How one unlikely element can strengthen your relationships.
- the background
- know how it works
- bring uncertainty back
- face challenges together
I’m what you might call a hyperresponsive texter. When I get a message, I send one back almost immediately—a habit drawn from work. I also hate to seem rude. So I always text back, even when maybe I shouldn’t.
Then I joined Tinder. Suddenly, I was buried in messages, from “How are you?” to “Do you prefer pools or oceans?” There were so many, I did the unimaginable: I stopped responding. I paused for days, even weeks. The guys, by and large, didn’t give up. And to my surprise, I found myself not more but a bit less interested.
One guy, though, did the opposite. After our second date, I didn’t hear from him all day. By evening, I started to doubt myself. Had I misinterpreted his interest? Maybe he was a player. All of a sudden he seemed more intriguing than all the other texting dudes. Oh, dear. Was I such a stereotype that a guy playing hard to get could actually make me want him more?
Enter uncertainty, that confusing, charged state that keeps us on our toes—which, it turns out, can be a pretty good start to a budding romance. It even has a supporting role to play in long-term relationships, and in life. So how can you use uncertainty (without abusing it)?
In his new book on the science of love, Modern Romance, comedian Aziz Ansari explores “the power of waiting,” that is, the advantage gained by taking 20 minutes to text back if a love interest takes 10. While this can become a Rules-esque manipulation, there’s value in understanding the psychological concept of “reward uncertainty,” which basically means that if we aren’t sure we’re getting a reward, we become that much more set on getting it. And if we get the reward all the time—paradoxically—it has less value to us. Consider a 2010 study in which women were told that men had viewed their Facebook profiles and rated them highly or average; a few were told the guys’ feelings were unknown. After checking out their pictures, women liked the guys who gave them high ratings more than so-so ones, but they were most attracted to the men whose feelings went unsaid.
This state of not knowing has power beyond first dates. Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, writes that “desire is about wanting.” To get there, we need to preserve a sense of mystery about ourselves— i.e., being less than an open book at times. In an age of fast communication, that can be more radical than it sounds.
Bring Uncertainty Back
As a relationship evolves, couples can feel they know too much about each other. That frisson of early uncertainty gives way to comfort, stability—and complacency. “We adapt to positive things in our lives pretty rapidly, but adaptation makes us less happy in the long run,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California in Riverside. You can stay one step ahead of this cycle by adding uncertainty—in the form of surprise—to the mix. One study found that couples felt closer after a seven-minute exciting activity (researchers used an obstacle course, but go ahead and substitute your own). The buzz you get from such experiences can be bonding, Lyubomirsky says, and help you see each other from a new angle.
There’s another kind of uncertainty that comes into play over time: coping with the ebb and flow of life with another person. You move to a new city, lose a parent, start a business. But even these times can be opportunities for closeness, according to studies by James M. Graham, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Western Washington University, so long as they don’t overwhelm a couple’s coping skills. “Success in the face of a challenge” intensifies happiness and connection, he says.
Because if one thing in life is certain, it’s that nothing is. And when we can embrace that, things get really good.