I’m a PhD student in communication science and for the past four years I’ve been doing research on how people form and maintain relationships (online). I have mostly been researching the strategies people use when they meet for the first time and get to know each other.
According to communication theory when two people meet there is a lot of uncertainty between them. They don’t know what the other person is like or how (s)he will act towards them. This uncertainty is something that is reduced as two people engage in an interaction. They observe each other, ask questions, share things about themselves and in the process get to know each other. As the conversation progresses and people have multiple interactions, the initial uncertainty disappears. As uncertainty disappears, attraction between two people grows.
Uncertainty Reduction Theory
According to Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT) this is how relationships begin: with a lot of uncertainty and the use of various strategies to reduce this uncertainty. What I find so interesting is what happens later: when two people ultimately form a relationship. If I were to start my PhD now that is what I would like to research. URT basically says that uncertainty is a negative thing and something we want to get rid of. We like predictability and we want to be able to know how someone will act towards us. But is this reduction of uncertainty really good thing?
Predictability is boring
Getting to know someone can be uncomfortable and awkward, sure. But it’s also really exciting. People in long-term relationships often miss that excitement that they had in the beginning of their relationship. Research even shows that couples often try ways to bring the uncertainty back into their relationship. This suggests that this uncertainty we feel in the beginning stages of a relationship may not be so bad at all.
I believe we will never know someone as well as we know ourselves and it’s not a bad thing to want a little mystery in our relationships with other people. If there’s no uncertainty that means that there are no surprises. To me, uncertainty means excitement. I would never want my relationship to be predictable. I like feeling the stomach flip and I still do – after nine years of being in a relationship.
Keep the uncertainty alive
So here’s what I think: uncertainty is what keeps relationships alive. I haven’t researched this so I don’t have any real proof. What I do know though is that predictability is boring and knowing exactly what someone’s thinking and how someone will behave sounds really uninteresting. I love being surprised in my relationship. I even love the fights – some of those explosions can really feel like you’re pressing a reset button and starting all over again.
The more I know about how people initiate and maintain relationships, the more convinced I am that uncertainty is the secret ingredient to long-lasting, happy relationships. I once wrote that I believe positive stimulation is the secret to happiness and the same is true for relationships. Like in life, you need to be stimulated in your relationship – and not just sexually. You need something from the other person besides his/her presence. What is he/she giving you?
“Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise” – Julia Cameron
As humans we want to grow and we crave creativity. We want to keep learning and developing ourselves. I want the same for my relationship. I don’t ever want a reach a point where I feel like “I’ve read the book” and know exactly what’s in it. I want uncertainty – I need it. A little predictability is fine, but I don’t want to feel like there will never be any more surprises. How can you laugh together, learn from each other and grow together if there are no surprises? If there’s one thing I know it’s that uncertainty benefits a relationship and it’s important to keep a little mystery between the two of you. Love, trust, be kind, laugh and stay mysterious – at least a little bit.