Summary: Anna and Matt discuss the uncertainty stages in relationships, What are the possible causes and the best ways to move out of uncertainty if you are the one who is facing this critical period in the relationship. Also how to cope with the uncertainty if you are the one facing a partner who seems to be pulling away. They also cover some dos and don’ts for how you should react in these scenarios to ensure your partner is not pushed into a decision that could ultimately hurt or end the relationship unnecessarily.
Causes of Uncertainty
Conflicts: Any type of conflict can cause uncertainty, especially if it is one where one side or the other needs to evaluate certain values or practices they previously were used to and/or liked. During these times, the one pulling away is typically evaluating their ability to adapt to the needs of the other and if it is something they truly want to do. There may be other causes for conflict although this is the most common. Requesting a change in an individual’s behavior or previous rituals will often lead them to needing an evaluation of whether they want to pursue the relationship while working to change or adapt to something they previously had in their life.
Pressure to advance the relationship: In line with conflicts, a pressure to change the status of the relationship can cause uncertainty. While this is certainly more common with men as women seek to move the relationship status from one phase to the next, it is certainly not exclusive to them. While a change in relationship status brings many benefits, it also requires the partner to give up certain freedoms and they need to evaluate what is more important. It is important for those who chronically leave the relationship at this point to evaluate why they do so and determine what will happen if they continue this pattern. While there may be good reasons to have exited previous relationships at this point, one wants to make sure they are not doing it out of fear and really evaluate what would happen if this pattern continues going forward. A good starting point to determine the motivation at this point is to honestly evaluate if there is a truly good reason to end the relationship here or do they find themselves nitpicking rather trivial things or overreacting to minor flaws or quirks.
Lack of trust: When a partner does not feel they can trust the other, they will often pull away to seriously evaluate their feelings, why they feel the way they do (is it self-generated or is there a valid reason), and what they need in order to move beyond the lack of trust if that is an option.
Boredom: Lack of excitement and novelty. While a degree of familiarity is going to happen in any relationship over time, it is important for each partner to evaluate what they need to keep the relationship alive and exciting.
Feeling they can’t make the other person happy: If the other partner is not happy, they may feel a need to pull away and discover if they are in the right fit for a relationship. When coming out of this uncertainty point a communication of needs is critical here. If the other partner is happy they may need to figure out how to show it better with their partner. If they are not, they need to evaluate what the relationship needs and if it is something both can provide.
Different Values/Goals: This critical evaluation is often overlooked early on in dating but is absolutely critical to the success of a relationship. Having similar values is critical and making it clear that those values and expectations are reciprocated. This is a personal choice and each is allowed to have their own values but not to expect them of the other without communication. For example, if religion is important, it is critical that this be stated early on and to what degree (does he need to be already religious? Is him opening to the idea and embracing that aspect of your life enough? Does it really matter so long as he lets you practice your own beliefs?). Even some that you may feel are fairly obvious may not be, for example, what constitutes “cheating” in your mind. You may find people have very different ideas of where they feel the boundary is crossed. Some may even have different ideas of what “commitment” means. None of these are wrong, it is just wrong to not be honest with your partner.
While goals don’t always need to be perfectly aligned, some are just not compatible at all. For example, if your goal is to have a huge family with 5 kids and your partner wants to remain without kids and living in the big city, there are definitely misalignments that need to be dealt with. The problem with these goals is their importance may not come out until the relationship has been going on for quite a while. Sometimes these misalignments don’t even become clear until after marriage.
Different values and goals can often be compromised and this is a good and healthy practice, not addressing them and hoping it all just works out will only lead to problems down the road for most relationships.
Signs of Uncertainty in your partner
Pulling away: Creating a mental distancing from you and seeking less time with you.
Sudden Drama: As in drama that seems very out of the blue and factors are causing barriers in the relationship that had seemingly no effect previously. What these type of things do legitimately happen, what you want to pay attention to is their effort and willingness to find solutions to work around the issues. Are they giving you the details or just enough to get you to stop asking questions?
New Patterns with no communication: For example, do they randomly go from texting you constantly throughout the day to barely texting at all. Remember you are looking for pattern changes and not just single instances. For example, not texting one day may mean they were just busy or in a mental place where it was not a priority that day. If the pattern changes overall though in a direction that seems to be pulling away as opposed to bringing together with little communication as to the cause.
