Peeling Back the Layers

The ICE simulates many aspects of getting to know each other, although the acronym ICE is certainly ironic! The purpose of such talk is not to get "colder," but perhaps to feel more "warmly" toward each other. We do this by slowly and carefully "peeling back" the layers of our self-concepts.

The outermost layer, your public face, includes material and expressions that seem "safe" to show to others. Below that are more personal realities, and below those are thoughts and feelings -- real hopes and fears -- that are downright risky to reveal. Relationship researchers compare this image of the self to an onion whose layers can be peeled back from a protective outer coating until at last we reach the tender core.

The process of peeling back, revealing yourself gradually to another person, is self-disclosure. This term was originally introduced by psychologist Sydney Jourard in his 1964 book The Transparent Self. Jourard argued that in order to have both healthy self-concepts and relationships, we must be able to disclose ourselves to others. Only by telling another about yourself can you be known; only by listening can you begin to know another. Such openness and honesty are vital for authentic living.

Without self-disclosure, we remain unknown, and our connections with others are false and empty. Self-disclosure, in part, requires you to take the risk of being rejected or even betrayed. This is easy at a superficial level, but it gets harder as you get closer to the core. If someone else disagrees with your taste in music -- "Anyone who dislikes fusion jazz has no musical intelligence at all!" -- it might be disappointing but, unless your are a musician, it's not likely to feel like a personal rejection. You can't argue taste -- there is no right or wrong.

But if someone disagrees with you about something important, after taking the time to get to know you and presumably like you more and more, such a disagreement can feel like a personal rejection. Your feelings will be hurt or your sense of the relationship will be threatened. "Since you ask," says your friend, "I have to say I don't agree with your religious beliefs at all. I think you are mistaken and I don't know how you can think such things."

If your beliefs are important to you, how do you reconcile such disagreement from someone who is close to you? Such disagreement would be easy to tolerate from stranger. But from a friend it feels like a rejection. It introduces discord and invalidation. Can your interactions be comfortable, or even continue, if your friend cannot respect such a fundamental aspect of your own life?

The word "intimate" comes from a Latin root intimare, meaning "to make known." To become intimate requires revealing, exposing yourself. This means making yourself vulnerable. Self-disclosure requires courage, which implies having some self-esteem and social comfort to start with. People who don't know or like themselves will have difficulty revealing themselves to others, having little positive to say. In contrast, shy individuals may have something to say-but experience great anxiety in trying to say it! We take for granted this complex and challenging process which people everywhere engage in all the time.

It can be helpful to remember that self-disclosure is not easy but is still absolutely essential to closeness. No one leaps from being a stranger to being an intimate without the step-by-step business of getting to know each other in between. Perhaps people do "fall in love" or at least attraction at first sight, but that's not the same as intimacy: for such suddenly smitten pairs, most of their relationship, all of their communication, still remains to be worked out.

Bidding for Closeness and Responding to Bids

In the first vignette opening this lesson, a smitten man bids too soon for closeness with the woman he has been seeing. Confident that he can confide in her, Perry reveals to Meg that his mother was depressed and suicidal. Instead of the consolation he expected, he gets a gentle rebuff and a change of subject. What did he do wrong? First, perhaps disclosure of family tragedy is not the stuff of early date conversation. Second, his bid for closeness apparently came too soon, either for their budding relationship or at least for his friend. He intended her to be touched and responsive; the impact of his disclosure on her, in contrast, was to push her away somewhat.

Before we look at this botched equation -- how "intent = impact" -- let's examine the two roles in Perry and Meg's conversation. A conversation consists of many acts of communication, with fast turn-taking and much role-switching. In any simple communication, there is one Sender intending to transmit a message, and one Receiver experiencing its impact. Spelled out schematically:

(speaking or writing)
= Receiver
(listening or reading)

When the Sender's intent equals the Receiver's impact, we say communication has succeeded. In the second vignette opening this lesson, Michelle feels hurt when Doug talks about her diet in front of friends. Doug didn't intend to hurt Michelle, but that's the impact Michelle felt because of how she heard his remark and the context in which she heard it.

In the case of the first vignette, Perry's intent (to get closer) did not anticipate the statement's impact ("he's trying to get too close") on Meg, so communication failed. Why does Intent = Impact sometimes? Three reasons: distorted sending; biased receiving; and confusing context.

