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Self-Disclosure in Romantic Relationships

Angel is currently studying for her A-levels (English, Sociology and Psychology) in the hopes of going to university next year.

When dating someone we expect to be able to tell them anything and vice versa. The level of intimate information disclosed can be a predictor of relationship success; couples who have higher levels of disclosure tend to have more successful relationships that last longer.

At the same time, too much personal disclosure early on in a relationship is unlikely to lead to success. People expect a gradual increase in disclosure over time.


Self Disclosure and Romantic Relationships

Self-disclosure refers to the extent to which individuals reveal personal information about themselves. Sprecher found that the amount of disclosure in couples predicted whether they would stay together for more than four years or not; the more they disclosed, the closer they felt towards each other. Sprecher also found that there are different types of self-disclosure. Disclosures that talk about the experience of success or failure and previous sexual relationships have a greater influence on relationship satisfaction. However, this does not mean individuals should immediately disclose personal information. Derlega and Grzelah argue that there are norms of self-disclosure. For instance, a couple in the early stages of a relationship would not expect to reveal any personal information. Levels of disclosure should increase over time - and individuals expect their disclosure to be reciprocated.

To investigate whether self-disclosure can predict the success of relationships, Sprecher et al paired 156 undergraduate students into female-female or male-female dyads. In one condition, pairs would take in turns to ask and answer questions. The second condition had one person ask questions and the other answer. In the first condition, there were high levels of liking and closeness than in the non-reciprocal group. This supports the idea of self-disclosure and the expectation for disclosure in return.

  • Self-Disclosure in Intimate Relationships: A study
    As hypothesized, positive associations were found between self-disclosure and the individual characteristics of self-esteem, relationship esteem (confidence as an intimate partner), and responsiveness and satisfaction.

Supporting Evidence for Self-Disclosure

Collins and Miller agree that self-disclosure plays a central role in the development of a relationship. They found that individuals who disclosed were liked more than those who don't, likeness was even stronger if an individual felt like the disclosure was shared only between them. This meta-analysis provides evidence in favour of self-disclosure and support for Sprecher et al's study.

Supporting research for self-disclosure has found that higher levels of self-disclosure occur online, but these relationships seldom last because they lack the intimacy of a face-to-face relationship. Cooper and Spartaler refer to this as the 'boom and bust' phenomenon. Online relationships become intense rapidly due to high levels of disclosure, 'boom'. It is assumed that individuals feel more comfortable revealing personal information online. Some argue this is because internet users have a degree of anonymity. They also argue that the lack of other social cues such as verbal or behavioural means that what a person says isn't filtered. For instance, if a person was talking about a controversial topic, and their partner looked disapproving, the individual may refrain from saying everything that they feel about the subject. This could explain why online people are more likely to disclose, thus leading to close relationships rapidly. However, due to a lack of trust and true knowledge of each other, it is difficult to sustain the relationship (bust). This argument suggests that self-disclosure works for physical relationships but not so well for a stable long-term relationship online.

Despite this, Krop et al dispute the belief that people disclose more online. Their study found that individuals disclose more personal information face-to-face than on social media platforms. They suggest this is because of the lack of intimacy, a person disclosing uses non-verbal cues such as eye contact which is absent online. These findings suggest that Cooper and Spartaler's assumptions were incorrect as people prefer to self-disclose face-to-face.

Cultural Bias

A limitation of Sprecher's study is that it has a beta cultural bias. Beta bias is when differences between cultures are minimalised or ignored. All the participants were undergraduates from a university in America so it ignores any potential differences between American and other cultures. For example, Chen found that Americans are more likely to disclose than Chinese or Japanese people. This bias means the findings cannot be applied to all cultures.

  • Cultural Bias in Psychology
    Ethnocentricism in psychology can lead to negative stereotypes and racism. What is cultural bias and how can we counter it?

High levels of self-disclosure can be predictive of a successful and long lasting relationship, however, this disclosure cannot be one-sided otherwise individuals will not feel close to their partner.

Online relationships tend to develop rapidly as people feel more comfortable saying intimate things, however, the lack of a physical interaction makes online relationships difficult to maintain.


Cardwell, M., Flanagan, C. (2016) Psychology A level The Complete Companion Student Book fourth edition. Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Angel Harper

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Dom on January 17, 2020:

'Online' wasn't defined well here. It could mean asynchronous communication that is immediate (chat), delayed (email), voice call over social media apps such as whatsapp or skype or even video call which does not differ much from real life discussion.

Online relationships, which also weren't defined, so I assume here to mean relationships where the pair hasn't yet met in real life, could engage in any of the above means of communication. In some cases, then, online couples have access to the full slew of non-verbal cues that would keep them from inappropriate disclosure.

Angel Harper (author) on November 11, 2018:

dashingscorpio, thanks for telling me about those statistics, it's very interesting! Also, that article by Lebowitz sounds really fascinating and I will definitely check it out. I'm actually thinking of writing a bit about virtual relationships sometime in the future.

I feel that self-disclosure itself is only one of many factors affecting romantic relationships, as you mention, age and experience have a huge impact on relationships.

Once again, I liked reading your insightful comment, I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 30, 2018:

Very interesting information about disclosure. No surprise that disclosure in online relationships does not help; who knows how much honesty is involved? Still the observations are very insightful.

dashingscorpio from Chicago on October 30, 2018:

I believe age of the dates plays a huge factor as well.

Truth be told most 18, 19, or 20 something year old daters are not going to live happily forever with their current mate regardless of how much or how little they disclose.

In the U.S. the average person loses their virginity by age 17. The average age of a first time bride is 27 and for grooms it is age 29. Therefore on average couples will have had at least 10 years of sexual experience prior to getting married and odds are all of those years won't be with (one) individual.

When it comes to love and relationships most of us (fail our way) to success. It is very rare for someone to hit a homerun their first, second, third, or fourth time up at bat. If this were not the case we would all be married to our high school sweethearts!

During our youth we tend to pursue relationships without having taken the time to figure out who (we) are let alone know what we want or need in a mate in for life.

It's the equivalent of going shopping without a list!

Another factor to consider is whatever traits we deem make for an ideal mate at age 17, 19, or 21 may not cut it for us age 25, 30, or beyond. With age and life experience we're constantly evolving.

Last but not least a lack of trust and fear keep most people from revealing too much too soon to those they have a crush on.

During the "infatuation phase" of most new relationships both people bend over backwards to impress one another. No one wants to say or do anything which might scare the person off.

Once there is an emotional investment made or commitment established people begin to feel (safe) to reveal their "authentic selves" without the (fear) their mate will immediately walk away.

Back in 2017 Shana Lebowitz published an article for Business Insider which suggested married couples who met online were happier and more compatible.

"For example, a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 looked at about 19,000 people who married between 2005 and 2012. People who met their spouse online said their marriage was more satisfying than those who met their spouse offline. Plus, marriages that began online were less likely to end in separation or divorce."

Now before we get too excited I seem to recall running commercials in the U.S. claiming 1 in 5 weddings that take place are between couples who met online. However that's essentially saying 80% of couples who got married met (offline)!

I suppose as a society we will always be fixated with finding what the "secret formula" is for having a successful relationship/marriage.

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