Partner choice in romantic relationships is influenced by many factors. It seems that one of the most important factors for the development of relationships is feeling secure enough around the partner to gradually reveal personal information. In turn, the other person starts revealing more intimate information about themselves as well, sharing what really matters to them.
Self-disclosure is the idea that relationship formation is built on trust with another person, which is demonstrated by gradually revealing personal information, such as thoughts, feelings and experiences that they might share with anyone else.
Disclosing thoughts and feelings and allowing a partner to reveal their ‘true selves’ leads to greater intimacy in romantic relationships, and ultimately to more satisfaction.
Self-disclosure is a central concept in Social Penetration Theory proposed by Altman and Taylor (1973). This theory claims that by gradually revealing emotions and experiences and listening to their reciprocal sharing, people gain a greater understanding of each other and display trust.
Self-disclosure has two dimensions: breadth and depth. Social Penetration Theory uses an ‘onion metaphor’ to describe these dimensions: at first, people often share a lot of information about certain aspects of themselves (depth), but consider some topics to be ‘off-limit’ (breadth). As they build trust in their partner’s understanding, breadth increases and then depth also increases. In the beginning, people only disclose superficial details about themselves, such as their music taste, hobbies and interests, and gradually move to revealing more intimate details, such as religious and political beliefs, family values and difficult experiences.
The concept of self-disclosure has been investigated in numerous studies. For example, Sprecher and Hendrick (2004) studied heterosexual couples who were dating, and found that as self-disclosure increased, so did relationship satisfaction. This was supported by another study of dating couples, conducted by Laurenceau et al. (2005). They asked participants to write daily diary entries about progress in their relationships and found that self-disclosure and perception of disclosure in a partner led to greater feelings of intimacy in a couple. The reverse was true as well – couples who complained about lack of intimacy self-disclosed less often.
Has and Hartford (1998) studied homosexual couples and found that 57% of gay men and women considered open self-disclosure a main way to maintain close relationships.
One strength of the concept of self-disclosure is that is it supported by research. For example, Has and Hartford (1998) found that 57% of gay men and women considered open self-disclosure as a main way to maintain close relationships. This demonstrates the importance of self-disclosure in romantic relationships, just as the theory has predicted.
The importance of establishing trust in a partner before revealing more intimate information about ourselves is supported by the so-called ‘boom and bust’ phenomenon in online relationships, described by Cooper and Sportolari (1997). They found that anonymity of online interactions gave web-users a sense of security and made them disclose personal information much earlier in relationships than they would face-to-face, making relationships exciting and intense (‘boom’). However, because the necessary trust foundation had not been established, the intensity of the relationship was impossible to sustain, leading to break-up (‘bust’). This shows that breadth of relationships needs to be established first, before proceeding to a deeper self-disclosure, just as Social Penetration Theory suggests.
Most support for the concept of self-disclosure comes from correlational research. While there is undoubtedly a link between self-disclosure and greater relationship satisfaction, cause and effect cannot be established, reducing the validity of the concept. However, the concept of self-disclosure has strong everyday life applications, as it could help improve partners’ communication skills in intimate relationships. By deliberately and skilfully increasing self-disclosure, couples can achieve higher intimacy and relationship satisfaction. This shows that Social Penetration Theory can be used to enhance romantic relationship experiences.
Social Penetration Theory is unable to adequately explain the formation of all types of relationships and is limited by taking a nomothetic approach. By claiming that higher self-disclosure will invariably lead to greater relationship satisfaction, this theory ignores many other factors that can influence relationships, such as cultural practices and personality. Furthermore, by reducing relationship satisfaction to a single factor, Social Penetration Theory ignores many other aspects of romantic attraction, such as physical attractiveness, similarity of attitudes and complementarity. This suggests that research into romantic relationships could benefit from the use of an idiographic approach that studies couples’ unique experiences in detail, rather than trying to establish a set of laws that apply to all couples.
Social Penetration Theory was developed based on research in a Western, individualist culture, so it may not apply to collectivist cultures. For example, Tang et al. (2013) found that men and women in the USA tended to disclose more sexual thoughts and feelings than romantic partners in China; however, the level of relationship satisfaction was high in both cultures. This shows that self-disclosure is not a requirement for successful relationships in all cultures, making Social Penetration Theory culturally biased.
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