Vague Busyness: When your partner becomes too busy to talk or see you. As above with new patterns, busyness does happen but it is their willingness to communicate the reasons why and to work around the issues that may be a big indicator as to whether it is legitimate business or uncertainty.
Dos and Don’ts of How to React When Your Partner is Facing Uncertainty About the Relationship
DON’T Getting extra clingy/needy: A lot resort to this type of behavior in panic and out of fear of losing their partner during this phase. Unfortunately, it will often only drive the partner who is distancing him/herself further away.
DO Give them time and space to figure things out: This does not mean you cannot have your boundaries or limits on how much you are willing to wait around. The important thing is to come from a higher place of wanting what is best, even if it means losing them. Give them the space they need but don’t neglect your own healthy boundaries as well. Understand, from a calm place, what you are ok with tolerating. Express these boundaries.
DON’T Get angry: Getting angry may either drive them away or bring them back into the relationship before they are ready. It is just kicking the can down the road and will only intensify the strong emotions.
DO Be realistic about what you can/can’t handle: If their reactions are making you feel like you are forced to endure something you can’t, you do not need to tolerate it. As stated above, giving understanding and allowing others to disrespect your boundaries are two different things. Instead you can take the approach of “I understand that right now you need <blank> and I want you to find your answers, but understand that I will not (stay committed with zero contact/stay in a relationship where you are seeing other people/meet up just for sex/etc…) and if that is what you need, I think it is better that we move on.”
DON’T Use “emotional blackmail” to get them to come back: Making them feel bad for the negative feelings you are having in response, excessive emotionality on display for them, constant reminding them how much they are hurting you by not breaking out of uncertainty, making the possible pain they are feeling all about how it is affecting you, are all examples of what I call emotional blackmail. They are using your extreme emotions to show that their emotions are not as important because if what you are going through. Some might just end the relationship in response to this but others may feel pressured to come back to you before they are ready, which can lead to an undertone of resentment and like what they are trying to deal with is not as important. The negative effects of this may not be apparent at first but will manifest themselves in much worse way later on in the relationship. At the very best, you are just kicking the can down the road until they need to pull away again to address the issues they didn’t have the chance to before.
DO Let them know that it is OK for them to do what they need to: So long as it doesn’t ignore your personal boundaries. This is not only good for your own emotional health, but shows you are someone who cares for them and has enough value and confidence to let them make a choice that they need to make instead of one that is only about you.
DON’T Immediately break up and seek someone new: Remember this is a common occurrence in relationships and not matter how wonderful you are, they may need to adapt and process the relationship at some point. Unless it is clearly a “break” don’t assume they are ok with you seeing other people. Furthermore, fear of losing you to another may be a form of emotional blackmail and force them to dive back in to the relationship before they fully processed everything. Finally, it looks as if you don’t care enough to give them a little time and they will remember you seeing other people which is planting the scenes of toxicity in the relationship moving forward.
DO Spend time with friends and doing what you love: Friends can give you a safe-haven to talk about your frustrations and worries or provide you with activities and company that helps get your mind off your worry. This will also remind you that you have a complete life and not having them does very little to define you or your life’s completeness when not in a relationship.
DON’T Obsess over what you did wrong or need to change: These type of evaluations may be good, especially if you find yourself in a pattern where partners are always pulling away at a certain point, but right in this moment is not the best time. Remember, often you did nothing wrong or it is just a core incompatibility that makes a partner ultimately decide to leave. It doesn’t mean you were wrong it just means they were not the right one for you.
DO Focus on the things you can control: Focus on the tings around the relationship and yourself that you do have control over. You cannot control how they are reacting but you can control how you react and handle things going forward.
DON’T Let the stress bring you to extreme reactions like over-pursuing or shutting down: Over pursuing is another form of neediness and you are trying to close the space they are creating which can make them feel suffocated. Shutting down may show them that you are not someone who can handle their tougher periods and may even push them into a confirmation that you are not good together. Remember to come from a place of calm and understanding with boundaries.
DO use any of the above methods: such as going out and focusing on what you can control instead of things that are out of your control. We also recommend joining out friend Stephen Endres’s group “The Destress Dojo” on Facebook for inspiring messages and methods for coping with stress and anxiety.
