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Disclosure as a phenomenon was first investigated by Sidney Jourard (1971). The process was originally defined as telling others about the self. Since then, an extensive amount of information about disclosure has been produced, leading to significant shifts in the way we think about this phenomenon (Derlega et al. 1993; Petronio in press). One change has been to consider disclosure as a process of revealing and concealing private information. Making this change raises many questions about how people decide to disclose or remain private and helps us better understand the process within romantic relationships, marriage, and families (Burgoon 1982; Holtgraves 1990; Petronio 1991, 2000).

Decision making behind the act of disclosing private information is an extremely complicated process, especially when we are considering close personal relationships and family interactions. For instance, we know that although intimacy often increases the possibility of revealing information, there are times when disclosure is counterproductive for the marital relationship or family. Soliciting disclosive information about a partner's health—such as asking about his or her level of pain—can actually increase the severity of pain a partner feels (Cutrona 1996). The more people disclose about their discomfort, the more they pay attention to the chronic pain. On the other hand, keeping secrets like sexual abuse can be destructive to a family and its members. Likewise, marital partners who are seriously ill with cancer, for instance, may find that the belief in self-sufficiency means the cancer patient is unable to disclose to his or her partner feelings of stress and discomfort (Pearlin and McCall 1990).

Because marital partners and families regulate both disclosure and privacy, it helps to have a framework to understand how people make decisions about this process. The theory of Communication Privacy Management (Petronio, in press) defines our revealing through the process of balancing disclosure and privacy. Briefly, the theory proposes that we manage the flow of our private information in relationships by constructing personal, dyadic, and group boundaries around private information. These metaphorically constructed boundaries allow us to identify who has ownership rights and control over the information; who does and does not have access to it; and how it should or should not be protected from those outside the boundary.

Because each of us simultaneously manages multiple boundaries with many individuals, the number of boundaries that we regulate increases exponentially with the number of individuals with whom we choose to disclose. To ensure our boundaries are protected, rules are enacted for revealing (disclosure) or concealing (privacy). Additionally, sanctions are established for any violation of a boundary rule. As information is shared to others outside of these co-constructed boundaries, additional rules emerge that govern this newly shared information. Individuals within the boundary become linked by the knowledge of the information disclosed (Petronio and Kovach 1997). The development of these rules forms the foundation for each of our boundary management systems. Through these systems, we individually and with others coordinate and manage the private information that is contained within our boundaries.

For those in close relationships, such as marital couples, there exists a critical need to manage shared private information because it plays a functional role in the relationship (Derlega 1984). Thus, through the regulation of privacy boundaries and coordination of rules, the partners are able to reduce ambiguity about the meaning of behavior and determine insights into a partner's intentions. However, partners must come to a mutually agreed upon set of rules so that they can coordinate the management of the private information effectively. For example, on a night out with another couple, the husband of one of the couples begins to give a detailed description of pet names he has for his wife to the other husband. After the evening ends, the wife directly informs her husband that the pet names he calls her should be kept only between the two of them. This information is not for anyone else to know. She is operating under the boundary rule that such information should be kept private between the couple. In his defense, the husband explains that while growing up his parents used the pet names they had for each other in public frequently, and he did not consider it of any significance. Here is a communication event in which turbulence occurred because of a failure by the couple to coordinate a privacy boundary around this information. As a result, the rules that maintain this information are necessarily renegotiated and new boundary rules are formed to manage access to the information. The adjustment is essential for both the husband and wife to have the same definition of "pet names" as private information.

When there is a disparity in expectations for disclosure, the result can have a significant negative impact on the relationship. For example, in one study, it was found that couples experienced problems in marital adjustment when there was an inequality in the amount of disclosure expressed compared to the amount of disclosure received (Davidson, Balswick, and Halverson 1983). Along these lines, Jourard (1971) suggests that people expect to receive rates of disclosure similar to that which they give to others. If there are different criteria for disclosure between partners, expectations can go unfulfilled, resulting in relational dissatisfaction ( Jorgensen and Gaudy 1980).

Gender Differences

Framed within the privacy management theory, an abundance of research has shown that men and women use different criteria for deciding to open or close their boundaries. Consequently, they tend to depend on different rules to reveal or conceal. The outcome of these rules is that women more than men tend to disclose overall (though there are situations where the reverse is also true). Women more than men also tend to talk about intimate or personal topics with each other. In addition, women prefer disclosing to same-sex friends while men prefer to disclose while engaging in some activity (Caldwell and Peplau 1982; Dindia and Allen 1992).

