Let's talk a little about intimacy.
Our interactions with other people, dates that we go on, and conversations in general, are characterized by what psychologists often call the Reveal-Conceal Dilemma.
That is, in order to get to know someone, in order to get closer, in order to create friendship, intimacy, or love, you have to reveal yourself. You have to reveal personal, private things that help the other to get to know who you really are. And the other person, likewise, has to reciprocate, revealing personal, private things about him/herself.
But, and here's the tricky part, reveal too much too soon, or reveal the wrong types of things, and you run the risk of scaring the other, or overwhelming them with too much information.
No doubt at some point you've met someone who, for some strange reason, decided to tell you his life story. Including all kinds of personal, intimate details you wished he had kept to himself. How odd this person seems. And how glad we are to finally "escape" from him.
Not only that, but revealing ourselves to others is, in itself, extremely risky. When we reveal, we display our private selves, our private lives, our private thoughts and feelings for others to evaluate and judge. If they respond positively, we feel great. But if they respond negatively....
What we're talking about here is SELF-DISCLOSURE. Self-disclosure involves revealing personal details about ourselves, our past, our thoughts, our feelings, or any other information which makes us "knowable" to another. Disclosing involves openness, a desire to get closer to another, and an implied trust in the person we're revealing ourselves to.
Thus, we usually don't tell "disclosing" kind of stuff to just anyone.
Acquaintances don't disclose. Co-workers don't disclose. People we know on a casual level, we tend to communicate with on a casual level. But disclosing IS one of the defining characteristics of friends and lovers. Without an ample dose of healthy self-disclosure, there can be no intimacy.
And these disclosures can be classified in terms of the RISK involved in their revelations. That is, we have low-risk disclosures - such as the fact that you have a dog named Snot. Medium-risk disclosures - such as the fact that you're not very athletic and never were any good at sports. And high-risk disclosures - such as the fact that you were abused as a child and spent several years in therapy as a result.
The degree of risk refers to how much you open up and how VULNERABLE you make yourself to the JUDGMENTS of others.
If you tell a girl about your dog, your degree of vulnerability is low. If you tell her you're not very athletic, you're a little more vulnerable because she may prefer athletic guys and possibly think less of you. If you tell her about your childhood and the years of therapy, you're definitely in the high-risk area. You're taking a chance by trusting her with very personal information... the type of information you rarely trust to others.
Disclosures are the fuel of friendship, intimacy, and love. Without disclosures neither friendship, nor intimacy, nor love can exist.
SMALL TALK is a type of non-disclosing communication that's frequently used to help us "size up others" before we take a chance on disclosing to them. Small talk doesn't reveal anything about us... and doesn't foster a sense of closeness or friendship. You can't small talk your way into another's heart. You can only get there by disclosing.
Why? Because disclosures imply that the other person is special. You're TRUSTING the other with personal information about yourself. And you're flattering them by implying that you like them and want to get to know them better... by disclosing with them. And if it happens to be a medium or high-risk disclosure, this trust and openness creates a BOND which serves to tie people together in an unseen, but very powerful way. These bonds have the potential to create incredible relationships, strong friendships, or magnificent love affairs.
Now if we apply this simple concept of self-disclosures to a dating scenario, it's often easy to ascertain what the purpose of a date is, what often goes wrong, and how to go about pulling off the "successful" date.
The prototype for a successful date follows a pattern of communication from casual to intimate. You usually start off with small talk or some other non-disclosing type of talk which helps to break the ice and get things rolling. You then proceed to a series of low-risk disclosures with occasional medium-risk disclosures thrown in to help create the necessary bonds. High-risk disclosures are fairly rare early on but may pop up occasionally if things are really going well.
The key to making the date "successful" is the use of MATCHING DISCLOSURES. By matching we mean that each person is disclosing at a similar level. One person makes a low-risk disclosure and the other follows (at an appropriate time) with a similar low-risk disclosure. One person tosses in a medium-risk disclosure and the other follows with a more intimate, medium-risk disclosure of his own. In this way the two dating participants gradually open up and reveal themselves to one another.
They don't overwhelm the other with too many disclosures, or high-risk disclosures. But they don't bore the other with two hours of small talk either.
Throw in a few good active, reflective listening skills and you've got the makings of a wonderful dating experience.
Dating problems arise, often chronic dating problems which baffle and frustrate, when this simple formula is ignored.
For example, one guy may be extremely good at meeting women, getting phone numbers, and getting dates, but runs into problems once the dating actually begins. Outwardly he seems charming, charismatic, and confident. But the dates are usually duds, and the second and third dates rarely come, because he can't seem to create the "intimacy" necessary to BOND the relationship.
