Self-disclosure refers to the process of revealing personal, intimate information about oneself to others. Through self-disclosure, two individuals get to know one another. Self-disclosure is considered a key aspect of developing closeness and intimacy with others, including friends, romantic partners, and family members. However, self-disclosure also functions as a way for people to express their feelings about a situation, to give others their thoughts and opinions about a topic, to elicit reassurance about their feelings, or to get advice.
Context and Importance of Self-Disclosure
Self-disclosure varies by the level of intimacy. For example, information can range from being relatively superficial, such as disclosing where you are from and what your favorite flavor of ice cream is, to being more private, such as revealing that your parents are going through a divorce or that you once cheated on your boyfriend or girlfriend. Self-disclosure also varies in how many different topics that are disclosed. When individuals disclose private information, their disclosure is high in depth. When individuals disclose a wide range of topics about themselves, their disclosure is high in breadth. Most relationships begin with the exchange of superficial information, which gradually turn into more meaningful disclosures when the superficial conversation is rewarding. That is, people are likely to move the conversation to a deeper level by increasing both the breadth and the depth of the conversation when they are enjoying a conversation they are having.
When a relationship is new, early conversations tend to involve self-disclosure reciprocity. Put another way, new acquaintances tend to match one another’s disclosures; when one partner opens up and discloses, the other ends up disclosing as well. As one partner’s disclosure increases in intimacy, so too does the other partner’s disclosure. Because self-disclosure is reciprocal, it both influences and is influenced by the intimacy level between two people. Thus, if you want to get to know someone, one strategy is to disclose personal information about yourself to the person you want to get to know. Most likely, this person will open up to you in turn. Over time and over the course of a number of conversations, a relationship becomes increasingly more intimate.
Three important factors determine whether an interaction will be intimate. First is the content of the individual’s disclosure. For example, the disclosure of personal desires, fantasies, anxieties, and emotions is more important for the development of intimacy than is the disclosure of facts. This is because the disclosure of emotions provides an opportunity for the partner to validate and demonstrate that he or she cares for, supports, and accepts the individual. The second is the partner’s response to the disclosure. When the partner is responsive, feelings of closeness are increased and further communication is facilitated. When a partner is not responsive, he or she is indicating a lack of interest in further conversation and intimacy is decreased. Third is the individual’s interpretation of and reaction to the partner’s behavior. If the individual perceives the partner as supportive and understanding, the conversation is likely to become more intimate because the individual is likely to disclose again or prompt the partner to disclose. If the individual perceives the partner as unsupportive or intrusive, the conversation is not likely to become intimate. Thus, when disclosure is high, the partner is responsive and the individual perceives the partner as caring, the conversation will most likely become more intimate over time.
Pioneering research by Sidney Jourard revealed that self-disclosure and liking for another person are linked. Later research has demonstrated that people (a) like those who disclose, (b) disclose to those they like, and (c) after disclosing, like the person to whom they disclosed even more. It feels good to disclose your inner feelings to another, and it is gratifying to be singled out for somebody else’s disclosure because it is a signal that they like and trust you. Furthermore, it is rewarding to find out that someone has the same beliefs and values you do.
However, social norms govern appropriate self-disclosure. When people are just getting to know each other, a person who discloses at a medium level of intimacy is better liked than is a person who discloses at a too low or too high level. People like those who disclose at the same level as they do and are deterred by those who are too reserved or too revealing. In addition, a person who reciprocates an intimate self-disclosure is liked more than is a person who reciprocates an intimate disclosure with a superficial one. When a person reciprocates an intimate disclosure with a superficial disclosure, it is a signal that they do not want to get to know the other person and the conversation is not as rewarding. Typically, however, superficial information is disclosed to strangers and more intimate information is disclosed to close others. Revealing highly personal information to a stranger is perceived as inappropriate. For example, it is improper for somebody you barely know to come up to you and reveal the intimate details of his or her sex life. Yet in a close relationship, such a revelation could strengthen the relationship and make two people even closer. A person who reveals too much information early on is perceived by others as unbalanced.
Self-disclosure fosters love as well as liking. Couples who engage in more extensive and intimate self-disclosure to one another tend to have longer, more satisfying relationships. This is because disclosing personal information about yourself is one way to get your needs met, and having your needs met increases feelings of love and affection, companionship, and a sense of belonging. Partners believe that their relationship contains a high level of intimacy when they can express their thoughts, opinions, and feelings to their partners, and feel their partners are able to express themselves as well. This is why many researchers believe that experiencing intimacy through self-disclosure may be the most important factor that determines the health of a relationship.
Gender and Individual Differences in Self-Disclosure
We expect women to be more expressive than men. When a woman is not expressive, others perceive her as maladjusted. Likewise, men are expected to be inexpressive, and when a man is expressive, he is perceived as unstable. And, in fact, women tend to disclose more than men do in general. However, although women disclose more to their female friends and to their romantic partners than men do, they do not disclose more to their male friends any more than men do. Furthermore, women tend to elicit self-disclosure from others, even from those who do not usually disclose very much about themselves. One reason for this is that women tend to be responsive listeners, which in turn promotes further disclosure by the speaker.
Traditional gender roles are changing, however, and men are becoming more expressive in the context of their close romantic relationships and view disclosure as an important part of the relationship. Therefore, couples nowadays are exhibiting patterns of full and equal self-disclosure, which has produced relationships that foster mutual respect and trust. Relationships that contain a high level of self-disclosure have been found to be both more intimate and more satisfying for both partners.
Some people are better able to self-disclose than others are. This is because self-disclosure can be threatening. Self-disclosure can leave you vulnerable to rejection, manipulation, and betrayal. Some individuals are so concerned about these dangers of self-disclosure that they have trouble opening up and revealing intimate details about themselves, even in the appropriate contexts. They worry about the impression they are making on others and readily perceive rejection in others’ intentions. Consequently, these individuals frequently feel lonely and isolated from others and tend to have fewer close, satisfying relationships with others.
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