Self-Disclosure: How People Become More Intimate

Self-disclosure, which typically involves an exchange of intimacies, helps turn an acquaintance into a good friend.

Self-disclosure, which typically involves an exchange of intimacies, helps turn an acquaintance into a good friend.

Without self-disclosure, turning an acquaintance into a good friend can be hard.

Whether it’s romantic or platonic, there are endless reasons why people fail to connect and maintain their relationships with each other.

This disconnect isn’t always a result of some huge mistake by one person or the other, more often it’s just that people drift apart — sometimes through lack of self-disclosure.

Social bonds can be hard to maintain, especially when they aren’t based on firm routine footings like work, marriage or other institutions.

In explaining how people form strong relationships, psychologists – along with other social scientists – have long been interested in what personal information people reveal to each other in self-disclosure.

This research has culminated in recent studies of self-disclosure in internet daters and how they reveal (or fail to reveal) information about themselves.

Not just deep and meaningful

Research on self-disclosure is enormous, addressing issues such as when people choose to self-disclose, for what reasons and whether it is effective.

Within this research though, Greene, Derlega and Mathews (2006) point out some highlights.

Self-disclosure brings to mind earnest conversations about our deepest hopes and fears.

But self-disclosure is also about simply sharing our preferences for music, food or books.

These can play an equally important role in forming relationships as those deep and meaningful conversations.

Romantic partners often go through an initial stage of frantic self-disclosure.

Changing circumstances reveal different patterns of self-disclosure.

In contrast, long-term partners may reduce their self-disclosure alarmingly as the relationship lengthens.

But not all disclosure is good disclosure.

Early studies on self-disclosure confirm that too much self-disclosure too soon can be off-putting.

When someone you’ve just met starts pouring out their heart, it can make you want to run away.

Self-disclosure affects perceptions

One of the main reasons we engage in self-disclosure is because of how it affects other people’s perceptions of us, and indeed, our perceptions of other people.

We want others to like us so we tell them our secrets.

Does this really work or is it just a fantasy peddled by movie and TV script-writers?

Reviewing a range of studies, Collins and Miller (1994) found there are three main effects of self-disclosure on liking:

  • Those who disclose intimate secrets tend to be more liked than those who don’t.
  • People disclose more to those they like (relatively obvious).
  • People prefer those to whom they have made personal disclosures (not so obvious).

Being responsive

While increasing intimacy between people through self-disclosure is often seen as ‘a good thing’, there are many ways it can go wrong.

Process models of self-disclosure have looked at how disclosures are dynamically dealt with in relationships.

The way in which you react to the self-disclosure of others is of vital importance.

People want to be ‘understood’, not just ‘heard’.

This is demonstrated through behaviours like responsiveness, attentiveness and timing.

The way in which listening occurs has a huge impact on whether intimate information grows and blooms or falls on fallow ground.

Again, you can disclose too much too soon.

More importantly, self-disclosure is not just about blurting out your darkest secret, it’s about negotiating a complex relationship.

Laughter and self-disclosure

Laughter is also central to more self-disclosure, which leads to greater liking.

Laughter encourages people to open up and this is the secret to how to make friends (Gray et al., 2015).

People in the study were more likely to disclose something personal about themselves after laughing together, although they didn’t realise it.

The results showed that when the groups laughed together more, they also shared more intimate information with each other.

Alan Gray, who led the study, thinks the effect is about more than just feeling good.

Laughter releases the ‘happy hormones’ endorphins, which are what may encourage people to share intimate details of their lives.

One of the fascinating findings of the study was that people did not seem aware they had shared more with others.

Although objective observers rated the disclosures of people who’d been laughing as more intimate, people themselves did not.

Self-disclosure online

Recent research has focussed on the ways in which self-disclosure occurs in online relationships.

