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The Uncertainty Principle in Relationship Dynamics

There’s a way to use it for better connection.

Key points

  • Applying the uncertainty principle to relationships reveals that focusing on a partner's behavior obscures objective evaluation of our own.
  • Theory of mind enables us to predict the behavior of others but is is compromised when we are emotionally aroused.
  • Partners should aspire to binocular vision, especially in a conflict, so they can perceive both their own and their partner's perspectives.

The dynamics of an interaction are the movements or exchanges between the parties – what both parties do, say, think, and feel. Relationship dynamics are repeated patterns of interactions.

The uncertainty principle of physics states that we cannot accurately measure position and momentum at the same time. If we focus on momentum, we can’t accurately tell where the particle is. If we focus on position – take a snapshot of it – we can’t accurately tell speed and direction of movement.

Applied to relationships, a derivative of the uncertainty principle reveals that focusing on our partners’ behavior obscures objective evaluation of our own. We can’t discern how we’re coming off in an interaction, or in the relationship pattern. When we focus on what we think and how we feel, we can’t discern the dynamic — and our partners seem to be acting irrationally, out of context. That's why you're likely to remember the worst thing your partner said in an argument but not what you said immediately before it.

Similarly, if we focus on the dynamic (for example, pursuing/distancing, demand/withdraw, persecutor/victim), we'll likely misjudge and oversimplify the mental states of both partners.

Emotions Exacerbate Uncertainty

A vital function of the prefrontal cortex is theory of mind – the ability to attribute mental states to ourselves and others. Theory of mind allows us to predict the behavior of others. Unpredictable behavior is anxiety-provoking; we’d be nervous wrecks without theory of mind.

The accuracy of our attributions diminishes when emotionally aroused. The function of negative emotions is to amplify and magnify the possibility of negative experience. They’re better-safe-than-sorry, prone to overestimate the negative.

When we feel negativity, we’re likely to assume the worst about our partners’ intentions. Assuming the worst insults and devalues them, causing more negative interactions.

When we can’t see our partners apart from our feelings about them, the brain guesses at explanations of their behavior. That guess is always based on how we feel at the moment. When we feel good, our guesses are benign. When we feel bad, the guesses are negative.

As if that were not misleading enough, negative emotions are self-validating: If I’m angry, you must be doing something wrong; if I’m afraid, you must be threatening; if I’m ashamed, you must be judging or rejecting.

It’s important to note that it’s not character or personality that creates these blind spots in emotional interactions. The uncertainty principle is independent of personality.

“The Observer Effect" of Emotions

The observer effect in physics refers to the influence of measurement on that which is measured: The act of measurement changes what we’re attempting to measure. Similarly, when we focus on emotions and try to express them, we amplify and magnify them.

Say that I feel uncomfortable, due to my perception of something you did. If I focus on the discomfort, it becomes greater. If I communicate it to you, it becomes greater still, as I have to justify the communication by explaining my discomfort. If I blame it on you, it becomes even greater, as I need adrenaline to justify the blame.

Don’t Confuse Amplification and Magnification with Certainty

Certainty is an emotional state, not an intellectual condition. To feel certain, the brain must limit the information it processes. The more certain we feel, the more information is eliminated, which increases the likelihood of being wrong.

The Signal Is Not Reality

Feelings are important signals about possible reality; they’re not reality themselves. The fact that I feel a certain way about you doesn’t mean you are what I feel. Rather, negative feelings are like smoke alarms, calibrated to give false positives. Most activations of smoke alarms are caused by cooking in the house. When the smoke alarm sounds, we don't scream, "We're all gonna die!" We've learned to check if there is a fire and if there is, act to put it out or escape.

In a close relationship, it’s important to check out our feelings — “I feel isolated, can we get a little closer? ” — without accusing, based on our feelings — “You’re cold and rejecting.”

A behavioral principle relevant to relationship dynamics holds that behavior follows focus – we’re likely to get more of what we focus on. It’s vital that we focus on what we want (in the above example, closeness), not on what we don’t want (rejection). Accusations, criticism, and complaints rarely bring people closer. Compassion, kindness, appreciation, and protection (creating safety) bring people closer.

Binocular Vision

Binocular vision is the ability of partners in love relationships to hold each other’s perspective alongside their own, to see themselves through each other’s eyes and perceive how their partners perceive them.

Instead of judging your partner, strive to understand his/her reactions to you.

  • Judgmental: Because my partner reacted negatively when I expressed my feelings, they are cold and rejecting.
  • Binocular: My partner reacted negatively when I expressed my feelings; I probably seemed to be accusing. I’ll apologize and soften my demeanor.

We don’t want our partners to feel accused. We want them to care about how we feel — which they will do only if we care about how they feel.

Our feelings about an interaction or the relationship as a whole are valid, but necessarily incomplete. They're never objective. The reality of interactions and the relationship as a whole is both perspectives together.

Coping with Uncertainty

There are self-defeating ways to cope with uncertainty: We may try to conceal it with dogma, superstition, delusions, drugs, ego, attempts to control other people, perfectionism, and/or anger.

The self-enhancing way is to accept uncertainty about your partner and the dynamics in which you both participate. Embrace uncertainty, and use it as motivation to learn about yourself, your partner, and your interactions, with the goal of growing closer.

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