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‘Relational uncertainty’ is the degree of confidence (or lack of confidence) that individuals have in their perceptions of involvement within interpersonal relationships (Knobloch, 2010). It arises from self, partner, and relationship sources. ‘Self-uncertainty’ indexes questions about people’s own participation in the relationship. ‘Partner uncertainty’ encompasses questions about their partner’s participation in the relationship, and ‘relationship uncertainty’ involves questions about the state of the relationship itself. The three sources of relational uncertainty tend to co-occur but are conceptually and empirically distinct.
Relational uncertainty can be further distinguished by content areas. In 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. Nuanced issues of relational uncertainty are experienced by spouses within marriage; by romantic couples grappling with breast cancer, infertility, or depression; and by military couples reunited after deployment (Knobloch & Theiss 2012).
Relational uncertainty can have important consequences for communication (Knobloch et al. 2011). With respect to message production, relational uncertainty can provoke face threats because individuals lack information about how their partner will respond. Consequently, people experiencing relational uncertainty are less willing to discuss sensitive topics with their partner (Knobloch 2010). Relational uncertainty can also complicate message processing. Under conditions of relational uncertainty, individuals are prone to information-processing biases that hinder them from drawing accurate conclusions about their own behavior and their partner’s behavior in conversation.
- Knobloch, L. K. (2010). Relational uncertainty and interpersonal communication. In S. W. Smith & S. R. Wilson (eds.), New directions in interpersonal communication research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 69–93.
- Knobloch, L. K., Knobloch-Fedders, L. M., & Durbin, C. E. (2011). Depressive symptoms and relational uncertainty as predictors of reassurance-seeking and negative feedback-seeking in conversation. Communication Monographs, 78, 437–462.
- Knobloch, L. K. & Theiss, J. A. (2012). Experiences of U.S. military couples during the post-deployment transition: Applying the relational turbulence model. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29, 423–450.