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with Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT

How to Deal With an Ambivalent Partner

What can you do when the object of your affection seems consistently less enamored of you and less committed to your relationship than you are?

You may feel confused, frustrated and lonely. But you are not a victim.

The first step is to assess whether your partner’s ambivalence and commitment-avoidance is baked in to their character and personality, or whether it stems from temporary circumstances.

Signs that a partner’s holding back and hesitancy to commit are long-standing and may be unlikely to change include the following:

Your partner . . .

  • Has a history of only short relationships
  • Seems endlessly torn, confused, or uncertain about what he or she wants in a relationship
  • Talks about freedom, space, and independence far more than intimacy and connection
  • Is overly picky and critical
  • Is a vague or poor communicator about relationship issues
  • Is stingy with affection or reassurance
  • Resists letting you know her or his schedule
  • Resists making plans with you more than a few days ahead
  • Resists using romantic labels such as “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”
  • Doesn’t want to be sexually exclusive
  • Resists including you in activities involving her or his family and friends
  • Finds it difficult to say they love you even though they use the L-word freely with friends and family
  • Is erratic or unpredictable

Many commitment-phobic people, deep down, actually want intimacy and connection but may not know how to achieve it. Or they may have such strong anxieties that it is nearly impossible for them to avoid putting on the brakes. Or they may have an avoidant style. (See my blog on signs of an avoidant or unavailable partner.)

But you have to decide if it is worth it to open your heart to someone who may never reciprocate. A perpetual half-in, half-out stance from a partner can lead to a world of hurt.

On the other hand, some of the above signs may be present with a partner who isn’t a true commitment-phobe but is influenced by temporary situations.

For example, someone with recent multiple emotional losses or who is fresh out of a long relationship may be wisely hesitant to commit quickly. A partner who is under significant stress or who was deeply hurt or betrayed in a previous relationship may want to take sufficient time to build up the trust necessary for a commitment.

If your partner has experienced losses, betrayal, or a recent break-up, AND is willing to talk about this and even seek help if necessary, this is a positive sign.

If you assess that a partner’s ambivalence is situational, not characterological, here are several things you can do to take care of yourself if you want a deeper connection than your partner is willing or able to offer in the short term.

  • Be aware if anxiety is taking you away from yourself, and return to a healthy sense of who you are
  • Be willing to take the long view. You may not get what you want for some time, but if the person seems worth it, hang in there. Don’t feel the need to make a decision prematurely.
  • Don’t play the role of therapist with your partner
  • Don’t pressure your partner or try to solve their dilemma for them
  • Avoid numbing or self-defeating behaviors
  • Seek company and comfort in other people and activities so that you have a full life and aren’t just waiting around for time with your partner
  • Realize that a relationship, no matter how important, is only one aspect of your life. You are more than your relationship.
  • Use a partner’s hesitancy to go deeper as an opportunity to evaluate the relationship. Is this person really for you? Are you staying simply to win the person over or to avoid being alone?
  • Decide what your essential needs are in the relationship and ask for them to be met.
  • Really listen to what your partner is saying and seek to clarify anything you are uncertain about. For example, there is a difference between someone sharing fears with you vs. saying they don’t want to be with you.
  • Be willing to let go and leave if it is too costly to stay. Sometimes you have to let someone you love go. They may or may not come back.
  • Listen to your partner with respect and compassion. If they are giving clear signals that they aren’t ready, or their feelings are unclear, accept that.
  • Recognize if the relationship plays into an old script such as that you are unworthy or unlovable, can’t have a good relationship, or will always be left. Recognize that our scripts are history, not destiny.
  • Know that when people are afraid, they may say or do things that don’t accurately express how they feel.
  • As an experiment, try being less available to your partner.
  • Think about establishing a deadline, which you may or may not disclose to your partner, about how long you will accept the ambivalence or live in limbo.
  • Recognize you cannot control or change your partner’s feelings. Any one person can end a relationship at any time.

Copyright © Dan Neuharth PhD MFT

Photo credits:

Ambivalent couple back to back by
Running from shadow by rudall30
Self care by Arthur Szczybylo

How to Deal With an Ambivalent Partner

Dan Neuharth, Ph.D., MFT

Dan Neuharth, PhD, is a marriage and family therapist and best-selling author based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has more than 25 years’ experience providing individual, couples and family therapy. Dr. Neuharth is the author of If You Had Controlling Parents: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Take Your Place in the World. He writes two blogs for PsychCentral: Love Matters and Narcissism Decoded. He is licensed as a marriage and family therapist in California, Florida, Texas and Virginia. His website:

Please note: Dr. Neuharth's posts are for information and educational purposes only. These posts are not intended to be therapy or professional psychotherapeutic advice, and are not a replacement for psychotherapy. I cannot give psychotherapeutic advice about your individual situation outside of a therapist-client relationship. The posting of these blogs and the information therein does not constitute the formation of a therapist-client relationship. Please consult your physician or mental health provider for individual advice or support for your health and well-being. If you are in crisis, please call your local 24-hour crisis or mental health hotline or dial 911.

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APA Reference
Neuharth, D. (2019). How to Deal With an Ambivalent Partner. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Jul 2019
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