Can self-disclosure enhance relationships?
Posted Aug 12, 2011
A few weeks ago, my roommate and I asked each other a set of questions. It began simple enough, with thirty-six inquiries concerning our heritage, families, and values. But a few minutes in, we began disclosing our greatest fears, what we like and don't like about ourselves, and how we view our relationships 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 the exercise, meaningful revelations were disclosed in a way I never predicted. 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 is kind of like a funnel, beginning with more superficial questions and gradually narrowing into personal topics. This style of communication is typical of the social penetration theory, which holds that strangers begin discussing more superficial, impersonal topics, such as "Where are you from?" before dipping into meaningful conversation. If the small talk is satisfying, 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). In this way, self-disclosure begets familiarity and even fondness. 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 are attracted to, in fact, the opposite can also occur: We grow to like others because we have self-disclosed to them.
More than straightforward factual disclosure ("I was born in Pennsylvania"), individuals find emotional disclosures quite satisfying—particularly, the kind of disclosures that reveal one's private thoughts, opinions, and judgments (insert deepest darkest secret here). Emotional admissions reveal innermost feelings, and thus lie most closely to the core of our self-definition. Couples who disclose more personal information tend to achieve higher levels of intimacy, as such revelations pave the way for the listener to respond in ways that support and confirm core aspects of the sharer. For example, if I were to reveal that I cry every time I watch a trailer for the The Help (this is hypothetical, people!), and someone responded with validation and respect, I’d immediately feel closer to this person.
Given the benefit of healthy self-disclosure, I was surprised to find an article from a popular magazine that suggested women should not engage in self-disclosure to men. The spurious reasoning behind this advice is that, by keeping their partners in the dark, women can subtly impel them to want to know more. This column also stated that men do not have the capacity to endure detailed accounts of women's lives, and for this reason fail to ask. Not only is such a claim an insult to both genders, this logic is also tenuous, since research has shown that men and women are equally capable of self-disclosing and receiving.
In fact, men often do self-disclose to women, and research supports the notion that the more couples share their feelings with each other, the happier they tend to be. More often, then, it is during the dissolution of a relationship that couples stop self-disclosing and revert 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 responsible recommendation from this magazine would have been to suggest that partners should work to match each other's degrees 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 other person is revealing nothing in return. This level of sharing could violate the listener's expectations and scare him or her off. Instead, individuals should be patient and gradually engage in self-disclosure, taking cues from each other in order to create a balanced level of personal revelation. If your blind date says he likes vanilla ice cream more than chocolate, and you respond with "I think I may be in love with you," then, again, you may have cause for concern.
Ultimately, sharing your innermost thoughts with another person feels good and engenders trust. Those who self-disclose are generally more liked by others than those who withhold their opinions and feelings. Experiments conducted with undergraduate students has shown that strangers who engage in reciprocal self-disclosure reported more positive evaluations of their partner, than those who did not divulge as much. So go ahead and try this for yourself. Next time you’re at work, at happy hour, or in class, start chatting with someone for at least an hour, gradually progressing from superficial small talk to more personal, meaningful revelations. If you find yourselves sharing secrets, laughing, or exchanging 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.