We all have ups and downs with our closest friends — it can’t always be perfect. However, there’s a big difference between having small disagreements from time to time and constantly having mixed feelings about a friend.

Many of us can tell the difference between a real friend and a toxic person, but what about those who keep us on an emotional roller coaster? The ones with whom we experience both positive and negative feelings at the same time.

We know that we have to get rid of toxic relationships, but we’re not that sure about what to do about ambivalent ones. Maybe the closest you’ve come in avoiding this kind friendship was telling yourself something like “Well, we don’t see each other that often, so I guess I can handle it.”

But the truth is you won’t be able to handle it after a while. They’re the worst kind! Emotionally speaking, ambivalent relationships can actually be even more draining since dealing with inconsistency and uncertainty requires more time and energy.

So what is an ambivalent relationship?

In psychology, ambivalence is defined as a “conflictual relationship between two positions of the self: one favoring change and another one favoring problematic stability” (Braga et al., 2019).

In relationships, ambivalence occurs when there is a coexistence of opposing emotions toward a person. You sometimes enjoy hanging out with someone, and other times you wonder why you are still friends. You don’t really know if you can trust them, and your desire to say “yes” to them interferes with the desire to say “no”.

It can be tricky because all relationships contain opposing emotions at times, but if you feel more inclined to say “no”, yet you’re still meeting or doing stuff for them, you have your answer. However, just to be sure you’re analyzing your situation correctly, let’s go over some clear signs that you are in an ambivalent relationship.

How to recognize an ambivalent relationship?

You might think that it’s just your gut saying that there’s something wrong with your friendship, but if you take a closer look, you’ll see that there can be plenty of real reasons behind your doubt.

These people know what they’re doing. If they make you feel bad in any way, they’ll know what to say next — something good enough to keep you in the gray zone of confusion.

Do they still want to be friends with you? Are you right to be second-guessing them? Here are some red flags you should pay attention to:

1. It’s always about them

You’re used to listening to their stories on and on and it might not even bother you. But here you are, eager to say something about yourself. They’ll give you the “stage” for about two minutes and in the next they’ll interrupt you with something like “Oh, this is nothing. Let me tell you what I did when…”

Nothing you say will ever “beat” their experiences. They’ll always have a more dramatic story to share, a greater accomplishment or a better nigh-out.

You’ll come back home drained and in spite of this, you’re going to accept a next invitation because you’re driven by guilt and/or obligation.

And somehow you still don’t know what to think… They did listen to you for a few minutes and maybe they’re just more talkative. In fact, chances are they’re only self-absorbed and you need a friend that can also be there for you.

2. They’re undermining you

An ambivalent friend will use passive-aggressive comments and sarcasm to make you feel bad. Not only that they don’t care about your feelings, but they get satisfaction from subtly hurting you.

Here are a few examples on how they might react to something you plan on doing or have already accomplished:

You got a promotion? – But what about Susan who worked so hard?

You want to become an artist? – Yeah… because you’re sooo talented!

You’re on a diet? – Why don’t we stop at this fast-food for a quick bite?

If you have a friend who doesn’t support you or enables a bad behavior, you need to get out of that relationship fast!

3. They’re jealous of you

In relationships, jealousy often goes hand in hand with the undermining behavior. A person will not always undermine you because they think they’re so much better than you. Sometimes they do it because they’re jealous, feel inferior and need to drag you down.

You never know if they are really happy for you. These individuals will often display a fake smile or rapidly change the subject whenever you come up with good news that doesn’t involve them. Pay attention to these small details.

Learn how to walk away

Taking a sheet of paper and writing down all the pros and cons of your friendship is the first and most helpful step you should take in understanding where you stand with this person. If there are more cons, you’ll know you were right to think negatively about them.

Next, set some clear boundaries by telling them that there’s no point in continuing this charade. I know, ending a friendship is hard, but maintaining an ambivalent one will drive you insane.

You should do this by having a face-to-face conversation with them. Whatever reasons you may have to end it (the lies, the pretending, the mean comments), you have to clearly express them and make that person understand that you’re not looking for apologies or ways to repair your relationship.

Be honest and don’t find excuses for their bad behavior again. Simply state the needs that are not being met. If it makes you feel more comfortable, go with “It’s not you, it’s me”. Even if it sounds silly, it is a good way to walk away and not blame everything on them.

If you don’t think you have the strength to do this in person, send them a text message or slowly let them disappear from your life by telling them you’re too busy to meet. They’ll probably become excessively dramatic, but you should simply ignore them.

This resembles breaking up a romantic relationship, but it kind of goes the same regardless of the relationship type. Sometimes it just doesn’t work and you have to cut people out of your life. You either pull the plug or pay the price.

To sum up…

Ambivalent relationships are much harder to deal with than toxic ones because they require so much more resources. When you know someone is toxic, it’s easier to separate yourself from their behavior. The ambivalence–the not knowing–is what makes it more complicated.

Perhaps your spheres of interest started moving apart or maybe you didn’t have that much in common to begin with. Some of us are people-pleasers and we hang on to ambivalent relationships because we simply can’t say “no”. However, maintaining such a relationship won’t serve any of you.

Friendship breakups are tough, but know that you’re not a bad person for setting boundaries. You’re just taking care of your mental health and make room for friendships that are actually real and nurturing.

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