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Relational uncertainty sparks negativity in marital conversations

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

Released 7/25/2007

Leanne Knobloch
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Leanne Knobloch, a professor of speech communication at Illinois, led the first research study that examined the link between relational uncertainty and conversation within marriage.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Spouses who experience doubts about their marriage, even weak doubts, make pessimistic judgments about their partner’s behavior in conversation.

That’s the conclusion of researchers who have conducted the first study to examine the link between relational uncertainty and conversation within marriage.

Relational uncertainty refers to the questions people have about the status of their marriage. It can be triggered by factors such as career changes, disagreements with extended family members, financial problems, illnesses, infidelity, miscommunication and pregnancy.

According to the researchers, relational uncertainty sparks negativity, leading spouses to interpret messages with a “pessimistic bias.” For example, individuals experiencing relational uncertainty view their spouse’s behavior as less affectionate, more controlling and less involved. In addition, people questioning their marriage feel more negative emotions like anger and sadness in conversations with their spouse.

“Relational uncertainty can be debilitating in marriage,” said lead researcher Leanne Knobloch, a professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois.

“Spouses experiencing even mild relational uncertainty may be reactive to conversations that seem ordinary to outside observers.”

On the other hand, spouses who are certain about their marriage tend to experience conversation favorably, even when the topic touches on a negative issue, the researchers found.

The study was published in the June issue of Communication Monographs. Co-authors are Bradley J. Bond and Laura E. Miller, doctoral students at Illinois, and Sarah E. Mannone, who earned a master’s degree at Illinois.

For the study, 125 married couples – ranging in age from 21 to 74 and married for an average of 7.43 years – were recruited to report their perceptions of relational uncertainty, engage in two videotaped conversations and describe their thoughts and feelings about the conversations.

The research team measured three judgments people make about a partner’s conversation behavior: affiliation, meaning the degree of solidarity, liking and positive regard conveyed by a message; dominance, the amount of control, power and influence embedded in an utterance; and involvement, the degree of intensity, activity and engagement displayed in a message.

Because the researchers asked participants to discuss both positive and surprising aspects of their marriage, the researchers wrote that they “were able to evaluate whether relational uncertainty is associated with message processing when uncertainty is or is not the topic of conversation.”

The researchers reported that relational uncertainty predicted six of seven conversation variables – three features of message (the affiliation, dominance and involvement of partners), two cognitive appraisals (how threatening the conversations were to participants and to their relationship), and two emotions (anger and sadness). Fear was the lone exception.

“In other words, relational uncertainty predicted relational messages, cognitive appraisals and some of the emotions even when spouses talked about a pleasant feature of their marriage. We conclude from these findings that relational uncertainty may correspond with message processing even when those doubts are not the explicit focus of discussion.”

Still, the team was struck by an irony: spouses who seemed to most need insight felt the most threatened by talking about positive and surprising aspects of their marriage.

 “Perhaps people who are not completely certain feel intimidated by the prospect of learning information that contradicts their hopes,” Knobloch and her colleagues wrote.

“If so, then our results echo work implying that romantic partners would rather maintain uncertainty than discover bad news.”

The researchers also added a caveat about their work:  They cautioned against the conclusion that relational uncertainty is inherently dissatisfying.

Several theoreticians, they noted, argue that relational uncertainty can be enjoyable and rewarding for people. Relational uncertainty can be “valuable for cultivating romance, repelling boredom, generating excitement and providing occasions to reconfirm loyalty.”

“We see value in future research that disentangles how relational uncertainty intersects with people’s subjective perceptions of marital quality to predict message processing.”

For the study, which took place in a campus laboratory, spouses individually completed a questionnaire assessing demographic information and relational uncertainty. They then came together for the first videotaped conversation, where they were asked to talk about a positive aspect of their relationship or about a recent and unexpected event that caused them to be more or less certain about some aspect of their marriage.

In the third stage of the study, spouses separately completed a follow-up questionnaire soliciting their perceptions of the conversation. They then participated in the second videotaped interaction, and finally, individually completed a second questionnaire evaluating their thoughts and feelings about the second conversation. Couples received $40 for taking part in the 90-minute session.

The team evaluated their claims by collecting self-report and observational data, and they used scales to assess self, partner and relationship sources of relational uncertainty.

An Arnold O. Beckman Award from the U. of I. Campus Research Board funded the study.