Relationship Turbulence: How to Handle Relationship Uncertainty

From fears of infidelity to feeling unsupported in a long-distance relationship, relationship turbulence can impact our mental and emotional health. But, sometimes it's a tall order to go seek couples therapy. What can you do?

In one of our prior articles, we talked about Maintaining Relationships During Covid-19 and explained the scientific reasons relationships are important for maintaining mental and physical health. So, how do we actually foster successful personal relationships? To answer this question, let’s take a look at the different variables that lead to a relationship's success or decline.

Mental health impact of relationship uncertainty

It’s no secret that the way you treat your partner is a predictor for the overall success of your future together. However, being treated poorly by your significant other can have negative effects beyond the frame of your relationship.  

How emotional support improves intimacy

Upon researching reportedly happy couples, Amy Rauer and Brenda Volling identified three different categories of relationships. These categories include couples that show

1. Mutual support, couples that show

2. Mutual engagement, and couples that show

3. One sided support, meaning one individual shows more support and engagement in the relationship than the other (specifically consisting of wives showing more support and engagement within this study).

Data from interviews and questionnaires completed by 57 married couples were compiled to reach the following conclusions: those reporting high levels of mutual support showed the least amount of conflict and highest ratings of intimacy. Conversely, emotional support and intimacy can also reduce stress and improve your mental health! This is mainly in contrast to the one sided group, in which couples exhibiting predominant effort from only one spouse rather than both showed lower self reports of marital functioning. Although levels of happiness were not measured directly within this study, low levels of marital satisfaction and marital functioning can potentially lead to future complications. 

LIFE Intelligence: Start with You

These studies indicate that support within a relationship is necessary for proper functioning and overall happiness between you and your significant other. Emotional abuse can lead to significant negative consequences on mental health, while providing support and care can promote well-being and nurture your relationship all at once. 

couples with high levels of mutual support showed the least amount of conflict and highest ratings of intimacy

1. Be Intentional in relationships

Intentionality within the scope of relationships refers to how one views their partner’s words, choices, and actions. Perception of intentionality has a significant impact on the condition of one’s relationship with their significant other, and misinterpretation can lead to a relationship’s decline. In their research article, Anita L. Vangelisti and Stacy L. Young highlight the importance of appraisal in regards to another's actions. Although hurtful actions are not always intended to inflict harm, the authors state that viewing an action as intentionally hurtful can lead to relational distancing and a heightened readiness to distance in order to avoid a repeat of events. Marriage satisfaction is often associated with appraisals of a partner’s actions as enhancing the relationship. Contrastingly, research suggests focusing on negative behaviors elicited by one’s partners leads to dissatisfaction within the relationship.

Moreover, the same authors conducted an experiment measuring the effects of intentionally hurtful versus unintentionally hurtful words on dependent variables such as relational distancing following the event and level of feelings evoked. They found that not only was relational distancing significantly increased by hurtful words, but physical distancing also arose following the act. Secondly, feelings of hurt were found to have a greater impact on the intentional group, however, the quality of the individual’s relationship with the person invoking emotional harm also factored into the finding. 

The implications of this study calls attention to the weight held by one’s words and by how one listens to their partner. Healthy relationships require our partners to treat us with respect; not seeing respect is a big relationship red flag. Respect can be shown both by providing emotional and physical support and by ensuring our words do not carry malicious intent. 

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2. Support and facilitate each others goals

The relational turbulence model exemplifies the effects of relational uncertainty and interdependence within a relationship. As summarized by Rachel M. Mclaren et al., this model states that relational uncertainty renders individuals highly vulnerable to fluctuations within the state of their relationship. The more uncertainty there is in a relationship, the more vulnerable a couple is to breaking up. Furthermore, the effects of interdependence are seen through two contrasting actions: interference and facilitation. This refers to how one’s partner responds to their daily and lifelong goals. If these goals are met with interference, the relationship becomes more prone to deterioration, similarly to relational uncertainty. However, facilitation of a partner’s goals is seen to have the opposite effect, reducing this high vulnerability. In sum, relational uncertainty and interference is presumed to lead to higher vulnerability to negative events within the relationship, and can be illustrated by the figure seen below.

