Why Romantic Intimacy Requires Self-Disclosure
Exposing vulnerability is scary, but you've got to do it.
Posted Nov 15, 2020
What makes a couple close to each other? Is it having a date night enjoying a romantic dinner together at a dimly-lit French bistro? Is it snuggling up close together on the couch watching a favorite television program? Is it having a lot of great sex doing kinky stuff? All of those things may be expressions of romantic intimacy but are not necessarily the cause of it. Those are all things we might want to do with someone with whom we feel a deep intimate connection. When we don’t feel that deep intimate connection, we don’t want to have romantic dinners, snuggle on the couch, or have kinky sex. What is it that fosters a deep intimate connection?
Self-disclosure appears to be the key to emotional intimacy in a romantic relationship. Self-disclosure requires sharing your true self with your partner. It means confiding your secrets and vulnerabilities to your partner because you trust your partner to keep your secrets and be sensitive to your vulnerabilities. Emotional intimacy develops when your partner returns the favor. You confide in each other. Your partner becomes your best friend in the world when you share things with your partner that you’ve never shared with anyone else and they reciprocate in kind. That makes the relationship special and unique because no one knows you the way your partner does. They see and accept the real you and you love them for that. That’s why you want to have romantic dinners, cuddle on the couch, and have kinky sex with them.
Self-Disclosure and Secure Attachment
Secure attachment develops in infancy when your caretakers respond to your cries of distress and take actions to make you feel better. Insecure attachment develops when your parents are indifferent to your crying or even get angry at you and shame you for crying. Then you realize that it’s not safe to expose your vulnerabilities to your caretakers and you better keep your feelings to yourself. You are not going to feel securely attached if you can’t expose your true feelings and obtain a sensitive response. The trust just isn’t there.
It’s not any different in adult romantic relationships than it is in infancy. The whole point of emotional intimacy is to have someone with whom to share your true feelings and obtain a sensitive and comforting response. Without that, you can’t be your true self and you can’t feel securely attached to your partner. You don’t feel you can count on your partner to have your back when you are feeling most vulnerable. One motive for extra-marital affairs is to find that can kind of emotional intimacy. You look for a “work wife” or a “work husband” to confide in if your spouse isn’t there for you in that way. Emotional intimacy then leads organically to sexual intimacy and the next thing you know you are leaving your spouse for your affair partner.
Why People Avoid Self-Disclosure
You can see why people avoid self-disclosure. No one wants to open up to someone just to get an insensitive response. Why make yourself vulnerable to someone who just might shame you for exposing vulnerability? Shame me once, shame on you. Shame me twice shame on me. It’s one-trial learning. Once we get shamed for exposing vulnerability, we don’t want to be foolish enough to do it again. Exposing vulnerability for sharing our true feelings is what the marital researcher John Gottman calls a “bid for connection.” It’s a way of trying to connect in an intimate way. Gottman found that if a bid for connection is rebuffed it is rarely repeated. No one likes to be rejected so we withdraw our outreach efforts once they are rebuffed. Unfortunately, once couples stop sharing their vulnerabilities with each other, emotional intimacy dies and couples begin to grow apart. People either learn to live without emotional intimacy in their lives or they start to look elsewhere.
Taking Risks for Intimacy
Being authentic, being your true self, requires taking risks for intimacy. It’s always risky to voice your true feelings and expose your vulnerabilities at the risk of rejection. It’s not easy to transcend the tendency to keep your feelings to yourself once you’ve been shamed for showing them. Nevertheless, that’s what you must do if you hope to connect to a partner who has put up walls to emotional intimacy. You have to find a way to get through to them and the best way to do that is to lead by example. If you are persevering in showing how you really feel despite an indifferent or angry response, you just might get through. Unfortunately, some people are unreachable no matter what you do, but if you love someone it’s worth giving it your best shot to get through to them.
Sometimes people are touched to the core if you simply expose your vulnerabilities in a way that isn’t blaming or accusatory, that doesn’t make your partner responsible for your feelings. You own your own feelings as well as your right to express your feelings in the hopes that your partner might finally hear you. You show respect for your partner's feelings and viewpoint even if your partner isn’t that open about sharing it while bravely voicing your own true feelings even though it feels risky to do so. You hope you’ll finally get an empathetic response but even if you don’t, you’ll feel better about yourself just to have found the courage to be yourself in the face of rejection.
Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.C