How conversation sparks intimacy

August 5, 2015

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Conversation is obviously a source of intimacy. But you mightn't expect it to be one of the predominant sources. Often we consider intimacy as a function of physical closeness. But intimicy is about relational closeness in any form. And conversation is an extremely powerful way to generate it.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


Conversation is obviously a source of intimacy. But you mightn't expect it to be one of the predominant sources. Often we consider intimacy as a function of physical closeness. But intimicy is about relational closeness in any form. And conversation is an extremely powerful way to generate it.

Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor created what is sometimes known as the ‘onion theory’. More accurately, it’s called social penetration theory and it describes what we decide to tell others about ourselves (and when).

It describes people as having ‘layers’ of what kinds of information we are comfortable disclosing to people. The deeper the 'layer', the less likely we are to disclose it. This depth is where the intimacy stems from. Here's why.

Our layers

The first layer: Public

The first (and most accessible) ‘layer’ of information about ourselves consists of information that we’ll freely divulge to anyone who asks. Demographic information like our age and name. Where we were born and where we live (in general terms). What we do for a living and maybe some of our hobbies. This is the kind of thing we would be comfortable set to ‘public’ on Facebook, or typing in our Twitter headline. We’re really free with this kind of information because there is no risk associated with giving it away. One stands to lose very little from the disclosure of our name. Thus, we have little reticence to disclose it.

The second layer: Semi-Private/Public

The second broad category of information is semi-private (or semi-public if you prefer). This is information that’s a little more personal. It’s information that has indications of our values and beliefs and reveals how we think about the world. These are our preferences, our goals and aspirations. This might even be more sensitive demographic information, like which temple we go to (the implication being that we’re religious). It might be why we picked our career or choice of study, which might reveal our inclinations toward the world. As such, this layer of information comes with risk: revelation of self comes with a risk of rejection and hurt. The closer to proximity to our values and beliefs, the more reticent we are the share.

The third layer: Private

This layer consists of your core values and sense of self; the root of your self esteem. This might be your political views or the source of your faith/lack thereof (e.g. your parents, an experience). Your deepest fears and fantasies. Your very concept of who you are. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we are typically very careful about whom we might disclose information that lives here. This information is really risky because it could really do us harm damage if abused by the wrong person. Only very few people will you trust with the foundations of who you are.

Sharing is the toot of intimacy

In this way, do we share information about ourselves. The onion metaphor is a useful way to visualise the kinds of information we’re willing to give away to others. But it becomes even more salient when we talk about intimacy.

Depth belies intimacy via risk

there's nothing more intimate in life than simply being understood. And understanding someone else

- Beecher, _Inner Circle_

The more access we provide with our disclosures, or the more layers we allow them to penetrate, the more vulnerable we become. We increasingly open ourselves to the risk of rejection.

We may feel, for example:

  • Fear of exposure (like being seen in the shower – it’s not dangerous, but we don’t like it)
  • Fear of abandonment and attack (having your conversations partner end the relationship or abuse you because of what you’ve said)
  • Fear of losing control (the other person can use that information however they like)
  • Fear of losing Self (what you tell others may change how they see you, you can be afraid of having people see you in a light that you don’t see yourself)

Risk creates vulnerability which creates intimacy

Letting others in, and grappling with these risks leaves you vulnerable. Opening ourselves up to vulnerability in this way engenders intimacy. When you lay yourself bare for others, you become intrinsically closer. So it’s not, as Mary Lydon Simonsen said:

…love lays bare your soul

It’s that baring your soul lays the foundations for love.

Depth isn’t the only source to intimacy

While intimacy and relational closeness is generated by the depth of our disclosures, it isn't always sufficient. We must also have breadth.

Consider your doctor. A doctor might have a particularly intimate knowledge of you, but only on a very limited set of topics. You probably wouldn’t call that relationship ‘close’ (although you might). Similarly, consider any kind of psychological therapy, the very point of which centres on the disclosure of information. Yet this information is necessarily restricted to the issues at hand. It is an uncommon, and often unhealthy, therapeutic alliance that comprises elements of relational closeness outside of the professional relationship.

Signs of relational closeness

Now that we know the layers, and the role they play in intimacy and relational closeness, we can explore how these apply to relationships. This often follows quite stereotypical patterns. Indeed, in can be understood well in the context of other models of relationship patterns, like Knapp's model of coming together. For example:

  • Early in relationships, the shallowest public and semi-private information is shared much more frequently. But as we penetrate each other’s layers, there is a natural slowing of conversational depth as we feel out our conversational partner’s closeness.
  • We also see reciprocity early on. A relationship that isn’t too close will see the two people share similar stories on a topic back to back, at equal levels of depth. So I might talk about what I do, then you might talk about what you do. I might then talk about why I do it and you’ll talk about why you do it. But as we progress in depth, we reach a point where reciprocating immediately is not necessary, and we’re comfortable sharing without the expectation of that immediate response because we know it will come eventually.
  • Too many negative disclosures (even really deep ones) without enough positives will actually damage a relationship. These kind of disclosures make us uncomfortable if they aren’t balanced, and we tend to want to distance ourselves from that.

Breaking the mould

But there are times when these patterns don’t apply. In particular, there are three well documented scenarios in which people share in a very odd way:

  • Extremely frequent, but shallow disclosures can cause feelings of intimacy. Why? Well, having extreme breadth can eventually equate to feelings of depth. We might not have actually shared any deep information, but enough shallow information can eventually accrue a similar value as deeper information. And so those feelings of intimacy are thus synthesised.
  • Sometimes, if one feel as though there is little risk attached, we can see very deep disclosures happen unusually quickly. If perhaps we may never see the person again, or if we feel that someone won't be able to do anything with the information, we may lose our inhibitions around disclosure. Consider online friendships that are anonymous, or conversations on airplanes. Yet, the same characteristic that makes the information feel shareable (the lack of risk), also means the feelings of intimacy are weakened. No risk, no reward.
  • In relationships that are coming-apart, we might see a reduction in the breadth of disclosures but also a deepening of disclosures. Where relational partners are still communicating, as the relationship dissolves partners share their feelings and judgements about the relationship and each other. This may be negative or positive, but often these things haven't been shared before.
  • Yet it is also possible that a reduction in deep sharing can actually signal that someone wants to back out of a relationship. It might display an unwillingness to share new risky information in light of an impending split.

So, although the American philosopher Mortimer Adler had it right when he said:

…love without conversation is impossible

It was actually Brontë’s Catherine who nailed it with:

It’s no company at all, when people know nothing and say nothing.

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