Responses to Changes in Relational Uncertainty within Dating Relationships: Emotions and Communication Strategies
Knobloch, Leanne K., Solomon, Denise Haunani, Communication Studies
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., 2001; Solomon & Knobloch, 2001), but relational uncertainty can also be elicited by specific episodes (Emmers & Canary, 1996; Knobloch & Solomon, 2002b). Fluctuations in relational uncertainty occur due to events such as unfaithfulness, unexpected acts of supportiveness, and changes in a partner's personality (Afifi & Metts, 1998; Emmers & Canary, 1996; Planalp et al., 1988). These diverse episodes exert a substantial influence on close relationships (Planalp & Honeycutt, 1985; Planalp et al., 1988).
Relational uncertainty stems from three sources within ongoing associations (Berger & Bradac, 1982; Knobloch & Solomon, 1999, 2002a). Self uncertainty encompasses the doubts people have about their own participation in the relationship, and partner uncertainty comprises the questions individuals have about a partner's involvement in the relationship. Self and partner uncertainty are similarly structured around people's questions about their desire for relationship involvement, their evaluation of the relationship's value, and their goals for the future of the relationship (Knobloch & Solomon, 1999). Relationship uncertainty involves the doubts individuals have about the dyad apart from either self or partner concerns. Relationship uncertainty includes ambiguity about norms for appropriate behavior, mutuality of involvement, the definition of the relationship, and the future of the dyad (Knobloch & Solomon, 1999). Relationship uncertainty exists at a higher level of abstraction than either self or partner uncertainty because it focuses on the dyad as a whole (Berger & Bradac, 1982). A review of literature suggests that relational uncertainty can be both beneficial and detrimental to romantic relationships. Although people desire certainty and predictability within intimate associations (Berger & Roloff, 1982; Davis & Todd, 1985), they also value uncertainty and novelty (Altman, Vinsel, & Brown, 1981; Baxter & Montgomery, 1996). Similarly, whereas partners want the security of certainty, they also seek the excitement of uncertainty (Zimmer, 1986). To gain insight into the emotional experience of episodic fluctuations in relational uncertainty, the following paragraphs review the rewards and costs of relational uncertainty.
Achieving an adequate level of relational certainty seems to be beneficial for participants in romantic relationships. According to Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT), individuals communicate more effectively under conditions of certainty (Berger & Calabrese, 1975; Berger & Gudykunst, 1991). Moreover, dating partners who increase relational certainty by establishing exclusive commitment also report greater relationship satisfaction (Baxter & Bullis, 1986). In addition, people who possess a high degree of relational uncertainty may be less susceptible to the experience of jealousy (Afifi & Reichert, 1996; Knobloch et al., 2001). Consequently, relational certainty appears to be valuable to romantic relationships.
As additional evidence that relational certainty is beneficial, other research documents the harmful effects of relational uncertainty. URT suggests that uncertainty must be reduced as rapidly as possible for relationships to survive (see Berger, 1987). Accordingly, a substantial body of research demonstrates that uncertainty decreases both attraction and liking (Berger & Calabrese, 1975; Gudykunst, 1985; Gudykunst, Yang, & Nishida, 1985). Similarly, the majority of relational uncertainty increasing events are characterized by negative emotion and have detrimental long-term effects (Planalp & Honeycutt, 1985; Planalp et al., 1988). Indeed, the termination of courtships is associated with relational uncertainty due to both conflict (Siegert & Stamp, 1994) and lack of communication with the partner's social network (Parks & Adelman, 1983). In sum, relational uncertainty can produce stress, anxiety, fatigue, and negative outcomes for close relationships (Berger, 1987).
Whereas some evidence suggests that relational certainty is valuable to relationship development, other lines of research imply that relational uncertainty is a component of relationship health. Complete certainty would likely preclude feelings of excitement and romance (Berger, 1993; Byrne & Murnen, 1988; Livingston, 1980); indeed, boredom is one of the reasons people terminate their dating relationships (Baxter, 1986; Cody, 1982; Hill, Rubin, & Peplan, 1976). Not surprisingly, then, relationship maintenance is enhanced by engaging in novel activities to combat monotony (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996; Harvey, Wells, & Alvarez, 1978). Further, the prevalence of topic avoidance in close relationships may reflect the perception that ambiguity can be more desirable than certainty (Afifi & Burgoon, 1998; Baxter & Wilmot, 1985). In fact, White (1980; see also Brainerd, Hunter, Moore, & Thompson, 1996) reported that 24% of participants in his study intentionally tried to make a dating partner jealous in an attempt to stimulate the partner's uncertainty about the relationship, and, in turn, capture the partner's attention. Taken together, this evidence suggests relational uncertainty is beneficial because it corresponds with excitement, feelings of romance, participation in novel activities, and increased attention to partners.