Two aspects of internet dating make it particularly interesting to study in relation to self-disclosure:

  • Those communicating online have more control over the way they present themselves.
  • When speaking face-to-face, a huge amount of information is transmitted through nonverbal communication. Much of this is involuntary, but this becomes largely irrelevant online.
  • It easier to construct an identity online. Emails can be crafted and photographs retouched.

The study came to some rather complex conclusions but one clear finding emerged.

Those successful at online dating tended to use large amounts of positive self-disclosure, along with an openness about their intent.

So, generally it is better to be open about yourself and honest and clear about your intentions.

As a result of both of these, it is easier to carry out ‘impression management’ (lying).

These points are made in a study by Gibbs, Ellison and Heino (2006) in which the perceived success of members of an internet dating service was related to self-disclosure.

In other words, the best strategy is the polar opposite of many people’s actual practice in online dating.

The art of self-disclosure

The idea that self-disclosure is important in relationships is no big surprise.

But while it may be easy to understand in principle, the complexity of the process means it’s much harder to do in practice.

The art of self-disclosing, then, is giving information to others in the right way and at the right time.

Receiving intimate information is no less of a skill, involving the verbal and nonverbal communication of understanding.

Online dating offers the huge temptation to cheat at self-disclosure, but, to be successful, the art of self-disclosure is much the same in the online world as the offline.

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2 Attachment Styles That Damage Relationships

Certain types of anxiety can cause massive ups and downs in relationships.

Certain types of anxiety can cause massive ups and downs in relationships.

Partners who have attachment issues cause considerable instability in their relationship, research finds.

One type, known as ‘attachment anxiety’ by psychologists, involves see-sawing feelings.

It is the same reason that babies cry when they are taken from their mothers.

Around one in five people have an anxious attachment style.

A classic sign is having wildly varying feelings about the relationship from one day to the next.

People experiencing attachment anxiety spend a lot of time thinking about what the other person wants.

They can easily move from feeling strongly attached, to wanting independence.

Ms Ashley Cooper, the study’s first author, said:

“For people anxious in their attachments, they have anxiety as to whether the person is going to be there for them and whether they are worthy of others.

I was interested in how attachment security impacted partners’ experiences in their relationship on a daily basis.

Some couples experience instability from one day to the next in their relationship, so we sought out to explore what could increase or decrease this volatility.”

The second problematic type is attachment avoidance.

This is someone who wants to avoid getting too attached to the other person.

Around one in four people has an avoidant attachment style.

High levels of attachment anxiety are linked to more ups and downs in the relationship, while avoidance is linked to low relationship satisfaction.

The study of 157 couples — half of whom had been dating for two years or less — found that high attachment avoidance in one partner was linked to low relationship satisfaction for both.

Ms Cooper said:

“For the average person, stay attuned to what your partner is saying and avoid making assumptions that can escalate conflict.

Trusting in your partner and your relationship is important to daily interactions and stability for your relationship.”

The study was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (Cooper et al., 2017).

This Emotion Protects Couples Against Divorce (M)

This protects couples from divorce and reduces the damaging effects of poor communication.

This protects couples from divorce and reduces the damaging effects of poor communication.


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90% Of People Keep These Little Secrets From Their Partners (M)

These secrets, though, made people feel guilty and motivated them to invest more in their relationship.

These secrets, though, made people feel guilty and motivated them to invest more in their relationship.


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What Namibian Nomads Can Teach Us About Relationships (M)

People say they want someone more attractive than themselves, but this is not the key to a successful relationship.

People say they want someone more attractive than themselves, but this is not the key to a successful relationship.


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The Most Important Factor In Romantic Attraction Is Not What You Think

One factor many says is important makes relatively little difference to romantic attraction between college students.

One factor many says is important makes relatively little difference to romantic attraction between college students.


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The Healthiest Personality Trait In A Partner

This personality trait increases the odds of reaching 85-years-old by up to 70 percent.

This personality trait increases the odds of reaching 85-years-old by up to 70 percent.

Optimism is one of the healthiest traits to have in a partner, research finds.

