Relationship Satisfaction Depends on Self-Disclosure

One factor weighs heavily in relationship satisfaction.

Posted Sep 11, 2019

There's no magical or universal mix of ingredients required to create and sustain a successful romantic relationship. There are, however, a few key characteristics necessary to make a romantic union work. One in particular appears to be especially important: Self-disclosure. 

In the realm of psychology and relationships, self-disclosure is a concept of the Social Penetration Theory proposed by Altman and Taylor (1973). According to the theory, the gradual revealing of feelings and personal experiences, in conjunction with reciprocal sharing, brings a greater understanding of each other and an increased sense of trust. Put simply, self-disclosure is about the willingness to be open and share personal information, ranging from positive to negative thoughts, and details about one's life history. Two key words associated with self-disclosure are mutuality and reciprocity, which are cornerstones of emotional intimacy.

While conventional wisdom suggests that happy couples communicate well and openly share their thoughts and feelings, research also supports the association between self-disclosure and relationship satisfaction. With longitudinal data collected from both partners in young adult dating couples, Sprecher and Hendrick (2004) found that self-disclosure was positively associated with relationship quality (satisfaction, love, and commitment).

Why self-disclosure is so important in relationships

While men and women are often cautious in a new relationship to share too much personal information, two people who are dating are expected to take the risk of sharing personal information — including fears, anxieties and flaws — with the understanding that intimacy and trust cannot grow without such effort.

Self-disclosure, of course, doesn't exist in a vacuum. The willingness to self-disclose in relationships is intricately linked to vulnerability, or the willingness to be vulnerable with a partner. While adults have come to adopt a range of psychological defense mechanisms to protect their ego by the period of adulthood, relationship success relies on recognizing and containing those defense mechanisms. The guardedness one may employ at work, for example, may be appropriate to the professional demands of that context, but personal, and especially romantic, relationships require disabling those defense mechanisms in order to foster deep interpersonal trust and emotional commitment. Relationship success requires two people's willingness to expose their true self, flaws and all. While it may be maladaptive for one's boss to see certain personal vulnerabilities, it is adaptive, and even necessary, for one's partner to see such vulnerabilities.

What happens in a relationship if both members of a couple aren't willing to be vulnerable and self-disclose?

Relationships typically deteriorate or end if one or both partners resist or refuse to share some of their most personal thoughts and feelings. Men and women tend to feel emotionally shut out by a partner if that partner doesn't disclose how they really feel; share details about their daily personal experiences; communicate about fears or anxieties; or show reciprocal listening and reciprocal interest in asking about the other's daily life. 

The problem of not feeling needed

In my clinical work, I've seen how people need to feel needed in order to feel purposeful and satisfied; the popularity of self-help books on the subject confirm what I've encountered. The need to feel needed particularly applies to romantic relationships. Part of the problem with having a partner who doesn't self-disclose is that one often ends up feeling unneeded by the other person emotionally. Because the partner doesn't want to be vulnerable or express fragility or negative thoughts or feelings, there's not only not a lot to talk about; one isn't provided with enough personal data to use to emotionally support them or help them.

What dating couples should remember

Men and women who are dating should take time to reflect on the degree to which the new person they're seeing is willing to self-disclose. A person who is extremely guarded in dating may have similar difficulty self-disclosing further into the relationship, and the absence of self-disclosure may cause one, even years later, to feel lonely, isolated, or resentful. 

References

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(6), 857-877. http://dx.doi.org/10.1521/jscp.23.6.857.54803

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