What’s your typical reaction when faced with uncertainty? Can you tolerate not knowing your partner/spouse fully? Is there room in your relationship for the unpredictable or the uncanny to emerge?
Uncertainty feels risky, and in fact, it can be.
Throughout the centuries, certainty, in the form of predicting our environment and the behaviors of others, has gone a long way to ensure our survival. Psychologically, the experience of certainty comforts, offering us opportunities for inner stillness rather than the unsettledness and distress that often accompany not knowing. In our everyday language the desire for certainty and control are apparent: “I’m lucky, my job is stable”; “My marriage is secure…we’re totally committed to making it last”; “I totally trust her”; “I know him better then he knows himself…he couldn’t pull one over on me even if he tried”; “We’re in charge of our own destiny.”
However, clutching the reins of certainty has a downside. Frequently, this approach to life (and to your relationship) may have more to do with attempts to alleviate anxiety (by denying the unknown) rather than acknowledging the infinite variance that is inherent to our existence. Viewing the world—and your relationship–through the lens of certainty can act as a psychological smokescreen, giving one the illusion of clarity even when faced with inevitable unpredictability.
Knowledge, Certainty and Relationship Security
Certainty and knowledge are closely linked. The more knowledge you have about your spouse/partner—an understanding of his/her core values, a grasp of who s/he is and why s/he acts and reacts in particular ways—the more certain and secure you are going to feel in your relationship. Relationship security is built on knowing the other and feeling deeply known by him/her. Security arises out of a sense of certainty that the other person will be there when you need them; the certainty-expectation that your partner will listen, care and see you fully.
The more secure you feel with your partner, the less you’ll feel the need to cling to certainty’s promise—the promise of unwavering love and caring and availability and the assurance that our partner’s interests won’t negate our own. Once a sense of security envelops the relationship, it should allow for greater freedom, offering couples the space needed to grow as individuals, the freedom required to pursue individual interests and desires, as well as affording opportunities to connect and impact one another in order to evolve as a couple. In a sense, security removes the need for “clinging,” as it allows you to psychologically release the other from the demands and oppressiveness of certainty.
Security should allow for the potential of uncertainty, for not knowing aspects of one another, for surprise, for the unexpected, and for some modicum of mystery. A felt sense of security should foster an openness to the differences that exist between us and our partner (differences that may, at times, stir the waters of confusion and uncertainty in us).
Clinging to the Experience of Certainty: Relationship Securities Downfall
Relationship security will remain fragile for those of us who rigidly cling to certainty. For some of us the need for certainty arises out of our inability to tolerate ambiguity, the unknown and contradiction—when this is the case, certainty narrows our vision, blinding us to the richness and complexities of others. Prioritizing our own emotional comfort over all else, we often (unconsciously) create a one-dimensional version of our partner/spouse, a version that feels manageable, a version that makes us feel more in control, one arising out of the illusion of certainty, even when doing so siphons the life and vitality out of our relationship.
Demands for certainty place a burden on the other. When our experience of security rests solely on certainty, in reality we are asking the other to hand over ironclad guarantees they can never make (how many divorced couples at some point in their relationship or marriage made claims to unwavering, forever love and commitment?). Guarantees of perpetual love, fidelity, commitment, attentiveness, transparency, responsiveness, communicativeness, aliveness, stability and the like–guarantees that extend from the criterion of certainty–clash with the reality of life’s ever-changing nature. Yet couples make these types of guarantees all the time and often with little thought to what is actually being offered or promised.
To be totally certain of another, to believe that you know all there is to know about your spouse/partner, is illusory because we can never truly know the mind of another person. You can never gain access to your partner’s complete and truest motivations or the “whys” of his/her actions (why s/he does certain things and not others), or how s/he will react in every possible circumstance.
Why is this the case?
Because s/he doesn’t even know. While there are aspects of our personality that are predictable, that seek sameness and familiar patterns (the parts of us that seek to rest comfortably on the known), the self is also expansive (when we don’t stand in our own way)–the unfurling-self wants to reach beyond the known, to go beyond its current resting place. Too often the relationship dynamics established by a couple block this process by walling off and denying the unknown.
Couples frequently give lip service to the importance of acceptance—acceptance as a pathway to liberation and contentment.
However, the benefits of acceptance cannot be realized when the demands of our relationship center around keeping ourselves knowable to each other in narrowed ways. To do so is to oppress the seeker within us. To seek is to discover the gifts of the unknown. To remain open to potentials is to embrace that which has not yet been currently realized—in short, you must allow for uncertainty for growth to occur (self- and relationship-growth).
No matter how comfortable we might be with our partner, and no matter how well we think we might know them, the truth is that omniscience is an illusion, one that often serves defensive purposes. The unsettling reality that we can’t truly know another is often denied because the anxiety of not knowing the person we are closest to is completely overwhelming when we look at it directly. In believing that we know the other fully and completely (and without exception), we end up navigating a relationship that must be controlled and firmly confined within the limits of certainty.
- Do you allow for uncertainty at times in your relationship?
- Do you place restrictions on yourself and your partner in order to reduce the anxiety associated with uncertainty, with the reality of not knowing everything there is to know about the person you are closest to?