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Monday, January 27, 2014

Motivated Ambiguity: "Is this a date or not?"

Motivated Ambiguity

There is a recent article in USA Today about ambiguity in dating relationships, entitled, “Is it a date? Or hanging out?” The article is about the ways in which people are confused these days about when and if they are on a date, compared to just hanging out or just being together. While the piece is focused on what I’d consider the earlier stages of relationships, I think ambiguity has become rampant throughout all stages of romantic involvement except when there is a strong, clear commitment such as in marriage. Ambiguity reigns.

I think ambiguity in dating has grown tremendously in the past couple of decades and I think this ambiguity is motivated. Ambiguity has a deep anchor in the desires and fears of individuals living in our modern age. Why would ambiguity be desired even when it can be so frustrating? Glad you asked.  

Ambiguity has grown because it is perceived to be safer than clarity in a world where lasting love is considered risky, unlikely, and unobtainable. People see little stability in love and commitment, whether in their parents or in others. This adds to the sense that love is risky. That leads to a sense that being vague can prevent painful loss.

One driver of ambiguity is that it offers emotional safety—perceived, not real, that is. If you are clearer to yourself and to others about what you really want most, it can hurt more when you do not get what you long for. People become more attached and committed to longings that have been acknowledged and expressed.

Don’t get me wrong. People want security in love, at least eventually. Adults benefit from security in love and children thrive when secure in the love of their parents. This brings me to what I think is the second driver of the growth in ambiguity: attachment insecurity. I cannot prove this but I believe that there is more attachment insecurity than there used to be because there is an increase in family instability. I’ve written about this trend and its consequences before, so I will just give you a link to where you can read my latest piece on how family instability contributes to an ever greater number of people with attachment issues (click here). 

My colleagues and I have written on ambiguity and attachment.  Here’s a section from a chapter by me, Galena Rhoades, and Frank Fincham (2011):

There is a robust literature demonstrating the myriad of ways in which such attachment insecurities last into adulthood and impair romantic relationship development and security (e.g., Hazan & Shaver, 1987; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007). In just one potential mechanism of effect, the development of insecure-avoidant characteristics seems increasingly likely for those growing up in the U.S. This possibility alone could propel an increase in preference for ambiguity in the romantic relationships of emerging adults. If it is not totally clear when a relationship begins or how serious it really is, it may be believed that it will hurt less when it ends. Hence, those with high levels of attachment insecurity based in family history may feel comforted by ambiguity when the alternative is clarity that heightens a sense of insecurity about stability.

There are two dominant forms of attachment problems in romantic relationships: anxious attachment styles and avoidant attachment styles. Consider the allure of the ambiguous dating scene for these styles of romantic being.

Again, from Stanley, Rhoades, and Fincham: 

Of course, such ambiguity may not be comforting or preferred among those who are anxious in their attachment style, but they may well learn not to rock the boat and push too hard for clarity when doing so threatens what stability of relationship they currently enjoy.

In other words, those who are anxious about attachment may be motivated to accept ambiguity. Some ambiguity is appropriate, initially, when two people are just getting to know each other. But ambiguity about whether there is even something like a date happening probably takes this too far.

Just as there is something in ambiguity for the anxiously attached, there is something for the avoidant types among us. In another paper, Galena Rhoades, Sarah Whitton and I wrote about ambiguity and the development of commitment (2010):

In contrast to anxiously attached individuals, those who have avoidant attachment styles will resist increasing the level of commitment because of their desire to limit closeness and obligation. Their individual needs for avoidance will inhibit felt anxiety about romantic attachment and the development of commitment on the dyadic level. When these two different, insecure attachment styles are combined in one relationship, it is easy to see how the dyadic commitment processes that may provide security for one of the partners could increase anxiety for the other.

While these thoughts are focused on dynamics later in relationships, just wind this same thinking back to the dating or hanging out stage and you see the type of forces underlying the phenomena the USA Today piece is focused on.

We live in a world of anxious love, longing, and avoidance. Early on in relationships, this may be merely annoying. Overtime, I believe it becomes positively dangerous. One of the greatest risks in romance is when one person invests significant emotional energy in another only to find that there is permanent ambiguity anchored in the unwillingness or inability of the other to commit. Unclarity late in the process starts with unclarity early on.

If you are looking for love you have not yet found, and you want off the ambiguous path, I have some simple advice. Communicate.  I don’t mean asking if this new person will spend their life with you within a week or two of meeting. But communication is a serious antidote to ambiguity and ambiguity has serious emotional risks for all the appearance of emotional safety. If you chase someone off by asking for a little clarity, I’d be inclined to think the odds of that relationship having a happy and healthy future were not so great from the start.    


Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Fincham, F. D. (2011). Understanding romantic relationships among emerging adults: The significant roles of cohabitation and ambiguity. In F. D. Fincham & M. Cui (Eds.), Romantic relationships in emerging adulthood (pp. 234-251). New York: Cambridge University Press.