Anyone who has ever been in a close relationship (that means all of us) is aware that even the closest romantic, family, and work relationships can be susceptible to various levels of uncertainty. No one can truly ever know or understand all of the thoughts the people closest to us have, so wondering about the status of our close relationships is a normal, if anxiety-producing, part of the human experience.
In her new book, "The Experience and Expression of Uncertainty in Close Relationships," published by Cambridge University Press and released in January, 2018, Associate Professor Jennifer Theiss explores and summarizes the vast amount of research on the topic of uncertainty in relationships. The book includes empirical data and explores theories explaining uncertainty and its various implications, but it also offers practical suggestions and advice on how to handle the unavoidable ambiguity in relationships.
The book focuses on romantic relationships, but it also includes information on uncertainty in families, friendships, and professional relationships.
SC&I spoke with Theiss about how the ways we cope with this uncertainty can either damage relationships, or help build stronger ones, and how her new book can assist every reader, whether an academic or a lay person, to navigate the normal and inevitable uncertainty in all close relationships.
Q&A with Professor Jen Theiss
What are some of the recent or past theories regarding uncertainty in relationships? Which do you most agree with and why?
There is a long history of research on uncertainty that is rooted in uncertainty reduction theory from the 1970s, which argued that when we meet someone new we struggle to communicate effectively because we lack sufficient information about the person's thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors, thereby making it difficult to plan our interaction behaviors and interpret our partner's messages.
The theory argued that we strive to reduce our uncertainty about our interaction partners by seeking information about them that will better allow us to anticipate how they will behave or react during future interactions. In turn, reducing uncertainty increases closeness and connection between partners.
My work utilizes relational turbulence theory, which argues that uncertainty does not necessarily decline in a linear fashion the more people get to know each other and develop their relationship.
Instead, this perspective suggests that uncertainty ebbs and flows during the trajectory of a relationship, but that transitions tend to create circumstances in which changes to roles, routines, behaviors, and expectations invite new questions about involvement.
Relational turbulence theory suggests that when people have uncertainty about their partner or the relationship, they tend to be more reactive to interpersonal events in that context. They tend to have more intense emotions, more negative cognitions, and more volatile communication, which coalesce into a sense that the relationship is turbulent or rocky. My research tends to focus on the role of relational uncertainty in promoting intensified reactions to interpersonal circumstances and the consequences of that reactivity for the relationship.
Does the book provide advice in terms of the best ways people can cope with the inevitable uncertainty in close relationships and yet still build trust?
The book describes the ways that uncertainty can have an impact on people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in close relationships and, yes, there is a chapter that describes the various ways that people cope with uncertainty using both direct and indirect strategies. In some cases, communicating directly with a partner can provide information or clarify one's perspective in a way that reduces uncertainty.
But in other cases, people might cope with their uncertainty with avoidance. Uncertainty can make it difficult to anticipate how a relationship partner might react or respond, which undermines people's ability to effectively plan for interaction, so sometimes people choose to cope by avoiding situations that could be uncomfortably ambiguous.
Did you discover that different types of relationships can lead to different types of uncertainties?
Most of the literature on relational uncertainty tends to focus on three interrelated sources of ambiguity in close relationships: 1. self uncertainty reflects doubts that individuals might have about their own involvement in a relationship (e.g., "I don't know if I want to stay in this relationship"), 2. partner uncertainty reflects doubts about a partner's involvement in a relationship (e.g., "I'm not sure that my partner is fully committed to me"), and 3. relationship uncertainty reflects doubts about the viability of the relationship as a whole (e.g., "Will this relationship last forever?"). These three types of uncertainty tend to be universal across different types of relationships, but unique circumstances in close relationships can prompt sources of uncertainty that are more specific to that relational context. For example, I've done research on military couples who cite unique sources of uncertainty stemming from the nature of deployment and the health or safety of one's partner in such dangerous circumstances. I've also examined couples during the transition to parenthood and found unique sources of uncertainty stemming from concerns about parenting and the changing dynamic of the family.
How and where did you conduct the research for the book?
The book summarizes the fairly extensive literature on relational uncertainty, discusses the current state of the field, and offers recommendations for conducting future research that continues to advance and evolve this area of scholarship. I guess you could say that all of the research I've ever done has contributed to the book, since uncertainty is one of the main foci of my research program.
What are some of the reasons you decided to write about this subject?
It has been over 30 years since a book was written about uncertainty in close relationships and in that time theory and research on this topic have flourished, so the timing was right to take stock of the literature and reorient ourselves for future research on uncertainty.
Is uncertainty in relationships harmful or can it be helpful?
There is some research that suggests uncertainty can be beneficial for relationships because sometimes uncertainty is seen as exciting, it keeps partners on their toes and keeps the relationship fresh. There's something kind of boring about being completely certain all of the time, so a dialectical perspective would suggest that it's good to maintain some uncertainty or novelty in a relationship. In addition, there are some situations in which being uncertain is preferable to having certainty, such as a military spouse not wanting to know all the details about the danger their deployed partner faces every day on the front lines, or a person diagnosed with terminal illness not wanting to know how painful or debilitating their illness might become. In these cases, ambiguity can allow for some hope or blissful ignorance, whereas complete certainty might reveal uncomfortable and undesirable realities. For the most part, though, the research on relational uncertainty suggests that its effects on close relationships are primarily negative. People with relational uncertainty tend to experience more negative emotions and jealousy, they make more negative attributions for their partner's behavior, they tend to avoid conversations that could be sensitive or invoke conflict, etc. Thus, too much uncertainty is harmful for relationships because it can lead to other outcomes that have negative consequences.
What actions can people take to reduce the level of uncertainty in their relationships?
First, it's important to remember that uncertainty is a normal and common experience in close relationships, so people should learn to anticipate it and try to take it in stride. Second, it's important to consider whether or not you want to reduce your uncertainty. In some cases, having some uncertainty about a situation or certain circumstances might be desirable to having complete certainty. If you desire more certainty, then communicating to seek information and clarify ambiguity should help to reinforce people's commitment to their relationship.