4 Reasons Someone Won’t Commit to Help

Tackling Ambivalence – Part 1

What do you do when someone isn’t sure they want to work on the relationship?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this. One person isn’t sure they want to stay in the relationship, or, if they do, they don’t want to work on it.

That’s called ambivalence. Another phrase for this is mixed feelings. In other words, someone isn’t sure what they want. They may be ambivalent about getting help for their marriage. They may be ambivalent about staying in the marriage.

It makes it tough on you, the mentor, when one of the people isn’t ready to commit to taking steps to improve.

I used to feel a bit discouraged when I would hear someone talk about how uncertain they are that they want to stay in their marriage. What do you do about it?

I’ve come to think that there are four main reasons for this.

1. Anger Over Betrayal

Let’s say that someone just found about an affair. It’s natural that they are angry. That hurts. Their emotions will be all over the place. They may be willing to commit to the marriage one minute and ready to ask for a divorce the next.

I usually say something like, “It sounds like your emotions are all over the place right now. It might be a good idea to give yourself some time to process how you are feeling before you make any big decisions. Would you be willing to work through your emotions first?”

2. Lack of Awareness

When someone has a lack of awareness about how their actions are impacting their spouse, it’s a different issue. I spend time talking to them about the impact of their behavior. Usually, there is a fair amount of defensiveness.

Shawn and Wendy were meeting with my wife, Michelle, and I. Shawn loved his wife, but he didn’t understand why she was so unhappy.

Shawn wasn’t sure why they were speaking with someone. He was uncertain about seeking help. Shawn’s ambivalence came from being unaware of the extent of the problem.

Here’s how a discussion went between the two of them:

Me: “Wendy, you mentioned that you were really unhappy, would you tell us more about this?”
Wendy: “Shawn just doesn’t seem to care about me. He’s always working late and I’m home alone with the kids. He rarely even calls to let me know when he’ll be home.”
Shawn: “That’s because I need to work. You know the demands of my job. I have to deal with things at the last minute all the time.”
Michelle: “Wendy, it sounds like you don’t like that Shawn works so much. Shawn, you have lots of demands at your job that require you to be there. Wendy, how do feel when Shawn isn’t there?”
Wendy: “I feel alone and underappreciated.”
Michelle: “What will happen if this continues?”
Wendy: “I don’t want it to continue. I can’t go on like this.”
Phil: “Shawn, what did you just hear Wendy say?”
Shawn: “I know she feels alone. When I do come home she attacks me for having to work.”

We continued to talk about this with Shawn and Wendy. It became apparent that they had a conflict pattern that would happen when Shawn worked late. Shawn wouldn’t call, Wendy would attack him when he got home. Shawn would further withdraw and work late again.

Shawn became more aware of how Wendy was feeling. Wendy became more aware that her attacks felt very critical to Shawn.

Once we were able to validate the pattern, we were able to talk about ways to change the pattern.

This process of building up awareness of how their pattern was hurting their relationship helped them to become motivated to try some solutions.

3. Discouragement

We met with one couple where the wife wasn’t ready to commit to change. She had been asking her husband to seek help for years. She had gotten so discouraged that she didn’t feel that anything was going to work.

Her ambivalence was because she was so discouraged.

Now, her husband was willing to do whatever it would take to save the marriage.

When one person has become so discouraged or demoralized and they aren’t ready to commit to their marriage, they may not change their mind quickly. Often, they may need to see their partner take practical steps to work on the relationship.

The ambivalence is coming from being very aware of the issue, but being frustrated with it for a very long time.

I often see that there is some type of unawareness that is also at play. I don’t think that Shawn really understood the impact his actions were having on Wendy. Wendy didn’t start having hope until Shawn demonstrated that he was ready to change.

When there is an addiction this is frequently the case. The discouraged party needs to see their partner dealing with their addiction.

4. Someone Doesn’t Want to Change

This is usually the last conclusion that I draw. I don’t take this lightly.

Sometimes, the couple knows very well what needs to change. They may have gone to a number of counselors. One person may be unwilling to change. They may be unwilling to commit to working the marriage.

It could be that changing means attending a recovery group or seeking counseling. Some issues may require a mental health professional.

When it looks like someone is entrenched in not changing, they may not be good candidates for mentoring. You need to ask yourself if you are willing to commit the time.

Don’t work harder than they do.

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • Don’t immediately dismiss them – It’s tempting to immediately judge the ambivalent person and assume that they don’t value their marriage. They may have a very high value on it, but they are tired of trying.
  • Figure out the reason – Why are they ambivalent? A betrayal? Unaware? Very aware, but discouraged?
  • Refer – They may need something more than mentoring. Do they need deeper therapy? Perhaps a drug or sex addiction group?