The Dos and Don’ts of Self-Disclosure in Romantic Relationships

When it comes to self-disclosure, most people don’t really understand the long-term effects of how they implement it. Opening yourself up by expressing personal information to another truly creates a potentially dangerous vulnerability in a relationship. Although men and women are very different when it comes to self-disclosure, usually it is done as a method of increasing intimacy in a relationship, attempting to provoke reciprocation of information from the other person, developing a relationship, or even as manipulation of the other (Knapp, Vangelisti, & Caughlin, 2014). While it can be done in different levels of intimacy depending on exactly how personal or secretive the information is, either way, presenting such information to a romantic partner is an act that could potentially cause a greater connection or unwanted hurt in a relationship. Because of this, it is very important that one understands how much, and what to self-disclose depending on if one is a man or a woman and depending on the type of relationship they are experiencing or potentially wish to experience with their partner. Being careful and knowledgeable about the risks and benefits of self-disclosure is the key.

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Studies have shown that, “women tend to avoid self-disclosure when they want to avoid its potential consequences of personal hurt and problems” (Kito, 2005, p. 130). Overall, women self-disclose far more than men do, despite women’s fear of the consequences. It’s more likely that they will self-disclose to friends or family rather than a male romantic partner due to the vulnerability that is created (Kito, 2005). Despite women’s tendency to be more paranoid about the consequences of self-disclosure, women have a higher frequency of self-disclosure simply because women are more expressive than men. Women are emotional beings with a lot of feelings and thoughts that need to be let out, especially to a romantic partner that they are close to. However, many times, women self-disclose sooner than is appropriate or safe. Women may even be eager to self-disclose in hopes of speeding up the intimacy process or development of a relationship. This is what women need to be careful of.

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On the contrary, men seem to have a difficult time self-disclosing. Some men do it more often or more easily than others but in comparison to women, men are the more reserved of the two. Self-disclosure habits are formed in early childhood where boys are taught not to cry and basically hide their feelings (Derlega & Chaikin, 1976). This extreme difference in males and females is the catalyst of many miscommunications and issues in romantic relationships. While women consider self-disclosure to be an expression of their personal, internal selves, men see it as an expression of their public, external selves (Knapp et al., 2014). Men often find themselves in relational turmoil caused by their hesitation to self-disclose. Lacking willingness to self-disclose can potentially—and very often does—cause serious conflicts in a romantic relationship. Men need to be aware that certain levels and frequencies of self-disclosure are truly necessary for a romantic relationship to function successfully.

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Now, taking into consideration the polar differences in men and women and how they self-disclose, one must also consider what type of romantic relationship is appropriate for what amount of self-disclosure. There are three general levels of romantic relationships that must be acknowledged: casual, semi-serious, and committed. As one may assume, self-disclosure should ideally be a gradual process of expressing personal information about oneself, just as these three levels of relationships are general, gradual stages of romantic relational development. Casual relationships are not the point in a relationship for deep expression while committed relationships require personal expression for the sake of the relationship. The more serious the relationship, the more self-disclosure is appropriate.

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When a couple first meets one another, there is zero commitment involved. Casual relationships are not put under any official label nor is there any acknowledgement of an exclusive relationship. In the early, casual stages of a romantic relationship, one can assume there has been a mutual romantic attraction between the two people involved. Perhaps, they have gone on a few dates and flirt with one another. However, as far as casual goes, that is the likely extent of the relationship. It is during this stage that both men and women must be careful and precise about self-disclosure. Casual relationships are where two people are first getting to know one another. How does that happen? It happens when the other person offers self-disclosure. Now at such an early stage in a romantic relationship, the self-disclosure must not be personal levels of information, more like general, basic information about oneself that acquaintances would know. Your age, your residence, your schooling experience, your hobbies and interests, your favorite movies, or your favorite things to do in your spare time are all examples of information appropriate to be self-disclosed at this stage. Women may face a challenge here because with their willingness to self-disclose and longing for an intimate connection, they may present information about themselves that is too deep and too personal for such a new relationship.

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The next level of relationships could be called semi-serious. At this point, a couple has already passed the casual stage and is progressing steadily from there. Mutual affection may be more pronounced like kissing, hugging, or holding hands. Between the couple there may be mutual confession of feelings and/or attraction to one another. However, with semis-serious there may not be signs of commitment. Both are still technically single, but the semi-serious relationship could potentially be leading toward exclusivity. During this stage, self-disclosure becomes very important. In order to develop a relationship, one must give up more personal information about themselves to see new connections rising between you and your partner. Stories about your past, desires for your future, confession of romantic feelings for the other or bad habits you have are examples of slightly deeper information that is appropriate to be disclosed to the other person at this stage of a romantic relationship. It is here where men may face a struggle. Men may be hesitant to self-disclose at this level. If they don’t provide any new information to deepen the relationship, they are putting the relationship at a halt, not allowing any further development. A woman will likely be turned off from her potential partner at this stage if he does not reciprocate such self-disclosure.

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Finally, the stage of commitment is where a couple has agreed on exclusivity. The couple has gone public with their relationship and they are an item. Once officially in a romantic relationship, some of the self-disclosure between the two people has likely already happened. However, just because a couple is exclusive does not mean self-disclosure is over. For a committed relationship, intimacy increases to a whole new level and self-disclosure plays a huge part in this. A romantic partner is a key person in one’s life. Deep secrets, confessions, traumatic experiences, fears, desires in life involving the other person, or even brutal honesty are examples of the much more intense self-disclosure that happens at the stage of commitment. Men and women both need to be careful here at this stage. Self-disclosure of such private information needs to be expressed in the right way and at the appropriate moment. Women may share things too willingly and expect their partner to reciprocate when he is not ready or men may still be hesitant to open up even at this stage. It is very important to understand your partner and the current stage the two of you are in when determining how and what to self-disclose.

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Men and women are very different in many different aspects of their lives. Romantic relationships are sometimes very tricky because of this. Self-disclosure plays a critical role in the development of a romantic relationship. It is important to remember that, “higher levels of self-disclosure and quality communication generally lead to more liking and closeness” (Sprecher, Treger, & Wondra, 2013, p. 498). Men must be aware that even though self-disclosure may be difficult, it is necessary at certain points in a relationship. Women must be careful not to self-disclose too much too soon because it must be a gradual process. Whether a couple is casual, semi-serious, or committed, both partners should use self-disclosure properly and gradually in order to have appropriate development of a relationship.

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2 comments

  1. Peter Lee · October 26

    That sums it up really well. Beautiful, complex and yet it makes complete sense.

    Like

    • kndavers · October 27

      Thank you very much for your kind feedback. I wrote these blog posts my junior year of college for an Honors College Relationship course. It was very fascinating to me!

      Like

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