Men have a greater need to control their privacy (Petronio, Martin, and Littlefield 1984; Rosenfeld 1979). Men also report expecting greater negative ramifications when disclosing about life expectations (Petronio and Martin 1986). Men and women who enter into a marital relationship often have to change their personal rules to coordinate with their partners. Thus, although they still maintain the same rules around private information that is personal, once information becomes shared and defined as belonging to the couple collectively, new mutually held rules must be determined. If the couple is not able to agree on ways to mutually manage their shared boundary, conflict might erupt.

Family Privacy

Family boundary rules play a significant part in partners' coordination of private information. So much so that before entering into a partner relationship, each person brings with her or him specific boundary management rules that are inherited or learned from the way their parents managed such information. Similar to passing on rituals, parents often hand down family boundary access rules.

Karpel (1980) argues that for family secrets, there are those that are kept internally and those that are kept within the family as a whole but not given to outsiders. Similarly, members as a whole may develop an orientation to privacy and related boundary rules that apply to managing private information not only internally within the family, but also externally to others outside of the family. These family privacy orientations are passed down from one generation to the next. In general, families may be more open than closed, or they may be secretive. Sometimes, whether family members reveal these secrets often depends on the function of keeping the secret, their level of family satisfaction, and the relationship they have with the targeted confidant (Vangelisti and Caughlin 1997). For the most part, families expect a certain degree of privacy so that they can test out ideas, opinions, or beliefs in a more secure environment (Berardo 1974). Nevertheless, each family has its own way of defining the boundaries of privacy.

Parents and Child Privacy

Similarly to relational partners, if boundary issues are not resolved between family members, discontent can occur within the family, particularly between the privacy demands of children and parents. Not only can the boundary regulation of the family and others outside of the family be difficult to attempt to manage, but also the management within can be disappointing if the boundary rules are not negotiated. Consider the privacy dilemma that often occurs about a child's bedroom. Prior research has shown that children allow parents wide latitude in encroaching on their personal space and invading their privacy (Burgoon et al. 1989). Nevertheless, when children feel that their parents have stepped over that line, violating their privacy boundaries, they react negatively. The children feel a need to have some control over possessions, space, and private information.

To avoid this dilemma, the parents and children need to negotiate exactly when the parents might enter the room, granting the children the ability to control the space. Continuous violations of personal space could eventually result in defense actions on the part of the child (Petronio 1994). Privacy issues are particularly salient for adolescents (Youniss and Smollar 1985). The children's claim of privacy rights tends to mark their need to separate from the parents. As they grow older, children declare the right to more privacy and control over their personal information, space, and possessions. When parents do not allow them jurisdiction over these things, it interferes with the child's ability to become a mature adult (Youniss and Smollar 1985).

This issue often becomes salient when adult children, who have gone away to college, return home to face issues of boundary management with their parents. In the first of four studies, Sandra Petronio (1994) uncovered a number of ways parents invade the privacy boundaries of their college-age children (mean age was nineteen years old). For example, the parents often violate the privacy of their adult children by entering bedrooms without knocking, attempting to overhear telephone conversations, asking personal questions, opening personal mail, infringing on personal time, giving unsolicited advice, and going through personal possessions.

These invasions within the home create a dilemma for the children. As a result, they react with protective strategies. For example, to manage their privacy, they tend to lock or close doors when in their parents' home, make calls away from home, hide personal items, confront their parents with violations, refuse to disclose personal information, express disappointment in parents, and meet friends outside of the home (Petronio 1994).

Within families, issues of privacy extend far beyond invasions of college children. Entire families can experience privacy boundary predicaments, such as when private information about one or more family members is exposed. The family member who learns this information is caught in a predicament that forces him or her to decide whether to maintain the existing boundaries around the information or breach confidences. For example, while cleaning the garage, a nineteen-year-old college sophomore comes across a series of love letters less than a year old addressed to his mother from a man who is neither his father nor married to his mother. The son is forced to grapple with the issue of concealing or revealing this private information to the other family members. He has possession of the information without the knowledge of his mother. He, alone, has to decide the way he is going to manage the boundary around this information.

Faced with the dilemma of two equally unsatisfying alternatives, such as above, the family member usually must juxtapose the desire to maintain the boundary with what she or he believes is the most appropriate course of action, which may be to disclose to others within or outside the family. In either event, one choice will be good for the family member whereas the other will not. In weighing their decisions to break the boundary, family members often consider the consequences of their revealing.

However, managing family boundaries around private information is often not a sole family member's responsibility. Because family members often serve as confidants for each other, the way they manage the co-ownership of disclosed information matters to their ongoing family relationships. When family members are told about a private problem, there is a certain responsibility for the information told. For example, a sibling tells her sister she thinks she might be pregnant. Since being able to disclose high stress information is beneficial to one's health, knowing that her sister will treat the information with respect is critical (Pennebaker 1990).

