Relational uncertainty is the degree of confidence people have in their perceptions of involvement within interpersonal relationships. The construct has its roots in Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT; Berger & Calabrese 1975), which emphasized the relevance of uncertainty to interactions between strangers. As scholars began to examine URT in the domain of close relationships, they recognized the need to reconceptualize uncertainty in ways that attended to features of intimate associations (Knobloch & Solomon 2002a). The relational uncertainty construct was developed to fill this void.
Relational uncertainty is an umbrella term that refers to ambiguity arising from self, partner, and relationship sources (Berger & Bradac 1982). Self-uncertainty indexes the questions people have about their own participation in the relationship (“How certain am I about my goals for this relationship?”). Partner uncertainty involves the doubts individuals experience about their partner’s participation in the relationship (“How certain am I about my partner’s goals for this relationship?”). Relationship uncertainty is the ambiguity people feel about the state of the relationship itself (“How certain am I about the future of this relationship?”). Whereas self and partner uncertainty encompass questions about individuals, relationship uncertainty exists at a higher level of abstraction because it focuses on the dyad as a unit. The three sources of relational uncertainty are both conceptually and empirically distinct.
The sources of relational uncertainty can be further distinguished by content areas (Knobloch & Solomon 1999). In the context of courtship, self and partner uncertainty involve the questions people have about their desire for the relationship, their evaluation of its value, and their goals for its progression. Relationship uncertainty includes the ambiguity individuals experience about the norms for appropriate behavior, the mutuality of feelings between partners, the definition of the association, and the future of the relationship.
Scholars have conceptualized relational uncertainty at two levels of abstraction. It exists on a global level as people’s overall ambiguity about a relationship (“How certain are you about the status of this relationship?”). It also occurs on an episodic level as the doubts generated by discrete events (“How much uncertainty did you experience because of this episode?”). Scholars have collected data on both people’s retrospective accounts of unexpected events (Planalp et al. 1988) and their appraisals of hypothetical episodes (Knobloch & Solomon 2002b).
Relational uncertainty can have several consequences. It may provoke face threats because individuals lack information about how their partner will respond to messages. Consequently, people tend to avoid open communication under conditions of ambiguity (Knobloch 2006). Individuals experiencing relational uncertainty engage in more topic avoidance, are less likely to express jealousy to their partner, and are more apt to refrain from discussing unexpected events. Moreover, people grappling with relational uncertainty produce date request messages that are less affiliative, less relationally focused, and less explicit. Relational uncertainty may also make it harder for individuals to glean information from conversation. Under conditions of relational uncertainty, dating partners have trouble recognizing relationship-focused messages, experience problems deriving inferences from utterances, and report that conversation is difficult (Knobloch & Solomon 2005).
Thus, relational uncertainty may impede people’s ability to process messages.
At the episodic level, scholars have investigated how individuals manage uncertainty increasing events. Both distal and proximal features of the situation govern people’s responses to unexpected episodes. Three predictors have garnered the most research attention (Knobloch 2005). Intimacy is a distal parameter that is positively associated with direct information seeking strategies. Cognitions and emotions are proximal parameters that also predict information seeking strategies.
Questions remain about the advantages and disadvantages of relational uncertainty (Knobloch 2007). On the one hand, research suggests that relational uncertainty may be dissatisfying. People experiencing ambiguity appraise irritating partner behavior to be more severe, feel more negative emotion, and perceive network members to be less supportive of their courtship. Further, individuals typically view unexpected events to be negatively valenced. On the other hand, scholars have theorized that relational uncertainty may be beneficial by providing romance, excitement, and opportunities to affirm commitment (Knobloch & Solomon 2002a; Livingston 1980). More research is needed to determine the boundary conditions that make relational uncertainty helpful or harmful to intimate associations.
Two other directions for future research involve the link between relational uncertainty and communication. First, most studies have examined people’s global communication strategies rather than features of their utterances, so work is necessary to shed light on characteristics of messages. Second, scholars have focused on understanding how relational uncertainty predicts message production, so research is required to illuminate the connection between relational uncertainty and message processing.
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- Knobloch, L. K. (2006). Relational uncertainty and message production within courtship: Features of date request messages. Human Communication Research, 32(3), 244–273.
- Knobloch, L. K. (2007). The dark side of relational uncertainty: Obstacle or opportunity? In B. Spitzberg & W. Cupach (eds.), The dark side of interpersonal communication, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 31–59.
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- Knobloch, L. K., & Solomon, D. H. (2002a). Information seeking beyond initial interaction: Negotiating relational uncertainty within close relationships. Human Communication Research, 28(2), 243–257.
- Knobloch, L. K., & Solomon, D. H. (2002b). Intimacy and the magnitude and experience of episodic relational uncertainty within romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 9, 457– 478.
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- Livingston, K. R. (1980). Love as a process of reducing uncertainty: Cognitive theory. In K. S. Pope (ed.), On love and loving. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, pp. 133–151.
- Planalp, S., Rutherford, D. K., & Honeycutt, J. M. (1988). Events that increase uncertainty in personal relationships II: Replication and extension. Human Communication Research, 14(4), 516–547.