Ambivalence

A group of young men were complaining to me the other night about their live-in girlfriends. “In three months, my fiancée has been home nine nights out of sixty-two,” Elliott said. “The other nights she’s playing tennis, learning French, seeing her friends.”

“That’s terrific,” I said.

“What’s so terrific? I never see her.”

So I got to thinking about the difference between a man’s desire for more “space” and a woman’s. We ‘ll readily call his “commitmentphobia,” “intimacy problems” and “terror of dependence.” We (make that I) champion hers as “autonomy,”  “independence” and “growth.” I think it’s because for so long, a man’s “I need more space,” was a creepy code phrase for “I’m outtahere.”  A woman, though, tends to mean that she needs more independence, more room for growth and self-expansion within the relationship. 

Yet Elliott was nailing something that he thinks women don’t cop to, and that’s ambivalence.  The big pullback that comes just as you begin to become sexually and emotionally exclusive. The raging contradictory, simultaneous push and pull we experience with  growing intimacy. We, the relationship mavens, the ones with no intimacy problems, don’t admit readily to pulling back in a relationship, to feeling overwhelmed by the demands of love and running from them. “He just wants his dinner cooked, is all,” we say, when a man complains that we’re never home, and blame even our own raging terror of engulfment on his man-centricity, on his supposed  expectation that well nurture and maintain the relationship without giving back same.

Ambivalence plays out for women in weird ways. Some women , like Joan, get very very busy. Some take up marathon running. Some even get sick. (“For three nights in a row after I got engaged to Elliott, Joan says, “I threw up. It wasn’t the flu. It was terror. ”) I have a friend who gets a migraine whenever the topic of lifelong monogamy comes up with her lover.

Some women suddenly lose all feeling for the men they love; a numbness comes over them that disguises the emotional wall they’re building to protect them from love.

Some pull back by pushing too hard. “If you don’t want to get married now, then let’s just forget it,” a friend told her lover after a great weekend, even though it was she who wanted to keep to a weekends-only schedule with him. She’d just suddenly felt too close, too involved, too needy.

 

You’ve got to know how you react to the simultaneous push and pull of love: how that contradiction makes you, specifically, feel. Then you’ve got to know how you act in response to that contradiction. The acknowledgment alone will alleviate the migraines, the flu symptoms, the numbness.  If your response to ambivalence is to sign up for French lessons, and Spanish lessons, and yoga-instructor courses, you should know it. We’re as entitled to the fight-or-flight response as men are. But we can’t pretend it isn’t operating, just because we supposedly want relationships above all else.

Joan admitted she was afraid of engulfment, and gave up French. “Pas plus,” she assured Elliott. And he took up tennis. And, he stopped calling her a commitmentphobe.

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