Emotional ambivalence

In today’s Everyday Wellbeing, we look at how emotional ambivalence and its impact. What do we when we experience both a love for something and at the same time a loathing of the same thing? This feeling can be very powerful, and it definitely impacted a person’s wellbeing for the day. We explore Professor of psychology, Iskra Fileva’s thoughts on this subject.

How it affects our wellbeing

I recently had a strong reaction to something in my life where I was feeling both a love for something and at the same time a loathing of the same thing. This feeling was very powerful, and it definitely impacted on my wellbeing for the day. So, I decided to dig a little deeper into what it was. In this digging I found about about emotional ambivalence. More commonly discussed about feeling a love and hate reaction to a person. So, I thought today I would share professor of psychology, Iskra Fileva’s thoughts on the subject.

If you’d like to dig a little deeper on Iskra Fileva’s work and more insightful resources, go to: Author, Iskra Fileva, PHD assistant professor of psychology, ‘Emotional ambivalence’

What is emotional ambivalence?

Emotional ambivalence is defined in the Oxford dictionary as: the fact of having or showing both positive and negative feelings about somebody/something.

At times in our lives, it is likely we will all experience emotional ambivalence. Defined by the Oxford dictionary as the fact of having or showing both positive and negative feelings about somebody/something. So why do we ever feel ambivalent?

Iskra Fileva explains:

Sometimes, people’s characters are complex. We like someone’s sense of humor but not their unreliability, or we appreciate a person’s courage but think feel they lack compassion. At other times, however, the source of ambivalence is different: it has to do not so much with the other’s character but with the other’s relationship with us specifically. Thus, you may love someone but don’t like they way they behave in certain situations.

Emotional ambivalence is often painful, especially ambivalence of the second sort, having to do with your particular relationship with the other, not with the other’s character. The Roman poet Catullus, who may have been the first author to document the state when he wrote a poem with the lines:

I hate and I love. Why I do this, perhaps you ask.
I know not, but I feel it happening and I am tortured.

An ambivalent relationship with a loved one may be more painful than a plainly bad one. A bad relationship is like cold weather that we know how to prepare for. An ambivalent one is a bit like weather that changes on you. You cannot possibly know how to prepare because just as you relax, ready to take in the warmth, a cold wave engulfs you.

Emotional ambivalence may be difficult to recognise in ourselves. It is an attitude that does not entirely make sense: do we love this person or not? We are not sure. We may reach different conclusions on different occasions.

When other people are ambivalent toward us, we may fail to acknowledge that too. Perhaps, we think that only those who have pure, unadulterated love for us have any love at all. When we detect any hostility, hatred, or envy on the part of the other, we may conclude that expressions of love and friendship are inauthentic and untrue. Or we try to explain away the negativity and persuade ourselves that we are imagining it. Yet, we know from our own case that there are ambivalent attitudes that involve both love for and hatred of another. If we can have such attitudes toward others, it follows that they can have them toward us.

What should we do about emotional ambivalence and the associated pain?

The real way to not let emotional ambivalence affect us is to understand it exists for everyone and learn to accept our own ambivalence, without trying to deny either the positive or the negative feelings. Emotional ambivalence can be so painful because we try and fail to get rid of it. We attempt to persuade ourselves that we have either only positive or only negative feelings toward someone, but that is simply untrue, and we are proven wrong every time.


If you are a regular reader of these every day wellbeing messages, you will see time and time again that often the remedy for the things that trouble and upset us is to learn to get better at recognising when we are experiences something like emotional ambivalence and then accepting it as it is without judgement and without trying to fix the situation. It is what it is and that’s ok.


Written by Emma Browning, our pastoral and wellbeing lead at Livability Millie College. Emma has supported people to improve their wellbeing for over 20 years. Emma says: “Wellbeing is something woven through Livability’s work and I’ll be sharing some wellbeing themes and approaches in these blogs. My hope is that you enjoy reading them and they build a strong foundation for your wellbeing”

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