Many are familiar with the emotional rollercoaster that comes with a new romantic relationship – the teenage years come rushing by as we reminisce on our first crush and the vulnerability of being the first to show interest – the fear of rejection is unbearable! Today, with the plethora of dating apps, reliving those gripping years has become easier than ever. Uncertainly and the fear of rejection are just a swipe away, and while technology is expanding the choice of potential mates, the rules of the game may need to be re-examined.
IDC’s Sexuality in Close Relationships Lab, led by professor Gurit Birnbaum, has been researching uncertainty and sexual desire in online encounters and established relationships. With her collaborator from the University of Rochester, Harry Reis, they took a closer look at whether feelings of uncertainty about a partner’s romantic interest in existing or potential relationship affects this partner’s desirability. It could be said that fledgling relationships almost thrive on the uncertainty of whether or not the other person reciprocates their feelings – indeed, studies on emotional consequences of uncertainty show that unpredictability can arouse intense emotions as we struggle to make sense of the uncertainty, keeping the event alive in our mind and fueling the hope of it working out in our favor. The bitter-sweet pleasure that we experience with pleasant events can also become dreadful when the uncertainty of a negative event is prolonged. Over the course of six interrelated studies, Birnbaum and colleagues examined whether the effects of uncertainty generalize to romantic relationships.
One hundred and one volunteers from the IDC participated in the study. In Studies 1-4, the role of uncertainty was analyzed in a new relationship setting.
Participants were led to believe that they would be chatting online with an opposite-sex individual who was single like themselves. In reality, they were chatting with a research assistant who was scripted to be clear or vague about their romantic intentions. Following the chat, the participants rated the extent to which they felt uncertain about the romantic intentions of the person on the other side of the chat, his or her sexual desirability, and their interest in future interactions with that person. The findings indicated that uncertainty about the other person’s (confederate) romantic intentions was associated with decreased ratings of their sexual desirability and less interest to see them in the future. Further, the partners’ explicit expressions of romantic interest fostered certainty about their intentions, making them more sexually appealing.
Studies 5 and 6 explored whether the adverse effects of uncertainty apply to everyday lives of long-term relationships. Study 5 was a survey in which couples rated how positively their partners regarded them lately, the extent to which they felt relationship uncertainty recently, and their partners’ sexual desirability.
In Study 6, both members of romantic couples completed a daily diary over the span of 42 consecutive days of perceived partner’s regard (i.e., partners’ positive feelings for oneself), felt relationship uncertainty, and sexual desire. Results revealed that partners’ regard predicted lower uncertainty, which, in turn, was associated with greater desire for sex with one’s partner.
This research suggests that people tend to experience less desire for, and avoid seeking out, partners who are likely to cause them pain.This desire may serve as a gut-feeling indicator of mate suitability that motivates people to pursue romantic relationships with a reliable and valuable partner. Inhibiting desire may thus serve as a mechanism aimed at protecting the self from investing in a relationship whose future is uncertain. .