The preceding discussion has revealed two sources of ambiguity regarding the emotional experience of fluctuations in relational uncertainty. First, prior research suggests that relational uncertainty can be both rewarding and costly for participants in dating relationships. Second, because this work typically characterizes relational uncertainty in terms of long-range outcomes, the extent to which distinct emotions coincide with the events is unknown. Fluctuations in relational uncertainty are emotionally volatile (Planalp & Honeycutt, 1985; Planalp et al., 1988); however, the specific emotions associated with these episodes have yet to be examined. Consequently, the following research question requires resolution:
RQ1: What is the emotional experience of relational certainty and uncertainty increasing events within romantic relationships?
COMMUNICATIVE RESPONSES TO CHANGES IN RELATIONAL UNCERTAINTY
Research has predominantly focused on the management of relational uncertainty rather than relational certainty (e.g., Afifi & Reichert, 1996; Emmers & Canary, 1996; Planalp et al., 1988), but this work has demonstrated that individuals employ a variety of communication strategies when faced with fluctuations in relational uncertainty. In fact, although scholars have typically developed typologies of strategies that are idiosyncratic to their data (e.g., Bell & Buerkel-Rothfuss, 1990; Planalp et al., 1988), people's responses to these events appear to be distinguishable in terms of approach versus avoidance. Approach versus avoidance differentiates tactical responses to uncertainty in general (Berger & Calabrese, 1975) and events that increase relational uncertainty in particular (Planalp & Honeycutt, 1985; Planalp et al., 1988). Perhaps more importantly, approach versus avoidance exists as a fundamental communication dimension within the study of emotion (c.f. Barbee, Rowatt, & Cunningham, 1998; Dillard, 1998; Planalp, 1999). Thus, the approach versus avoidance dimension is the focus of this investigation for a variety of reasons: its simplicity, its capacity to encompass responses to fluctuations in relational uncertainty, and its central place within perspectives on emotion.
Approach strategies are constituted by straightforward and definitive information-gathering behaviors about an issue, topic, or event. Rusbult and Zembrodt (1983) identified two forms of approach behaviors that are evident within people's responses to dissatisfaction in close relationships. Voice strategies constitute positively-valenced approach tactics that reference a problem, such as discussing difficulties and suggesting solutions. Conversely, exit strategies involve negatively-valanced approach behaviors, such as screaming and threatening to end the relationship. Similarly, Guerrero, Andersen, Jorgensen, Spitzberg, and Eloy (1995) distinguished between positively-oriented and negatively-oriented approach strategies within responses to jealousy. They defined integrative strategies as approach behaviors coupled with a positive relational tone; examples include calm discussion and direct questioning. Conversely, they characterized distributive strategies as approach behaviors that are destructive in nature, including yelling and the use of physical force. Taken together, this work highlights the nuanced manifestations of approach strategies.
Avoidance strategies are marked by a lack of information-seeking behavior about an issue, topic, or event. Like approach strategies, avoidance behaviors vary on a positive versus negative dimension. For example, Rusbult and Zembrodt (1983) defined loyalty strategies as positively-oriented avoidance behaviors enacted in response to relationship dissatisfaction (i.e., waiting for conditions to improve and passively supporting the partner). Conversely, they characterized neglect strategies as negatively-oriented avoidance behaviors used to manage dissatisfying situations; examples include ignoring the partner and devoting less time to the relationship. In addition, Guerrero et al. (1995) identified two negatively-valenced avoidance strategies people employ to manage jealousy. Negative affect expression, which encompasses behaviors such as crying and sulking, is passive and moderately threatening in nature. Distancing, a second strategy that avoids referencing the situation, involves behaviors such as pulling away and decreasing affection. Despite the nuances apparent in these avoidance tactics, they all constitute unwillingness to communicate with the partner about the salient issue.
In sum, approach and avoidance define a fundamental distinction among communication behaviors. We identified a number of studies that examined responses to relational uncertainty increasing events; however, we are not aware of any research that has examined strategies people employ to manage relational …
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Publication information: Article title: Responses to Changes in Relational Uncertainty within Dating Relationships: Emotions and Communication Strategies. Contributors: Knobloch, Leanne K. - Author, Solomon, Denise Haunani - Author. Journal title: Communication Studies. Volume: 54. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2003. Page number: 282+. © 2008 Central States Communication Association. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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