At times, only a few family members will coown information. When family members share information with only one other member, a dyadic boundary is formed. On this level, the two family members co-own the information and establish coordinated rules as to the protection of or the access to the information by others. For example, a mother and daughter may protect the boundary around the fact that the mother has a secret checking account separate from her husband. Both mother and daughter establish boundary rules as to how to protect this private information from others in the family. As a result, the target of a disclosure, even among family members, can significantly influence the way people reveal and conceal certain information (Tardy, Hosman, and Bradac 1981). Interestingly, the most frequently selected confidant in families is the mother (Derlega et al. 1993). Fathers are chosen less often than mothers, either because they are less accessible or form a different type of relationship with their children.

The same process takes place when the entire family owns the information; all members are expected to take responsibility for managing the boundaries around access to and protection of the information. The maintenance of privacy is critical to the functioning of the family members. This is seen in the way families may place a boundary around the private information that one of the children is gay. When protection is working, all family members are expected to share in guarding this information from others outside of the family. However, if one member decides to disclose this to an outsider, others in the family may punish him or her by refusing to talk or through open confrontation about breaking the family rule.


Because disclosure is fundamental to family and personal relationships, identifying why it is expressed and how it is managed is critical for human understanding, especially within families. Since families provide a buffer zone for their members, a safe haven within which to learn and gain social support, understanding how disclosure functions is essential to the growth and development of the members.

See also:Communication: Couple Relationships; Communication: Family Relationships; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Family Relationships; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Family and Relational Rules; Friendship; Housing; Intimacy


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sandra petronio

jack sargent

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Revealing private personal information to other people is a fundamental characteristic of interpersonal communication. A great deal of research in the social sciences has examined the factors that affect such self-disclosure. Sidney Jourards 1964 book The Transparent Self energized self-disclosure research, particularly in the fields of social psychology, clinical and counseling psychology, and communications. Jourard defined self-disclosure as the extent to which people made themselves transparent (or clear) about their inner thoughts and feelings in their self-related communications with others. Jourards popular Self-Disclosure Questionnaire contains a broad range of topics including a persons attitudes and values, tastes and interests, personality, body, and sexuality. On this and similar measures, respondents typically indicate how much they would tell a target person about each topic.

Research suggests that self-disclosure is a fundamental way that relationship bonds are established, developed, and maintained. For example, self-disclosure helps relationship partners to clarify their own actions and intentions and to understand those of their partners. Self-disclosure also helps to increase feelings of intimacy, acceptance, trust, and self-worth within a relationship. For instance, research shows that more intimate self-disclosures are associated with greater liking, and that having disclosed to others increases peoples liking of those persons.

Much research has examined the disclosure reciprocity effect, or the tendency for interaction partners to disclose intimate information in a reciprocal fashion. Social scientists have suggested that interaction partners may feel normative pressure or an obligation to reciprocate the intimacy level of information that is shared in the relationship. Failing to attend to the normative aspects of disclosure reciprocity can lead to relationship problems. For example, telling another person too much about oneself too early in a relationship or failing to reciprocate another persons self-disclosures may inhibit the development of that relationship.

Researchers have consistently found that females tend to show more self-disclosure than males. Although a relatively small effect, this gender difference can be moderated by target, measure, or topic. For example, women disclose much more to those with whom they have a relationship (e.g., a friend or parent) than do men. Developmental researchers have found that as adolescents enter puberty, they disclose increasingly more to peers than to parents. Research also suggests that cultures with a greater emphasis on nuclear and extended families (e.g., Hispanic populations) are more self-disclosing than cultures with less closely knit social or family structures (e.g., non-Hispanic white Americans). Members of Eastern cultures (such as China and Japan) tend to report less frequent self-disclosures than members of Western cultures (such as the United States).

In addition to positive consequences for relationships, disclosing emotional self-related experiences has positive effects on physical health. However, sometimes disclosing a personal secret can lead to negative relationship consequences. For example, self-disclosures can make a person vulnerable to the rejection, indifference, alienation, or exploitation of others. In more applied settings, there is much discussion and debate about whether and to what extent therapists should self-disclose to their clients. The nature of self-disclosure in online relationships has also seen increased attention from researchers.


Derlega, Valerian J., Sandra Metts, Sandra Petronio, and Stephen T. Margulis. 1993. Self-Disclosure. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Jourard, Sidney M. 1971. The Transparent Self. Rev. ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Thomas M. Brinthaupt

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self-disclosure See SELF.

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