Responses to Changes in Relational Uncertainty within Dating Relationships: Emotions and Communication Strategies

Article excerpt

Relational certainty and uncertainty refer to the degree of confidence people have in their perceptions of involvement within interpersonal relationships (Knobloch & Solomon, 1999, 2002a). Fluctuations in relational certainty and uncertainty are tied to a variety of dyadic experiences, including conflict (Siegert & Stamp, 1994), jealousy (Afifi & Reichert, 1996; Knobloch, Solomon, & Cruz, 2001), and expectation violations (Afifi & Metts, 1998). Notably, these episodes correspond with both strong emotion and communicative attempts to manage the events (Emmers & Canary, 1996; Knobloch & Solomon, 2002b). People's emotional reactions and behavioral responses, in turn, influence relationship outcomes. For example, partners experiencing negative emotion in conjunction with relational uncertainty increasing events are more likely to terminate the relationship than those experiencing positive emotion (Planalp & Honeycutt, 1985); moreover, individuals who talk about the experience of a relational uncertainty increasing event may become closer than those who avoid communicating about the event (Planalp, Rutherford, & Honeycutt, 1988). Because people's emotions and behavioral responses influence the quality of their relationships, a better understanding of the experience and management of relational certainty and uncertainty increasing events is warranted.

Whereas previous work has generated descriptive information about relational certainty and uncertainty increasing episodes, the appraisal theory of emotion provides a theoretical foundation for understanding how people's emotions correspond with their communication behaviors in response to these events. According to appraisal theory, people experience emotion in a three-phase causal sequence: (a) they first notice, evaluate, and label a change in the environment, (b) which produces an affective experience of a particular emotion, (c) which motivates the enactment of an action tendency associated with the emotion (Lazarus, 2001; Roseman & Smith, 2001). An example of discovered infidelity illustrates this process: a person first detects that a partner has been unfaithful, experiences anger, and attempts to remedy the grievance by lashing out at the partner. In this way, appraisal theorists argue that emotions produce action tendencies that shape people's behavioral responses (e.g., Roseman, Wiest, & Swartz, 1994). Although forces in the environment may disrupt the causal process (Frijda, 1986; Oafley, 1992; Roseman, 2001), appraisal theory generally assumes that cognitions cause emotions, which subsequently cause behaviors.

Previous work examining appraisal theory has highlighted the influence of emotions on communication in general (e.g., Scherer & Wallbott, 1994; Shaver, Schwartz, Kirson, & O'Conner, 1987); this paper evaluates if appraisal theory sheds light on people's communication within romantic relationships. Following appraisal theory, we propose that emotions motivate the communication strategies people use to manage fluctuations in relational uncertainty. To begin, we examine two preliminary issues relevant to our context: (a) the nature of relational uncertainty, and (b) the communication behaviors people enact in response to changes in relational uncertainty. Then, to address the central concern of this research, we discuss how the action tendencies associated with different emotions may influence people's communicative responses. Finally, we report a study that investigates the experience and management of relational certainty and uncertainty increasing events within courtship.

THE EXPERIENCE OF RELATIONAL UNCERTAINTY

As previously noted, relational uncertainty is the extent to which people are confident in the level of involvement they observe within a relationship (Knobloch & Solomon, 1999, 2002a). Relational uncertainty exists on a global level as doubts about a relationship in general (Knobloch et al. …