People married to an optimistic person have a reduced risk of dementia and cognitive decline.

Similarly, optimistic people themselves tend to live a longer life.

Indeed, being optimistic can increase the odds of reaching 85-years-old by up to 70 percent.

Critically, optimists believe they can control their lives and make improvements.

While optimism is partly genetic and related to upbringing and circumstances, there is evidence to show it can be cultivated.

Exercises such as visualising your ‘best possible self‘ have been shown to increase optimism.

Dr William Chopik, study co-author, said:

“We spend a lot of time with our partners.

They might encourage us to exercise, eat healthier or remind us to take our medicine.

When your partner is optimistic and healthy, it can translate to similar outcomes in your own life.

You actually do experience a rosier future by living longer and staving off cognitive illnesses.”

The conclusions come from a study of 4,457 couples who were tracked for up to eight years.

Dr Chopik explained the results:

“We found that when you look at the risk factors for what predicts things like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, a lot of them are things like living a healthy lifestyle.

Maintaining a healthy weight and physical activity are large predictors.

There are some physiological markers as well.

It looks like people who are married to optimists tend to score better on all of those metrics.”

Optimistic people tend to create a healthier environment at home, said Dr Chopik:

“There’s a sense where optimists lead by example, and their partners follow their lead.

While there’s some research on people being jealous of their partner’s good qualities or on having bad reactions to someone trying to control you, it is balanced with other research that shows being optimistic is associated with perceiving your relationship in a positive light.”

Dr Chopik said people can become more optimistic if they want to change:

“There are studies that show people have the power to change their personalities, as long as they engage in things that make them change.

Part of it is wanting to change.

There are also intervention programs that suggest you can build up optimism.”

Conscientiousness

Along with being optimistic, studies also show that having a highly conscientious partner leads to more stable and healthier relationships.

People who are conscientious are more careful, efficient and self-disciplined — and they aim for achievement.

Indeed, conscientious people tend to live longer themselves.

Highly conscientious people live an average of two to four years longer than their less self-disciplined peers.

They are also less likely to smoke or drink and experience lower levels of stress.

The study was published in the Journal of Personality (Oh et al., 2019).

This Is The Most Attractive Quality In A Friend

Narcissists tend to make friends quickly, but often find it hard to keep them because they lack a critical quality.

Narcissists tend to make friends quickly, but often find it hard to keep them because they lack a critical quality.

Narcissists attract others at first, but it’s emotional intelligence that helps us make friends in the long-term, research finds.

Qualities like empathy, the ability to control the emotions and investing in the relationship lead to better friendships…eventually.

The study’s authors write:

“…the combination most beneficial for long-term peer popularity is low narcissism paired with high EI [emotional intelligence].

It seems that a quieter and less needy ego, coupled with abilities to perceive, understand, use, and manage emotions, ensure better relationships in the long run.”

But at first sight, narcissists are tremendously attractive to others.

Their self-assurance and showmanship tends to draw people in.

Make friends for life

For the study, first year college students’ narcissistic tendencies were measured along with their emotional intelligence.

They were followed over three months to see how their popularity went up and down.

The results showed that those who did worst, in terms of friendships, were those low in both narcissism and emotional intelligence.

Those high in both qualities — a small minority — attracted friends early and held on to them.

Most people had a combination of average narcissistic tendencies and average emotional intelligence, and they did OK when trying to make friends.

For the long-term, though, emotional intelligence was the most important factor.

The study’s authors explain its long-term benefits:

“There was a positive effect of EI over time suggesting that revealing emotional skills needs time, as chances for regulating affect or understanding peers’ feelings appear only in specific social interactions.

Hence, emotionally intelligent people find more friends with time than their emotionally unintelligent counterparts.

The likely driving forces for these effects are high communal qualities of emotionally intelligent persons, which get noticed and appreciated by their social surrounding over time.”

The study was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Czarna et al., 2016).

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