To be ambivalent is to feel conflicting emotions toward a person or thing.
Ambivalence involves feeling both positive and negative emotions. For instance, an individual may experience ambivalent feelings about her divorce, her unexpected pregnancy, moving across the country to start the job she always wanted, or the death of her dearly loved elderly father who was in great pain at the end of his life.
Ambivalence is generally experienced as unpleasant when the mixed feelings are perceived at the same moment in time. Ambivalence can lead to unproductive reactions such as avoidance, procrastination, or denial of responsibility. However, if no decision is required in the ambivalent situation, the unpleasantness is lessened (Van Harreveld & van der Pligt, 2009).
Ambivalence is a relatively complicated emotional state, and recognition of this experience develops at a later age than recognition of many other emotional states. Harter and Buddin (1987) showed that children do not fully understand that they or others can feel opposing emotions at the same time until about age 10 or 11.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, ambivalence usually refers to feeling both love and hatred for the same person.
Freud (e.g., Freud, 1917/1953, 1923/1953) proposed that ambivalence is typical in love relationships, and the more intense the love, the more passionate is the hatred. From this viewpoint, most often, rather than experiencing both emotions at the same time, one emotion is experienced consciously (e.g., love) while the opposite emotion (hatred, in this case) is repressed.
- Freud, S. (1953). Mourning and melancholia. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 14). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1917).
- Freud, S. (1953). The ego and the id. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19). London: Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1923)
- Harter, S., & Buddin, B. (1987). Children’s understanding of the simultaneity of two emotions :A five-stage developmental acquisition sequence. Developmental Psychology, 23, 388 – 399.
- Van Harreveld, F., & van der Pligt, J. (2009). The agony of ambivalence and ways to resolve it: Introducing the MAID model. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13, 45 – 61.