In this article, I discuss how to cope with uncertainty about the future of your relationships.


Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

I once had a session with a couple in relationship counselling in which the focus was the negative impact of one partner’s individual issues on the relationship. The issue was one that the partner had been dealing with throughout her life. Not surprisingly, the issue had manifest itself in their relationship. In exploring ways to help the couple get their relationship back on track, we discussed steps that the partner could take to address her issue including meeting with a therapist in individual counselling.

Near the end of the session, the second partner asked me what assurance I could give him that his partner would not slip back into having difficulty as result of her individual issue. He expressed concern about committing to a relationship and a partner for which the possibility existed that the struggles they were facing as a result of her issue may reemerge.

The best way I found to respond to him was with the adage, “Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes.” To expand on the phrase, I told him that there would always be a possibility that despite his partner’s commitment to address her issue, the issue could again be a problem which may lead to relationship problems re-emerging.

My response pointed to a challenge faced by this partner and anyone else who is considering committing to a relationship. How can you cope with uncertainty about the future of your relationships? In the following sections, I will discuss this issue.

Facing the reality of uncertainty in a relationship

As my answer to the client I mentioned indicates, uncertainty comes with the territory when you become involved in a relationship. That is, even if you commit to a relationship which appears to be a sure thing in terms of long-term happiness and fulfilment, there are many unexpected events which can derail what once seemed to be a can’t miss proposition.

Having acknowledged the inherent uncertainty in a relationship, there are ways to decide whether to move forward in a relationship given this uncertainty. I will discuss these in the next section.

Drawing of man offering an umbrella in the rain to a sad person.

How to decide whether to move forward in a relationship despite the uncertainty

There are several strategies you can use to help you decide whether to move forward in a relationship despite the uncertainty. These include:

Move forward in a gradual manner

One way to proceed is to move forward in your relationship in a gradual manner. This applies particularly regarding how much you open up to your partner and display trust in him or her. If your partner proves trustworthy when you take these small steps, it bodes well for you to open up to and trust your partner to a greater extent. However, if your partner proves untrustworthy when you open up to them or trust them in small amounts, this suggests that it would be unwise to develop the relationship further.

Watch for red flags

This raises a second strategy to employ in deciding whether to move forward in a relationship—watch for the presence of red flags. These are signs of negative behaviours from your partner which would be difficult for you to accept if you were to continue in the relationship. Examples of red flags include behaviours suggestive of substance use issues, abusive tendencies and unfaithfulness.

If you spot red flags, it is best to heed them and consider—often in consultation with people you trust—whether you should cease developing the relationship. If no red flags are present, that bodes well for your continuing to develop the relationship.

Use the concept of perpetual problems

Although red flags may lead you to consider whether to continue developing a relationship, their presence does not necessarily mean that you need to abandon the relationship. To borrow a phrase, not all red flags are created equal. That is, it depends on what the red flag is and whether you view it as a ‘deal-breaker’.

This speaks to the notion of perpetual problems given to us by relationship expert Dr. John Gottman. Dr. Gottman’s research indicates that every relationship has some perpetual problems which are difficult to resolve because they stem from differences between the partners in their personalities and backgrounds.

One of the key factors in deciding whether to move forward in a relationship is whether the perpetual problems you have with your partner are those you can live with. This view considers that no matter who you are involved with, there will be some ‘red flags’ indicative of things you don’t like about your partner. However, if the good things about the relationship and your partner outweigh the negativity which you experience at times because of the perpetual problems, you may decide that it makes sense to develop the relationship with this person.

May you manage uncertainty as you develop your relationships,

-Dr. Pat