  1. The Sender's message is distorted. Perry's timing was bad: he pushed for closer communication too early for Meg. If you make a premature bid for closeness, your intention for good, pleasant relations will be misread as an invasion, even attack, like a stranger standing too close to you, so that you just want to back away and escape.

    Further, Perry hoped that by telling his secret, he would be showing his trust for Meg -- but he misjudged the unpleasant content of his message. He's used to his own story by now and may not realize how painful it sounds to those not familiar with it.

    Could Perry have disclosed the same information in a less intimidating way? Probably: Instead of revealing the awful details of his childhood pain right now, he might just have said, "I can relate to the character in the movie a little. My own mother was a very unhappy person and it affected me too. Maybe I'll tell you about it sometime." Then the ball would be in Meg's court: If she pressed for details, Perry could respond. If not, he'd know that this is not the time or place for this disclosure.

  2. The Receiver's interpretation is biased. What about the impact on Meg? Let's create a history for Meg: She tries to be a helpful person, and others respond to this by confiding in her or asking advice. In her last romance, however, her partner frequently whined and complained about a bad childhood or past traumas. Meg got little pleasure from it and felt used. Eventually she ended the relationship; it was the right decision, but she still feels guilty about "abandoning" her ex, who "needed" her care and understanding.

    Now she hopes to find someone who will be a partner, not a patient. Perry is attractive, funny and smart; they have a lot in common. He's a grown-up, independent man. Suddenly, just as they are relaxed and talking about a movie, for heaven's sake, Perry admits he's recovering from his own childhood trauma! Will this be more of the same for Meg? She hears in Perry's confidence the echo of her ex-boyfriend's whining, and naturally she backs off.

    What could Meg do to salvage the moment, even the relationship? Honesty is the best policy -- and at this early stage, need not involve much disclosure: "I'm sorry to hear that, Perry," she might say. "Perhaps we can talk about that sometime. Getting back to the movie, don't you think the detective character was a little far-fetched? I thought he latched onto a suspect much too quickly . . ."

    Instead, Meg reacted impulsively. When crowded by a Sender who is "jumping levels" by getting too close too soon, people normally respond in one of two ways: reciprocating or compensating. Reciprocating means responding in kind: when the Sender bids for closeness, the Receiver responds with closeness as well. That's what Perry was hoping. But Meg responds in the second way, by compensating, or restoring the distance the previously separated them.

    If someone gets physically too close, you can try to move away physically, back up, move your chair away, or at least turn your head away and reduce eye contact. When someone gets too close conversationally, you change the subject to safe ground, some variation of the cliché of discomfort, "Gee, look at the time! Is it really that late? I have to leave now." Such a shift can seem abrupt but it can be mild.

    When compensating, the Receiver now takes the role of Sender, expressing an intent to create some distance. Will it be effective? Only if the other person gets the message, respects the need for space and changes tack.

    A strong rejection can be hurtful; but a gentle rebuff might be too subtle. When you physically back away from an invasive stranger, you'll continue to be pursued if the other fails or refuses to get the message.

    Go and stand by the punch bowl to create a barrier, or turn your back on the invader. Better yet, however, take the role of Sender and make it clear: "I am uncomfortable when someone stands so close to me. Can we keep a few feet between us? I'll be able to see and hear you better." After this, the other's response will unequivocally show whether communication is possible at all.

  3. The context is wrong. It can be the wrong place: A busy restaurant may be too noisy for a personal conversation. A second date might be too soon to begin revealing grim family histories. Other environmental factors can distort intent or alter impact: ringing phones, coworkers tapping on the doorway, interruptions from friends and family members will all change both the Sender's and Receiver's experience.

    What to do? When sending a message, pay attention to your surroundings and decide whether you can be clear in these circumstances. When receiving, consider whether you can get the message clearly.

    For example, I myself am becoming hard of hearing. When I'm busy writing or preparing a class, my favorite CDs playing in the background, neither my attention nor my ears are attuned to new messages. Sometimes my husband interrupts with an announcement: "If so-and-so calls, I'm downstairs." Then he's gone. What happened? I heard "Don't call me downstairs." Was I supposed to do something? Immersed in my task, I miss the phone call or take a message so as not to interrupt him.

    Communication here has failed because the Sender was unclear, the context created interference, and the Receiver's was unable to get the message. In simple everyday errors, this is no big deal. But what if the call were important? What if the conversation were critical to the very future of the relationship?

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