It almost goes without saying that having a romantic partner with whom you can share anything is crucial to your relationship’s success. According to the standard for openness, partners who are truly close are able to reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to each other. You may not share every trivial detail of your life with each other, but you certainly want to feel like you could. More importantly, you expect your partner to feel precisely the same way. Keeping things from each other doesn’t fit the romantic ideal of true intimacy.
However, people still hide things from each other even in the best relationships. You may not feel particularly comfortable telling your partner that you get a little turned on when your neighbor goes out for a morning run wearing only the skimpiest shorts. Perhaps you think it’s better to leave out the part where you bumped into that neighbor on the street and engaged in a little light-hearted banter.
Once you start pursuing this line of thought, you may start to wonder whether your partner admits to every mental (or otherwise) flirtation of their own. Are you getting the full story of what goes on in his or her life? You assume you have an understanding that once you expressed your love for each other, neither of you would hold anything back. But maybe that isn’t the case after all.
Failure to disclose doesn’t just involve feelings about possible cheating. Imagine you see an envelope addressed to your partner from your auto insurance company, which strikes you as somewhat puzzling. As far as you know, your payments are up to date. But it turns out that your partner didn't tell you he was in a minor accident and was found to be at fault. Why are you only hearing about this secondhand? Why didn’t your partner tell you about it?
The standard for openness, which is part of our society’s prescription for intimacy, is one that most likely occupies people early on in a relationship when the ground rules are being set. Later on, you realize that it’s not all that important to tell your partner every mundane detail of your daily life when you sit down to dinner. However, because that standard for openness is so fundamental to the definition of a close relationship, you want to feel that you can bring those details up and not be judged. According to this standard, you would certainly be able to expect that you could talk about whatever problems you’re having or whatever stress you’re experiencing.
As reported by Ohio University’s Charee Thompson, writing with Anita Vangelisti of the University of Texas (2016), there is a strong positive association between relationship quality and the extent to which partners feel their standards for openness are met. In describing what those standards are, the authors note, "People who endorse a standard for openness believe that partners should be willing to and comfortable with disclosing their needs, wants, feelings, emotions, and things that are bothering them” (p. 321). Conversely, when couples engage in topic avoidance, they “feel they cannot speak to partners about their thoughts and feelings, or that partners are hiding information from them” (p. 321).
Having a partner who falls short on this key element of relationship satisfaction can create stress. You’re stressed because you don’t feel that your partner believes as much as you do in the power of confiding in one another. Yet because you feel you don’t have a completely open relationship, you’re not comfortable sharing this stress with your partner. You’re left with the unpleasant prospect of ruminating over what’s going on unless you can figure out a way to alleviate your stress in a productive manner.
A good deal of research on stress and coping reveals that stress is in the eye of the beholder: There may be nothing objectively wrong with a relationship. But because you believe it to be falling short of the standard you’ve set, you allow it to become a source of irritation and worry. Again following from the coping literature, the way you manage this stress depends on whether you think it’s something you can fix. If it’s not, you survive it best by trying to feel better about it or deriving some kind of meaning from it. If it is fixable, you will do better if you can get to the root of the problem and eliminate it.
Thompson and Vangelisti investigated the way partners in a relationship cope with the perception that it is falling short of the openness criterion. They used a primarily female undergraduate sample because, as they note, they were specifically interested in finding people who would be relatively unrealistic in their hopes for openness due to their inexperience. These young partners, they reasoned, might be less sure about how much self-disclosure among partners is the right amount. This uncertainty could cause them to be more stressed, leading them to be more dependent on coping as a way to feel better about their partner.
We usually think of coping as a way to reduce stress, but the Thompson and Vangelisti team were interested in the coping strategies that created the most problems for a relationship. Three emerged as culprits—punishing the partner, walking out, and reframing the partner’s behavior in negative ways.
You can see how punishing and walking out would be detrimental, but what about reframing? We usually think of reframing as a beneficial way to cope with stress. However, for these young women, the harm was caused by their seeing their partner’s behavior as unchangeable. In helpful reframing, you see the problem as not that bad. In harmful reframing, you see your partner as someone who will never meet your standards. At that point, you are less likely to try to work through a possible solution—or to recalibrate your standards.
Of all the coping strategies that worked, one that emerged was one we rarely find studied in relationship research—humor. These young women seemed better able to manage the stress of not having their standards met if they could avoid sarcasm and be honest even while joking about their differences with their partner. Making light of the situation while still making your point might be the best way to get your partner on board with becoming more open.
To sum it up: Close communication is a vital feature of a satisfactory intimate relationship. There are (at least) four wrong ways and one right way to achieve that satisfactory level of intimacy. When your standards aren’t met, rather than walking out, seeking retribution, or becoming derisive, work with your partner to see how both of you can get on the same side of the openness standard. And just realizing that you have these standards may be enough to get that coping ball rolling in your favor.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016
Thompson, C. M., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2016). What happens when the standard for openness goes unmet in romantic relationships? Analyses of stress, coping, and relational consequences. Journal of Social And Personal Relationships, 33(3), 320-343. doi:10.1177/0265407515574468