5 Things to Consider when Navigating Uncertainty in Relationships
Naturally, life and human behavior can be both predictable and unpredictable. In relationships uncertainty is closely tied to vulnerability. “What ifs and How comes?” are questions that surface and recycle themselves both in our minds and in our hearts.
Therefore, to define uncertainty I like to reference Brené Brown’s research on vulnerability:
“I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. With that definition in mind, let’s think about love. Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow—that’s vulnerability.”
Simply put, uncertainty is a form of vulnerability and courage. We do, hope and love in spite of our fears. The challenge with uncertainty is that there are no promises, no guarantees or assurances. It can truly trigger fear in us which can lead to a fight or flight response. We can feel both activated and powerless at the same time.
That is not to say that we don’t like uncertainty. To some degree it actually brings variety and spontaneity to life which can be delightful and fun. But, in some cases, too much uncertainty can leave us feeling insecure and doubtful.
Therefore, let’s consider the following 5 things when navigating uncertainty in relationships:
- Typically, uncertainty in relationships is related to being afraid of expressing ourselves.
Expressing ourselves is a form of emotional exposure and it is common to be afraid of being rejected or pushed away. In some cases, maybe we were conditioned to stay quiet and not speak up. So, the issue is that we can quietly hope that the other individual picks up on our wants and needs. However, if they are not attuning emotionally and appropriately, they can miss a whole lot of information.
A good way to start expressing our feelings and thoughts is by starting out small. It may be tempting to open up about everything; however, gradually increasing our window of tolerance to emotional exposure can help. If the relationship feels distant or fuzzy it might look like reaching out to a friend and letting her know that you are thinking about her. It might look like inviting your dad out for lunch because you miss him; or reaching out to your son because you are concerned about some changes you’ve seen. It’s okay to express the true nature of our emotions in a kind and gentle way. Typically, but not always, we will receive a positive response if the other person recognizes that we want to connect, accept and allow it from their end.
- A challenge of uncertainty in relationships is ambiguous roles and goals.
This is common because it requires a degree of emotional exposure to talk about our expectations, needs and wants. This can also occur is we’ve had conflict anytime this topic is brought up; hence, we’re more like to be hesitant about bringing it up. Thus, a common issue is quiet and unquestioned assumptions about our roles and expectations. It can leave individuals feeling confused, contemptuous or resentful.
As mentioned above, we can start out small too, yet with clear boundaries and intentions. One example of this technique could be clarifying with a sister when it’s a best time to call or meet; it might look like reaching out to your boss and asking about the progress of an upcoming project and how to contribute or help. It’s common to assume that once a relationship is established that goals and roles don’t change; but our expectations may change as we grow. Therefore, it’s a good practice to revisit roles and goals throughout life cycles or projects to clarify what is needed or expected from each other. It can be very helpful to understand each other at this level.
- Another challenge that comes up in relationships is ambiguous or inconsistent structures.
Of course, setting goals is the vision but the structures are how we get there. It’s common to feel confused about how things work in a family, work setting or a gathering. So, having clear structures is a way to practice being proactive and responsive.
To achieve our goals, we can start out by choosing the simplest task to structure. This helps enable a recipe for success and conflict resolution skills. This might look like parents agreeing on the do’s and don’ts during family dinners to reduce disagreements and flare ups. Another example might look like deciding a routine and preparation for having family over. Basically, patterns and routines help create predictable expectations which help reduce anxiety and increase engagement. This also reduces foggy and unclear expectations about how to go about day to day or cyclical routines.
- Impatience is another challenge that arises when experiencing uncertainty in relationships.
Uncertainty can lead to anxiety which can lead to restlessness which can lead to impatience. When this occurs, we are likely to want to rush the connection process. In some cases, we might want to rush change or outcomes. The person on the other end may feel the pressure, shut down or withdraw altogether.
First, we need to ask a very important question. Do we need a commitment? There are cases where we truly do, like moving in together, buying a home, a salary, a job offer, a school plan, etc. If we do, we have a right to ask for a clear plan of action. Now, if we don’t need a commitment in the relationship a way to reduce impatience or restlessness is to be curious about the process. This might look like, “I wonder what I will learn about my husband’s resilience today?” or “I wonder what we will discover about one another by getting to know each other.” This typically helps us because it slows us down. We increase our engagement in the process more than the outcomes. Thus, providing us with increased sense of control and autonomy.
- Finally, another challenge that occurs in relationships when experiencing uncertainty is that it isn’t safe or accepting enough.
This is a very important point to consider and take to heart. Sometimes, in relationships uncertainty is used to keep a person at bay; for example, not committing, following-through, or being inconsistent. This might be intentional or not, but trust and safety are important and essential ingredients in relationships.
So, what to do? We need to be very clear and honest with our needs and wants. If the individual, despite our best efforts, is not being responsive we have to decide if it’s a relationship worth continuing or even pausing for some time. For example, if a boss said that he or she would pay a certain salary and they haven’t and keep breaking their promise, it’s time to seriously consider leaving and in some cases take legal action. Another example is a friend only seeking us when they need or want to and continually criticizing and judging us. In those cases, it’s time to consider shifting our efforts and focus to individuals who are far more responsive, encouraging and accepting of us.
Finally, if we are consistently doubting ourselves it may be because we are feeling responsible for the other person’s behavior. However, relationships are not developed in isolation, they are co-created. Therefore, there has to be willingness to give and receive essential ingredients such as respect, kindness, trust, and appreciation from both individuals.
Please know that there is support while navigating the complexities of relationships. Exploring both our internal and external world can be helpful when trying to understand what to do and how to go about things.
Lastly, I kindly wish and hope that you experience safe, loving, and enjoyable relationships.
With warmth and kindness,
Brené Brown (2012). “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead”, p.37, Penguin
Gottman, J. M., & DeClaire, J. (2002). The relationship cure: a five-step guide to strengthening your marriage, family, and friendships. New York: Harmony Books.
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