, participants rated their ambivalence explicitly, with a direct question, and then implicitly, through a task where they had to react quickly to pictures of their partner while first being exposed to positive or negative words. How fast they reacted to their partner's picture is an indication of their positive or negative (or mixed) gut-level feelings toward their partner. Then participants reported on their personal health and relationship well-being.

For the direct question about ambivalence, we found that more ambivalence was associated with more stress and anxiety, and more conflicts and challenges in their relationships. This was true daily—if you feel ambivalent today about your partner, you are likely to be more stressed and fight with them more today too. It was the same in the longer term as well—if you feel more ambivalence today, you are likely to be more stressed and have more conflict with your partner several months later. Thus, ambivalence can be distressing on a daily basis but can also negatively affect people over time.

But what about implicit, gut-level emotional ambivalence? Interestingly, this was not strongly correlated with the participant's explicitly reported feelings of ambivalence. We also found that implicit, gut-level ambivalent reactions were not associated with worse relationship and health outcomes. It was only when people explicitly reported feeling mixed and conflicted that they suffered most.

Ambivalence Matters

People's closest relationships have a profound impact on their health and well-being, for better or for worse. Despite the idea that people should always feel great about their relationships, the reality is that most people experience complex feelings toward their romantic partner. These complex emotions are not easy to deal with and have a real impact on how people feel and how relationships evolve. However, our research suggests that these complex feelings become distressing for individual well-being, as well as for the couple, only when people acknowledge them, and not when they exist at the automatic, gut level. Perhaps, in relationships too, ignorance (about one's own mixed emotions) is bliss.

For Further Reading

Zoppolat, G., Righetti, F., Faure, R., & Schneider, I. K. (2023). A systematic study of ambivalence and well-being in romantic relationships. Social Psychological and Personality Sciencehttps://doi.org/10.1177/19485506231165585

Holt-Lunstad, J., & Uchino, B. N. (2019). Social Ambivalence and Disease (SAD): A theoretical model aimed at understanding the health implications of ambivalent relationships. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(6), 941–966. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691619861392

Giulia Zoppolat is a PhD candidate in the Department of Experimental and Applied Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research focuses on romantic relationships and well-being.