A few weeks ago, my roommate and I asked each other a set of questions. It began simple enough, with 36 inquiries concerning our heritage, families, and values. A few more questions in, and we began disclosing our greatest fears, what we like and don't like about ourselves, and what our relationship is like with our mothers (very secure, in case you were wondering). I have known said friend for quite some time, and I was certain I would know her answers before she spoke them. However, throughout this exercise, meaningful revelations were disclosed. This experience compelled me to start thinking critically about how revealing confidential information to another, or the process of self-disclosure, impacts relationships.

Self-disclosure starts like a funnel, beginning with more superficial questions and gradually narrowing into more personal topics. This style of communication is characterized by the social penetration theory, which holds that strangers begin discussing more superficial, impersonal topics, such as "Where are you from?" If this type of small talk is satisfying, two acquaintances will gradually reveal more personal information. Conversation begins to increase in breadth (a wide array of topics are discussed) and depth (personal significance attached to topics). Self-disclosure begets familiarity and liking. When we divulge intimate information to another, we are more inclined to like this person. Although you might be thinking that we are likely to reveal personal information to those we like or attracted to, in fact, this can work the opposite way. We like others more because we have self-disclosed to them.

More so than straightforward factual disclosure ("I was born in Pennsylvania"), individuals find emotional disclosures more satisfying--those that reveal one's private thoughts, opinions, and judgments (insert deepest darkest secret here). Emotional disclosures reveal innermost feelings and emotions and thus lie most closely at the core of our self-definition. Couples who disclose more emotional information maintain higher levels of intimacy. Such disclosure paves the way for the listener to respond in ways that support and confirm core aspects of the individual who is self-disclosing. For example, if I reveal that I cry every time I watch a trailer for the "The Help," (this is hypothetical, people!) and someone responds with validation and respect, I immediately feel closer to this person.

Given the benefit of healthy self-disclosure, I was surprised to find an article from a popular magazine, which suggested that women should not engage in self-disclosure to men. The spurious reasoning behind this was that by keeping their partners out of the loop and revealing less, their partners would want to know more. This column also stated that men do not have the capacity to endure detailed accounts of women's lives and that this is why men do not ask. Not only is this an insult to both genders, but this reasoning is also tenuous since researchers argue that men and women are equal in the amount of information they are capable of self-disclosing and receiving. Men often do self-disclose to females and research supports the notion that the more romantic couples self-disclose, the happier they tend to be. In fact, it is during the dissolution of a relationship that couples stop self-disclosing and revert back up the funnel to superficial small talk. So, if you go out to dine with your partner and all you can talk about is whether you should order the shrimp for lunch, though you may be ordering fish for dinner, you may have cause for concern. (Yes I did overhear this at a restaurant today. No I was not eavesdropping. The tables were close together I tell you!)

Perhaps a more appropriate route for this magazine would have been to suggest that partners should match each other's degree of openness. For instance, if two people are talking, they should engage in reciprocal self-disclosure. One should not reveal too much too soon if the person is revealing nothing in return. This violates the listener's expectations and might scare them off. Instead, individuals should be patient and gradually engage in self-disclosure, matching each other's level of personal revelations. If your blind date says they like vanilla ice-cream as opposed to chocolate, and you match this revelation with "I think I may be in love with you," then you may have cause for concern.

Ultimately, self-disclosing to another person feels good and engenders trust between two people. Those who self-disclose are generally more liked by others than those who do not reveal anything at all about themselves. Research has shown in laboratory experiments with undergraduate students, that strangers who engaged in reciprocal self-disclosure reported more positive evaluations of their partner, than two people who did not divulge as much. Go ahead and try this exercise. Next time you are at work, at happy hour, or in class try engaging in discussion with someone for at least an hour and gradually progress from more superficial small talk to revealing personal and meaningful information. If there is mutual disclosure and you share secrets, laugh, and exchange numbers, you may not have cause for concern. Oh and in that event, my favorite flowers are peonies.

Altman, I., & Taylor, D. A. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal         relationships. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.               

Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental 
generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality  and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23 363-377.

Laurenceau, J., Barrett, L. F., & Pietromonaco, P. R. 1998). Intimacy as an interpersonal process:  The importance of self-disclosure, and perceived partner responsiveness in interpersonal    exchanges. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(5), 1238-1251.

Miller, R. S. & Perlman, D. (2009). Intimate Relationships. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Sprecher, S. & Hendrick, S. S. (2004). Self-disclosure in intimate relationships: Associations with individual and relationship characteristics over time. Journal of Social and Clinical
Psychology, 23, 857-877.

About the Author

Kristine Keller, M.A.

Kristine Keller, M.A., graduated from New York University with a Masters in Psychology. 

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