When it comes to romance, we have all heard the cliché about the allure of playing "hard to get." But is perceived disinterest really appealing? True, I have prosecuted plenty of stalkers chasing unrequited love. But notwithstanding such extreme cases of pathologic pursuit, most of the time, according to research, disinterest is a turn off.
Gurit E. Birnbaum et al. explored the impact of uncertainty on attraction in a study, aptly titled, "Are You into Me?" (from 2018).
That study examined how individuals who, in an online interaction setting, were either vague or clear about their romantic intentions, impacted their desirability.
Contrary to what some people think, results showed that an individual´s perceived lack of interest decreased romantic appeal. Conversely, specific expressions of romantic interest increased certainty about a prospective partner´s intentions, which increased their appeal.
Relational uncertainty, then, apparently decreases potential partner appeal when paired with perceived disinterest, while decreased relational uncertainty through expressions of interest increases partner appeal.
How does this dynamic work with established couples?
The authors replicated their findings by examining them within established relationships, again finding partner regard to be associated with deceased uncertainty, which was linked with higher perceived partner desirability. They explained the results, noting, "inhibiting desire serves as a mechanism aimed at protecting the self from investing in a relationship whose future is uncertain."
The authors note that their research provides guidance regarding the ongoing debate about whether uncertainty about a partner´s romantic interest increases or decreases his or her sexual desirability. Summarizing their findings, "sexual desire thrives on decreased uncertainty and . . . expressions of partners' romantic interest are a promising way to mitigate the negative implications of uncertainty and to maintain desire over the long run."
Relational Uncertainty and Relational Change
Within relationships, change can be a good thing — particularly when it is attempted for the sake of one´s partner or the relationship. But should someone invest time and effort in making positive changes when they have no idea if their relationship has a future? Sure enough, research demonstrates that the impact of change is indeed mediated by relational uncertainty.
Valerie Young et al. (in 2013) examined how relational uncertainty and pursuing relational change impacted relationship quality — defined as including satisfaction, commitment, and closeness. In conducting their study, they employed concepts from the “investment model” as well as research on relational uncertainty and relationship maintenance.
They adopted a research based definition of relational uncertainty as "an inability to predict a partner’s attitudes or behaviors," recognizing that such feelings can occur within newly formed parings as well as within established relationships.
Analyzing daily diary data from 165 romantically involved couples, the authors found that pursuing relational change improved relationship quality. They further found this association to be stronger on days where study participants reported experiencing a lesser amount of relational uncertainty, and weaker on days where they experienced a higher amount of relational uncertainty.
Daily Dose of Positivity
Young et al. note that their findings suggest that working to achieve relational change enhances the quality of relationships. They note that in light of previous research showing that relational maintenance behaviors were most effective when performed frequently, their findings show that daily attempts to change behavior to benefit a partner promote daily feelings about relational commitment, satisfaction, and closeness.
How did the authors define working to change a relationship?
They give examples of what they define as "routine and strategic accommodation behaviors" which include everything from changes in daily schedule, communication, and intimacy, to methods of dealing with subjects such as childcare or finances. Not surprisingly, the authors note empirical support for what most couples have experienced anecdotally: making changes in daily behavior to benefit a relationship increases relationship quality.
In contrast, relational uncertainty was linked with decreased relationship quality. Although surprisingly, the authors found that working to achieve relational change benefited even these relationships — although not as much.
Positive Relational Change
Perhaps a partner´s thoughtful behavior not only improves interaction quality in the short term, but also serves as comforting relational reinforcement that also decreases relational uncertainty.
Because uncertainty about a prospective partner´s intentions is apparently more likely to stifle romantic interest than fan the flame, if you want to improve relational quality, avoid perpetuating the unknown. Instead, invest in activities that demonstrate commitment to your partner, and to your future.
There is no downside to uplifting the importance of your relationship through consistent thoughtful, kind behavior, every day.
A version of this article was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 3,00 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, Newsmax, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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