DO Take the “Uncertainty Escape Plan” at the bottom of this page
What to do when you are the one who is Uncertain
Be honest: Don’t leave your partner in the dark about what is going on. Even if you are not completely sure what it is that is causing your uncertainty, communicating as much to them will at least let them know that you are not needlessly shutting them out and will help alleviate some of their potential panic. Especially if he cause of your uncertainty is not necessarily related to the relationship, just having an effect on it.
Take time to think it through: Don’t hope the uncertain feeling will just go away. Even if it does it is bound to resurface again down the road if not properly addressed. This is time for self-reflection and to really evaluate how you feel about things.
Figure out what is right for you, not what other people tell you is right for you: While listening to advice of others is good to open your mind to new perspectives, no one knows what you really need better than you. People may also pressure you into decisions for their own personal reasons. They may push you into commitment because it is something they are struggling with themselves. While you may need to do some deep personal exploration, only you can find the real truth of what you need. Maybe consider getting a coach to help you find the path to the answer you need. Remember you can always reach out to us for a free coaching session as well at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ask yourself if you are just afraid of failure and what you can do to overcome that fear: This issue is most common for those who have come out of a previous long-term relationship. Fearing that another long-term relationship will just result in another failure. First of all, you need to redefine “failure” in a relationship. We recommend listening to “Episode 4 – Intentional Dating and Creating Your Mold” for a bit more on this. But you also need to learn if this is an area that needs work so that you can confidently go forth and not self-sabotage potentially great relationships.
Think about your future and are you able to see it with that current partner: Getting clear on this will help you determine if that uncertainty is due to something deeper telling you this person is not right for you, or something else.
Take the Uncertainty Escape Plan: It is found at the bottom of this page.
Things that are not signs of pulling away
A one-time change in texting rituals: For example, he used to text you every morning and he all of a sudden stopped. For one, you should never react strongly over a standalone incident. Also understand that while this may have become ritual for you, your partner may not have even been aware it was. This would be a great time to mention how you really liked something and noticed it when it didn’t happen from a loving a non-emotionally reactive place. Also don’t underestimate the power of humor to show confidence and a non-attacking demeanor when conveying the message. Going with the example, imagine the guy was texting the girl every morning then one morning he missed it.
How not to do it:
Her: Apparently I was not important enough to text good morning.
Him: Relax, I was just in a rush this morning and it slipped my mind.
Her: I feel like I am not really that important to you. I understand you were busy but you could have texted even a little late.
Him: Wow. I am feeling a little suffocated here. This seriously has me worried that a simple text can trigger you so badly….
How you should do it:
Her: Already forgot about me huh? 😉 Honestly though, just want to make sure you are ok because I didn’t hear from you.
Him: I am fine. Sorry, I was just really rushing all morning and didn’t think to text.
Her: No problem babe. I am just glad you are OK. I really do look forward to your texts every morning though. It lets me know you are OK and it add gives me those good feelings too.
Him: OK, I didn’t even realize we did it every morning but will make sure to do so now.
Not texting back right away when they previously did: While this could also be an unawareness of texting rituals, they may also have multiple factors in their life. If everything else is the same but they just don’t respond as quickly don’t jump to conclusions and begin reacting. Sometimes, they even tend to be bad texters in general but were responding very quickly when the relationship was new. If there are other pulling away behaviors in combination with this though, then this is a sign of uncertainty. We just don’t want you to overreact over one change in behavior. You could always clarify with them from a healthy place.
Wanting Time Alone: People have different needs for alone time. Needing alone time is not a sign of uncertainty but just one of them needing time to be alone and handle things in their life without the pressures of the relationship. Even great relationships take work and a sacrifice of time from which we need a break once in a while. While most understand this, they may not understand the amount of time in solitude may vary from person to person. Especially one who is, at their core, an introvert. They may have a much higher need for alone time then that their partner.
The Uncertainty Escape Plan
Ask yourself the following questions. We recommend you write your answers out on paper and then reread it to yourself when complete.
Are their relationship goals in line with mine?
Do they have the same values as me?
Can I trust their integrity, will they be there when needed?
Are they emotionally available/ present?
Are exes still in the picture and in what capacity, is it something you can live with?
Do they respect the speed I am willing to go in the relationship?
Are we compatible?