His conversation consists almost entirely of non-disclosing talk
(boring), because he's unable or unwilling to take a chance and
display his "real" self. He conceals too much. Being
ignorant of the prototype, he continually deviates from it, and grows
increasingly frustrated with his lack of success.
Another guy may have the seemingly opposite problem: he reveals too much too soon. He overwhelms his dates with too many disclosures. Low-risk, medium-risk, high-risk, he hasn't a clue about what's appropriate and what's not. Not understanding the importance of BALANCE, he continues to talk and talk, telling way more than he should... and pretty much ignores her self-disclosing "hints."
Most likely his problem is talking too much and listening too little, as others will usually match your disclosure level if given the opportunity. (The "opportunity" basically means you acting interested in what they have to say.)
So, in a nutshell, there are three types of disclosure-related problems which can appear and ruin our often eagerly anticipated dates:
1) Neither person is self-disclosing. You're basically boring one another to death with way too much small talk. Keep in mind that small talk pretty much loses its "purpose" once your date begins and the conversation starts to flow. Remember, your goal is to create a sense of intimacy that will bond the two of you together... which will make it much more likely that dates 2, 3, and maybe 5000 will occur... and make it much more likely that you will want dates 2, 3, and 5000 to occur.
To solve this problem: you need to RECOGNIZE what is happening. You then begin to "set the tone" by tossing some low-risk disclosures of your own into the conversation. Usually she will reciprocate and begin to match them with similar low-risk disclosures. But if she doesn't, then you need to "draw her out" by asking questions and rewarding her answers with attentive listening. Remember, BOTH of you must disclose if intimacy is to develop.
2) You're disclosing more than she is. You're either talking too much (most likely) or perhaps she's shy or has some other reservation about opening up to you. (For instance, a woman who really didn't want to go out with you, but did so because she felt trapped, or maybe she was just bored, will tend not to be very disclosing.)
To solve this problem: you need to RECOGNIZE what is happening. Then stop talking so much and concentrate more on listening to what she has to say. Especially focus your attention on any type of disclosing statement that she makes and reward her with attentive body language (maintain good eye contact, nod your head frequently, lean forward) and verbal reinforcers ("uh-huh" "yeah" "really"). And draw her out with questions if necessary.
3) She's disclosing more than you are. Most likely you're the type who is "afraid" of opening up to people you don't know very well. Or perhaps you see it as more manly to remain aloof (strong, silent type). Once in a while you may get yourself a lady who is a real talker and who makes it tough to keep the conversation balanced. But most likely the problem will stem from you and be one you can "easily" fix.
To solve this problem: you need to RECOGNIZE what is happening. And you need to realize that if you don't start BALANCING the disclosure level on this date, it's going to end up just like all the other dates you've been on recently. Disappointing. No chemistry. No returned phone calls. And no second date... much less the sizzling relationship that you were hoping for. You don't have to go out on a limb with medium or high-risk disclosures, but you need to make a conscious effort to throw out more low-risk disclosures in order to have any shot at bonding the date.
Remember, balance is critical. Matching disclosures are what create the intimacy necessary for a successful date. But balance refers to the level of disclosure not the amount. So this doesn't necessarily mean that you have to do exactly an equal amount of talking and disclosing. No way! In fact, it's usually better to let her do a little more of the talking and disclosing, while you hold back some... to create a little mystery about yourself.
Now not only is this communication pattern, from casual to intimate, the defining characteristic of a successful date, it's also the defining characteristic of a successful love relationship.
Successful love relationships also follow the same pattern, progressing from casual to intimate, with each partner gradually revealing more and more of themselves. But in a relationship you're essentially operating on a different risk level. Medium and high-risk disclosures become much more prevalent.
What I mean by this is a love relationship can't GROW based entirely on low-risk disclosures. It can putter along for a while with low-risk disclosures, giving you something to do other than sit at home and watch TV. But riskier disclosures are NECESSARY if true intimacy is to develop. This means opening up more and more to the other. And this means an increasing level of trust in the other. SCARY STUFF!
As mentioned, these medium and high-risk disclosures are what create the incredible ties which bond two people together, like magnets, in a relationship. These bonds can be very powerful and are virtually the only thing that can keep two people committed to each other for extended periods of time (like, till death do us part).
Eventually, being in love (that incredible state of infatuation) will wear off for most people. You will habituate to her, and she will habituate to you as you begin spending more and more time together. And your bodily responses will begin to normalize in each other's presence. (Breakups, divorces, and affairs frequently happen about now.) At this point, you may find yourself in a relationship with a real, somewhat ORDINARY person, whose major advantage over all the others is the fact that YOU KNOW ONE ANOTHER SO WELL.
And that's no minor advantage either.
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Parent's Resource Center
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Revised: November 14, 2006