Psychological rigidity as we shall be using the term here refers to oversimplification, uncritical obedience to authority, prejudice and the like–in short, “black and white thinking” that is intolerant of ambiguity.
Emotional ambivalence is basically psychological rigidity as it applies to our feelings toward objects, including persons. It is often characterized by swinging from one side of a duality to another, such as love/hate, but without acknowledging the coexistence of the extremes simultaneously toward the object.
The toleration of ambiguity differs from the maintaining of rigidity and ambivalence. Most of us are familiar with the meaning of ambidextrous as being able to use both hands about equally well. The obvious commonality between the words “ambivalence”, “ambiguity”, and “ambidextrous” is “ambi-.” Ambi- is Latin for “both sides” (note the bi- portion).
The difference between ambivalence and ambiguity is to be found in the double-valence or polarity of ambivalence. In ambivalence, there are two sides; but they are bipolar and not so much traversed as a continuum with a middle area as they are leapt back and forth from. Ambiguity on the other hand, receives its meaning from the Latin words “ambiguus” and “ambigere,” the former of which introduces notions of shifting, changing, and doubt, while the latter means “to dispute.” So while both words partake of the duality presented by “ambi-,” ambivalence emphasizes the separation of the two poles (black/white, positive/negative), whereas ambiguity introduces their mingling in vagueness and in blurriness (gray areas).
Rigidity tends to be attributed to exposure to a socialization process that is big on unquestioned obedience to authorities such as parents and higher, and perhaps more importantly to me, the emphasis on power and obedience as opposed to reasoning, discussion, explanation and dialogue. There are rules to obey and consequences to pay.
Rules are experienced as if carved in stone forever rather than as fluid and dynamic constructs of persons who participate in their formation. As such, rules are viewed as ordained and meted out rather than as negotiated. This can lead to a worldview of domination and submission rather than one of participation and dialogue. “Is” takes precedence over “could” or “might” or “possible”–“that’s the way it is” over questioning how things are or how they might be.
With this rigidly dualistic thought structure in place, since humans are not merely creatures of thought but we’re also creatures of passion, the rigidity spills over into our affective (emotional/feeling) recesses (or perhaps vice versa, maybe the emotional ambivalence is more primary and spills over into rigidity in general).
In emotional ambivalence we witness the person holding contradictory views on the same basic object or phenomenon, but rather than bringing them together and acknowledging this, great pains are taken to keep the two attitudes apart. This is a defense mechanism that helps to reduce the anxiety attendant to holding two opposing views simultaneously.
Examples I’ve Observed
One example of emotional ambivalence is the person who alternately plunges into incontinent “partying” and then fundamentalist religion, back and forth, rather than attending a mild church a little bit and partying a little bit all the while as part of one and the same lifestyle.
Another example is a person who loves porn or is homosexual but who “preaches” against porn or against homosexuality, respectively.
Another is a person who considers the executive branch or executive powers of a government to be above the legislative and judical branches. It’s more important to execute (and obey) than it is to participate in and debate the laws and to discuss interpretations of them. Laws are laws and there is really only one right way to interpret each law. In fact, the very word “interpretation” may be derided as if laws stand independently of interpretation and have some absolute meaning. This obviously also occurs with “literalist” readings of the Bible.
There is a related phenomenon known as “splitting,” which I address in a different article, titled “Psychological Splitting as Defense Mechanism.” This is the application of emotional ambivalence by persons toward other specific persons. The other is split into good/bad so as not to have to acknowledge for instance that one and the same mother is both one’s caretaker and one’s abuser, or one’s husband is both kind sober gentleman and drunken batterer.