A concept coined by Michelle Mays, attachment ambivalence is the relational dilemma that occurs when betrayed partners’ fear and attachment systems fire simultaneously in response to the threat of betrayal but with opposite safety imperatives. Our attachment systems tells us to move toward the cheating partner to reconnect to find safety. At the same time, our threat response system tells us to move away and seek safety through distance. This creates chaotic and complex relational dynamics in the aftermath of betrayal.
The definition of ambivalence is to feel two contradictory emotions simultaneously. Dictionary.com describes ambivalence as “the coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person, object or action, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.”
Attachment ambivalence is about our core need for relational safety and security from the very person who has erased our sense of safety and security. When we experience separation from safety, we are compelled to focus all of our energy and resources on restoring safety. That is how significant it is. It creates such a negative chain reaction inside of us that we experience it as traumatic.
Our need to immediately do everything within our power to restore safety is not a conscious choice. It is an instinctual drive. The disconnection from our primary source of safety fills our bodies with tension, anxiety, fear and panic. From the body’s perspective (not our rational minds but our body’s primal innate drive for safety through connection) the most important and vital thing that must happen as soon as it is possible is to restore safety.
In order to restore safety, we need to restore relational connection. Disconnection from our most significant other creates a sense of danger, threat and tension that menaces our very survival.
Does this sound extreme? You might be reading this thinking to yourself, “I am a grown man or woman. I have a bank account, a job, a car, friends, family, a retirement plan. I don’t need this person to survive. I have what I need and can survive on my own.”
Well that is true. You can. And you might need to if your relationship is not salvageable. However, this is only true at the level of rational thought and analysis. Our minds know that if we have to, we can survive the loss of our relationship. We will take a major physical, emotional and spiritual hit that takes time, attention and hard work to grieve and overcome. But we can and do survive the loss of significant others.
However, our bodies do not know this. Our bodies operate according to the primal rule, ‘live together, die alone’. Our most basic coping skill as human beings is our ability to bond to other humans for survival. And in our culture, we do not live in villages or communities or even large families anymore. In today’s culture, our emotional, physical and psychological survival has come to rest primarily on one singular attachment: our romantic partner. We have other friends and family. But our romantic partner is our true significant other, providing us with the safe base we need to enter our worlds with confidence and feel secure within ourselves.
If it is true, as Amir Levine writes, that “getting attached means that our brain becomes wired to seek the support of our partner by ensuring the partner’s psychological and physical proximity,” then betrayal makes the very person we are drawn to for support simultaneously a source of danger and threat.
When our connection to safety with our significant other is threatened, the response inside of us is primitive. We do not have a rational, reasoned, grace-fully equipped response. We have a screaming banshee cavewoman, caveman reaction. We lose our minds. Completely and totally. We are under threat and we might not survive. Betrayal creates disconnection from our primary source of safety and security by turning our safe-base into the source of danger and potentially our extinction. Our lover has just tried to kill us. That is how it feels to the body and our body reacts from a primal self-preserving instinct that says, “restore safety now, by any means and at any cost!”
This is where ambivalence comes in. Our survival instinct is now at war with itself. On the one hand, our deepest source of safety comes from being connected to our partner. When we are connected, we feel calm, grounded, relaxed, at ease. We feel safe, open, able, and supported. Life feels possible and we are able to move into it. Safety demands that I move close and restore connection.
However, now our partner is also our greatest danger. Instead of protecting us from the tiger as they promised they became the tiger and mauled us. Instead of having our back, they turned and twisted the knife in to the hilt. What if they hurt us again? Safety demands that I move away and distance myself from this ongoing threat.
This is the relational dilemma created by betrayal. The ambivalence you now feel about your significant other is what can make your feelings and behavior unpredictable, chaotic, and confusing, even to yourself. While you are spitting mad and crying your eyes out, you also want your spouse to say something to soothe your pain and ease your distress. While you want him or her to move out of the house, you also want him or her to hold you while you wail at the top of your lungs. While you know they are lying, you also desperately want to believe they are telling you the truth. While you never want him or her to touch you again, you also want the comfort and connection of making love.
Your instinctual drive for safety is now pulling you in two opposite directions: you seek the relief that connection can provide while simultaneously you must distance and protect yourself from this dangerous threat. The instinct to connect and the instinct to disconnect, both primal safety-seeking imperatives, are now at war within you.
For therapists, it is vital to understand attachment ambivalence and the unconscious relational dynamics that drive the behaviors and reactions of betrayed partners. Without this understanding, betrayed partners are often very confused by their own contradictory thoughts, feelings and behaviors. In addition, the cheating partner is absolutely stunned and flummoxed by the push/pull that they feel from their betrayed partner. They are left with no idea how to be supportive or what to do to try to mitigate the damage their cheating has caused.
Understanding attachment ambivalence – what it is, why it happens and the reactions it creates – is vital to understanding betrayal trauma and treating it effectively.