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Reciprocation of attraction plays a key role in the development of romantic relationships. When people learn that a partner likes or dislikes them, they tend to reciprocate with equivalent liking or disliking. Often, however, people are uncertain about a partner’s romantic intentions, wondering whether this partner is really interested in them, and mixed feelings may arise instead. On the one hand, uncertainty may generate debilitating anxieties that motivate distancing from the potentially rejecting partner. On the other hand, the arousal generated by unpredictable partners may intensify emotional reactions to their demeanor, making them more pleasantly exciting.
Scholars, indeed, have long debated whether uncertainty about partners’ romantic interest increases or decreases their sexual desirability. A study1 published recently in Computers in Human Behavior sheds new light on this debate. Six studies examined whether relationship uncertainty affects potential and current partners’ sexual desirability, and whether expressions of partners’ interest influence these effects. In Studies 1-4, participants interacted online with potential partners (confederates) who were either clear or vague about their romantic intentions. Then, participants rated the extent to which they felt uncertain about the confederates’ romantic intentions, the confederates’ sexual desirability, and their interest in future interactions with them.
In Study 1, participants were led to believe that they would participate in an online chat with an opposite-sex participant who, like themselves, was single. In reality, they communicated with a confederate over Instant Messenger. At the end of the chat, participants were told that they were allowed to send one last message to their partner. Uncertainty was manipulated by telling participants that such a message was either or not waiting for them, thereby creating certainty or uncertainty about the partner’s intentions, respectively. Results showed that participants perceived potential partners as more sexually desirable and were more interested in future interactions with them in the certainty condition than in the uncertainty condition. Study 2 explored whether uncertainty would affect not only potential partners’ desirability but also the effort made to see them again. To do so, participants were allowed to leave a message for the confederate at the end of the chat. These written messages were coded for expressions of romantic interest and desire for future interactions. The findings indicated that uncertainty about the confederates’ romantic intentions was associated with decreased ratings of confederates’ desirability, which in turn, predicted less intense effort to see them in the future.
Study 3 explored whether prospective partners’ expressions of romantic interest would mitigate the adverse effects of uncertainty on their desirability. For this purpose, a second manipulation of confederates’ interest was added to the design of Study 1, such that participants interacted online with confederates who expressed either high or low interest in them and were either clear or vague about their behavioral intentions. In particular, participants were instructed to communicate with a confederate over Instant Messenger for a couple of minutes and thereby to get to know each other. The final sentence in this chat was written by the confederate and varied across the interest conditions (“I just got a knock on the door, so I’ll say bye and you were a nice distraction to a dull day” in the high interest condition and “I just got a knock on the door, so I’ll say bye” in the low interest condition). Then, participants were asked to choose one of the following three options, indicating their interest in interacting with the confederate in an additional task: “Yes”, “No”, or “No, because I have a class.” Participants typed their chosen response into the chat so that each participant could see what the other one chose.
Once the participants had typed their response into the chat, the confederates typed their response back via the chat. The confederates’ response varied across the uncertainty conditions: In the high certainty condition, the confederates replied with “Yes,” whereas in the low certainty condition, the confederates replied with “No, because I have a class.” The latter reply was chosen to induce uncertainty about the confederate’s romantic intentions because the confederate’s refusal could be attributed either to a lack of romantic interest in the participant or to having other obligations (i.e., attending class), leaving participants uncertain about the true nature of the refusal. Results revealed that expressions of potential partners’ romantic interest buffered against the detrimental effect of uncertainty on these partners’ desirability, such that uncertainty decreased partners’ desirability only when their expressed romantic interest in the participants was relatively low. Study 4 investigated whether decreased uncertainty was the mechanism that explained why prospective partners’ expressions of interest made them more sexually appealing, demonstrating that partners’ explicit expressions of romantic interest fostered certainty about their intentions, thereby enhancing their sexual appeal.
Studies 5 and 6 explored whether the adverse effects of uncertainty would generalize to everyday lives of long-term partners. To be sure, although feelings of uncertainty are particularly typical of the early phases of dating, when little is known about partners, uncertainty may remain salient in long-term relationships. For example, people may be unsure about their partner’s continued commitment or feel that their partner is insufficiently concerned with the relationship. Study 5 was a survey in which partnered participants 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 daily measures of perceived partner’s regard (i.e., partners’ positive feelings for oneself), felt relationship uncertainty, and sexual desire over a span of 42 consecutive days. The findings showed that partners’ regard predicted lower uncertainty, which, in turn, was associated with greater desire for sex with one’s partner.
Overall, these findings demonstrate 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.