The authors mentioned conducted a study utilizing the relational turbulence model to deduce the implications it may have following hurtful messages. They found that uncertainty and interference following hurtful messages positively correlated to perceived relational turbulence, while facilitation showed a negative correlation. These findings suggest that hurtful words, while experiencing uncertainty and interference, further the decline of a relationship. Contrastingly, facilitation within the relationship helps reduce relational turbulence altogether. 

3. When expressing anger, use low and controlled anger

Another study conducted by Rachel M. Mclaren and Keli Ryan Steuber investigated the impact of communicative responses and emotional expression on relationships following a breach of boundaries. To specify, the study focused on how responses to a significant other violating expected confidentiality affected relationship status. The results indicated that anger was inversely related to relationship improvement, with low and controlled anger leading to understanding. Additionally, open and direct communication was shown to promote growth and improvement as well. 

LIFE Intelligence: Self Development

The combined results of these two studies provide insight for the vital steps needed to improve your personal relationships. The findings convey that aiding in the pursuit of your partner’s goals, along with directly communicating in times of distrust are essential to improving relationship quality. Furthermore, avoiding uncontrolled anger and establishing certainty surrounding relationship status are necessary to avoid the plunge towards relational turbulence. 

Considering couples counseling?

We think everyone, even singles, should have an opportunity to go to couples counseling and gain invaluable resources to maintain healthy relationships. That's why at LIFE Intelligence, we've created an app that comprehensively covers your self, career, and relationship development. The program encompasses 9 missions (modules) from mental health, to love, to leadership. And, this all-in-one approach ensures that you're able to develop self love and self confidence alongside your relationship.

LIFE Intelligence can be especially effective as an app for long distance couples because uncertainty in long-distance relationships is especially high. It can be not only a couples counseling app, but also a self improvement app, addressing both how you can manage yourself, and how you communicate with others.

First, LIFE can help you handle anxiety as a DIY therapy app for COVID stress. Mission 1.2 teaches Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and guides us to challenge the ways we view an event, such as the intentionality behind our partner's words or actions, can change how we perceive the event altogether. LIFE Intelligence explains that by taking a step back and challenging our initial assumptions, we can retrain our thoughts and move towards a more rational understanding of the world around us. This can be used to improve communication between partners and increase overall understanding of situations initially viewed as hurtful. If you're looking for free CBT therapy online, LIFE's CBT tool is a free-forever download.

LIFE Intelligence: Manage Emotions

However, LIFE doesn't stop there. Once you have managed yourself, you're ready to explore and deepen your connections with others. Missions 7 and 8 directly discuss how to foster healthy relationships. Mission 7.4, discusses how to give emotional support to your partner, for instance with what are called “active constructive” replies to good news. Providing such support facilitates your partner’s goals, improving intimacy as mentioned above.

Developing a healthy, lasting relationship

Fostering a healthy relationship with your significant other is key in the maintenance of overall health. This can be prevented through mutual support and engagement, fostering a healthy relationship in the process. In addition, how we view the intentionality of our partners and how we intend our partners to perceive our actions is a crucial factor in increasing or decreasing relationship anxiety. Ultimately, relationship anxiety can be reduced through open and direct communication, with controlled emotional expression. These qualities can be learned, trained, and mastered through the numerous missions found on LIFE Intelligence, with the goal to help you live intelligently, as your primary tool to achieve personal growth, relationship growth, and overall success. 

Lucas Bezerra
December 10, 2020


Reed, G. L., & Enright, R. D. (2006). The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(5), 920–929.

Rauer, A., & Volling, B. (2013). More than One Way to be Happy: A Typology of Marital Happiness. Family Process, 52(3), 519–534.

Vangelisti, A. L., & Young, S. L. (2000). When Words Hurt: The Effects of Perceived Intentionality on Interpersonal Relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17(3), 393–424. doi:10.1177/0265407500173005 

McLaren, R. M., Haunani Solomon, D., & Priem, J. S. (2011). Explaining Variation in Contemporaneous Responses to Hurt in Premarital Romantic Relationships: A Relational Turbulence Model Perspective. Communication Research, 38(4), 543–564.

McLaren, R. M., & Steuber, K. R. (2013). Emotions, communicative responses, and relational consequences of boundary turbulence. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(5), 606–626.

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