Negative Capability ≠ Stable Ambiguity Today I’m going to take two happily and clearly defined terms from two very different fields of study — literary theory and couples therapy — and invalidate both by applying them to a tangential third: your life

Right. Brace yourselves. Today I’m going to take two happily and clearly defined terms from two very different fields of study — literary theory and couples therapy — and invalidate both by applying them to a tangential third: your life.

1. Negative Capability

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton

The poet John Keats coined and defined the term ‘negative capability’ in a private letter to his brothers:

when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason

Keats presents this as a good thing, his poetic model being none other than William P. Shakespeare, who erases himself as an authorial voice in the text and instead lets his characters roam free range over the whole of human thought, belief and action, without ever tapping the audience on the shoulder.

This suspension of the judging, grasping author is a lovely concept to define and negative capability has burrowed its way into the everyday language of psychotherapy and mindfulness.

For the mindfulness buffalo, negative capability is a fourth possible response to any stressful situation: we can fight, flight, freeze — or we can sit with the uncertainty.

For the psychotherapy bison, starting with the work of Wilfrid Bion (as previously in these pages), negative capability represents an openness to being rather than knowing.

In all three use cases — aesthetics, mindfulness and psychotherapy — negative capability is a virtue to be sought after.

But what about when, in spite of all our poetry readings, deep breaths and counselling sessions, uncertainty simply won’t stop feeling uncomfortable?

What happens when good negative capability goes bad?

2. Stable Ambiguity

Originally coined (it seems) by couples therapist Terry Real, Esther Perel defines stable ambiguity in the context of romantic relationships where people feel ‘too afraid to be alone, but unwilling to fully engage in intimacy building’.

This results in relationships with unclear status, blurred lines and prolonged break-ups, as one or more people are held in a ‘holding pattern’.

As Perel writes:

We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to have someone available to cozy-up with when it’s snowing, but if something better comes along, we want the freedom to explore.

In this relationship culture, expectations and trust are in constant question. The state of stable ambiguity inevitably creates an atmosphere where at least one person feels lingering uncertainty, and neither person feels truly appreciated or nurtured.

Perel is clear: stable ambiguity is baaad.

But hang on. Don’t people who feel like they’re being kept in a ‘holding pattern’ just need to up their negative capability game?

Speaking like this, theoretically, on the page, the answer to that question might seem obvious — but what about when you’re actually in the moment, living this experience?

How can we tell when a situation is one that calls for negative capability and when it’s a stalemate of stable ambiguity?

Even more tricky: how can we tell when a situation flips (or more likely slides) from one to the other?

Even more more tricky: what if we take these questions out of the messy world of romance and into the even messier world of The World?

It’s one thing figuring out when your lover is ghosting, icing or simmering you, but it’s quite another to pick the bones out of the zillions of other relationships we ride throughout our lives.

And uncertainty pops up everywhere: office politics and geopolitics, macroeconomics and home finances, every time we catch the bus, every time we hit the road, the state of our house plants, the state of our biosphere.

How can we tell when we need to breathe through our pettifogging whinny-worries and when we need to bloody well do something because, quite frankly, we’re getting mugged off real nasty?

Maybe you’ve got the answer. The best I can do right now is make some lists.

Feelings That Might Indicate Stable Ambiguity

  • I want control
  • I want my freedom, choice and to keep my options open
  • I don’t want responsibility
  • I act alone, as an individual
  • I need to know
  • I am grasping or pushing for something
  • I will live forever

Feelings That Might Indicate Negative Capability

  • I have faith
  • I am committed
  • I act with others, as part of something greater
  • I want responsibility
  • I surrender
  • I am open to being
  • I am in awe
  • I will never know
  • I will die

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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