Close Relationships Laboratory 



Self-Disclosure and Partner Responsiveness


Self-disclosure, or opening up about your thoughts and feelings, is one of the keys to the establishment of close relationships with others. Our lab's interest in self-disclosure stemmed from the idea that getting couples to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about their relationship might help them become more disclosing with their partners, in turn strengthening their relationship. This hypothesis was supported by an early study we conducted of committed dating couples (Slatcher & Pennebaker, 2006). Written self-disclosure led to greater relationship stability (couples stayed together longer) and brought about a number of changes in the ways partners “spoke” to each other in their daily Instant Messages (IMs), with increases in couples’ use of positive and negative emotion words. These word use changes helped explain why couples who wrote about their relationships were more stable (see also Slatcher, Vazire, & Pennebaker, 2008)You can read more about this research in media coverage on MSNBC.


Self-Disclosure in Close Relationships in Everyday Life

Currently, our lab is examining the links between self-disclosure and relationship quality and stability using daily diary methods and ecological momentary assessment (EMA) via an acoustic event-sampling device called the Electronically Activated Recorder (or EAR). Using these methods, we are investigating the process of self-disclosure in couples’ everyday interactions (see Slatcher, Robles, Repetti, & Fellows, 2010). We also are examining how spouses' self-disclosures to each other can positively impact their relationships with their adolescent children. In other words, when a parent opens up to his or her spouse about his/her thoughts and feelings, this appears to be beneficial to the parent-child relationship.

Partner Responsiveness

The other side of the self-disclosure coin, so to speak, is partner responsiveness. How our partners respond to us when open up to them is critically important for our relationships and well-being. When our partners respond to us in a way that makes us feel cared for, understood, and accepted, good things often follow. Much of the work looking at responsiveness (some of the excellent work by Harry Reis and J-P Laurenceau, for example) has shown that responsiveness leads to greater intimacy in relationships. Our work builds on this idea to see how partner responsiveness can lead to greater well-being over time, as well as better health and health-related biology. Further, we are very interested in determining why responsiveness is good for us. We have found, for instance, that perceived partner responsiveness predicts "healthier" cortisol (stress hormone) profiles 10 years later and that this can be explained by declines in negative emotions over that same 10-year period (Slatcher, Selcuk and Ong, 2015).

We are also looking at responsiveness in parent-child relationships. Although many relationship researchers have been influenced by developmental attachment theory, work on childhood and romantic attachment have progressed relatively separately from each other. To help bridge this gap, we have started examining the implications of partner responsiveness for the health of offspring. For instance, we have found that mothers’ avoidant attachment to their spouse/partner was negatively associated with maternal responsiveness toward toward their adolescent children. Notably, maternal responsiveness, in turn, predicts greater (“healthier”) glucocorticoid receptor gene expression in youth with asthma, showing how partner responsiveness may affect not only one’s own health-related biology but also that of one’s offspring.

Self-Disclosure and Responsiveness in Couple Friendships

In addition, we have conducted several experiments (e.g., Slatcher, 2010, Welker et al., 2014) in which we manipulate levels of self-disclosure between unacquainted pairs of couples in the lab using what is called the "Fast Friends" paradigm. We have found that couples in the high-disclosure condition feel much closer to the couples they meet in the lab and to their own partners (and also more passionate about their partners) following the interaction, compared to couples in the low-disclosure condition. Further, these effects are at least partly explained by how responsive their partner and they other couple are during the interaction.

Although correlational studies have shown that couples who have a larger percentage of shared friends (vs. individual friends) tend to have happier and longer-lasting relationships, it has been unclear whether social networks have an inherent benefit for couples or just that people who are happier in their relationships are more likely to make friendships with others together as a couple. These studies are allowing us to test the causal direction of the association between shared friendships and relationship quality and the mechanisms underlying this association. You can read more about this research in media coverage from The Wall Street Journal and Time.


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