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Beware of the Lukewarm Lover!

Four ways to deal with someone whose feelings are neither hot nor cold…

See if you can relate to the struggle faced by Kristen, who has been dating Ben for a year. Actually, the word “dating” is too strong and specific. It’s better to say they have been “hanging out” and “spending time” in their “loosely connected” relationship. And that is the problem. At least for Kristen.

“Ben is a fantastic man, someone I could easily envision spending the rest of my life with,” she says. “But he always seems wishy-washy and indecisive about our relationship. He’s told me he loves me, but he doesn’t seem very passionate or enthused. I guess the word to describe him is ‘lukewarm.’ I’m getting tired of waiting for him to decide if he’s hot or cold toward our relationship.”

Sound familiar? Kristen used some descriptive words about her somewhat significant other. Here’s another: ambivalent. The dictionary defines ambivalence as: “Simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings; continual fluctuation; uncertainty as to which approach to follow.” People like this are in romantic and relational limbo—and they leave their would-be partners in limbo as well.

The issue here is not short-term vacillation while waiting to see how a new relationship might evolve. The problem comes with prolonged ambivalence, with mixed feelings and mixed signals month after month. In fact, an extensive research study found that the presence of wavering emotions is a reliable predictor of future divorce among newly married couples. Marriages in which one or both partners mentioned feelings of ambivalence were three times as likely to divorce within four years.1
It is no fun to be constantly unsure where you stand with a potential partner. And it is difficult to know how (or even if) you should nudge someone from “fence-sitter” to fully committed participant in the relationship. If you find yourself in this situation, keep these ideas in mind:

Determine how long you are willing to put up with it. For some people, a romantic relationship has to simmer for a while before it reaches a boil. It just takes time for the heat (and passion and commitment) to kick in. Other people, however, forever stay lukewarm. It’s up to you to pinpoint how long you’re willing to hang in there and wait for the temperature to rise. Caution: Many singles wait too long for a would-be romance to catch fire, only to realize they’ve wasted lots of time watching embers smolder indefinitely.

Don’t take it personally. Often, the ambivalence of the person you’re with has nothing to do with you. The cause may lie with your partner’s life circumstances, fears, or unresolved issues. Resist the urge to feel as if you have done something wrong or have to do something to make it right.

See what happens when you back off. One of the worst responses is to become pushy and prickly: “Why are you so apathetic and indecisive? Can’t you just make up your mind?!” One of the best responses is to intentionally allow for space. There is a push-pull phenomenon common to relationships: the more you push, the more your partner will pull away. This doesn’t mean playing games or manipulating, which are never healthy choices. This does mean moving forward with your life while the other person figures out what to do with his or her life.

Be direct without being demanding. While being careful not to be off-putting, a few well-chosen questions and comments might be in order. For your own clarity, it’s appropriate to ask, “Where is this relationship headed?” Or you might say, “I’m not sure where you’re at with our relationship. Please enlighten me.”

You can’t control how another person acts or feels, but you can control how you respond. You have to decide what you are willing to live with. Most of all, maintain your self-respect. You deserve better than to stay stuck in a dissatisfying, dead-end relationship.

1. T. Huston et al. “The Connubial Crucible: Newlywed Years as Predictors of Marital Delight, Distress, and Divorce,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 80, 2001.