Ever gone out with someone without knowing whether to consider it a date? A recent article in USA Today explores how common that situation is: many people are confused these days about when and if they are on a date, rather than just hanging out. 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.
While the USA Today piece is focused on the earlier stages of relationships, I think ambiguity has become rampant over the past couple decades during all stages of romantic involvement except when there is a strong, clear commitment such as marriage. Ambiguity reigns.
I believe this ambiguity is motivated. Ambiguity has a deep anchor in the desires and fears of individuals living in our modern age. Why would it be desired even when it can be so frustrating?
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, and that being vague can prevent painful loss.
Ambiguity seems to offer 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.
Ambiguity has a deep anchor in the desires and fears of individuals living in our modern age.
Don’t get me wrong. People still want security in love, at least eventually. Adults benefit from security in love, and children thrive when they feel 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 as I’ve written before, I believe that there is more attachment insecurity than there used to be due to an increase in family instability.
Along with colleagues, I have written about the robust scholarly literature showing the many ways in which childhood attachment insecurities last into adulthood and impair romantic relationship development and security. There are two dominant forms of attachment problems in romantic relationships: anxious attachment styles and avoidant attachment styles.
Those with insecure-avoidant characteristics may prefer ambiguity in romantic relationships in the belief that an ambiguous relationship will hurt less when it ends. In another paper coauthored with colleagues, I argued that such people want to limit closeness and obligation, so they resist increasing the level of commitment in the relationship. They especially may limit the degree of clarity about commitment because that can heighten their insecurity, which is based in deep-seated uncertainty about stability in relationships.
Those with insecure-anxious attachment styles, on the other hand, may not prefer ambiguity, but realize that pushing for clarity might threaten the level of stability they do have. Therefore, they accept ambiguity when what they want most is to lock down clarity—if what is clear is that the relationship exists and will continue. If the two types of insecure attachment styles meet in one relationship, the commitments that would provide security to the anxious partner would be difficult for the avoidant partner. And ambiguity, while comforting to the avoidant partner, is worse for the anxious one. Long-term, ambiguity is likely not great for the avoidant person, either, but it feels more tolerable to someone who has learned it’s hard to depend on another person to remain in your life.
Communication is the antidote to ambiguity.
While these thoughts are focused on dynamics later in relationships, apply these theories to the dating stage and you’ll see the same 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. Over time, 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 will be permanent ambiguity anchored in the unwillingness or inability of the other partner to commit. A lack of clarity late in the relationship starts with a lack of clarity early on.
If you are looking for love you have not yet found, and you’re sick of ambiguity, I have some simple advice. Communicate. Of course, that does not mean asking a new person if he or she will spend their life with you within a week or two of meeting. But communication is the antidote to ambiguity, and ambiguity has serious emotional risks for all its appearance of emotional safety. If you chase someone off by asking for a little clarity, the odds of that relationship having a happy and healthy future probably were not so great from the start.