What impact does self-disclosure have on relationships?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Willful (deliberate, conscious) self-disclosure will always have an impact on the development, maintenance, and deterioration of relationships. That is the way most people are wired. The impact of those disclosures will be positive or negative depending on a variety of factors. 

Self-disclosure is important to relationships which are developing. Obviously sharing one's deepest secrets and desires (whether they are good or bad) with a virtual stranger can be off-putting, intimidating, or even frightening. Gradual and mutual revelations as relationships/friendships develop help foster trust and understanding. Shared goals and experience always increase the connection between people, and revelatory disclosures can deepen that connection. Of course, the reverse can also be true, as the listener may not react favorably, for whatever reason, to the disclosure. This reaction generally results in diminished or even severed relationships.

Maintaining healthy relationships is also largely dependent on trust, and one of the ways to foster trust is through self-disclosure. We have all had friendships which have deepened because one or both parties have shared personal things they would not share with just anyone. This demonstrates trust as well as emotional connection, and both of these things are essential to maintaining healthy and productive relationships.

When one person in a relationship either refuses to share or abuses the trust the other person has placed in them, the relationship is likely to falter or even break. When one party is unwilling to self-disclose more as the relationship develops, he is making it clear that the relationship may look like it is deepening but in fact it is stagnant. In fact, such an unwillingness to trust is a sign that the relationship or friendship, even if it has been in existence a long time, is not growing.

Finally, self-disclosure has the potential to ruin relationships. We flippantly use the phrase "too much information" to tell others they have shared more than we wanted to hear. In a meaningful friendship or relationship, too much information can create irreparable damage. Revealing hidden desires and other negative self-revelations is sure to have an impact on a relationship. (No one wants to hear that a friend, lover, or partner would prefer to be with someone else, for example.) 

The flip side of this is the person who refuses to disclose anything to those he or she is closest to; this lack of trust (often caused by fear of rejection) results in hurt and distrust for the friend, lover, or partner. It is a sign of love, trust, and respect to share the things that matter to us with the people who matter to us. When this does not happen, the message is clear: you do not matter to me. That message is almost certain to kill a relationship either quickly or through a slow deterioration. 

One pastor gives the following useful advice:

Maintaining a balanced approach to relationships can be the most effective way to assure healthy and happy relationships.

Keeping balance and perspective in every area of a relationship or friendship will help ensure its success. Self-disclosure, when used in a balanced and appropriate way, is one tool to developing and maintaining successful relationships; when self-disclosure is used as a weapon or is not used at all, relationships are likely to deteriorate. 

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