“Talk to me, please!”
Has that declaration ever been directed at you? If so, your spouse is probably frustrated with your lack of talking. You may have gone into “silent mode” in order to protect the relationship from potential harm, but, more likely, you’re frustrated about something and you’ve chosen to clam up. Regardless of your reasons, your journey along the Communication Highway is experiencing tension and turbulence that could lead both of you into marital misery.

Healthy relationships require effective communication. While good communication is not a guarantee for a happy marriage, it does provide a strong reassurance that the husband and wife will continue to travel safely and successfully in their marital journey. Conversely, when the communication process is sputtering or spinning the overall risk of collisions and breakdowns increases for the couple. Wise couples will invest a great deal of energy and effort into the cultivation and maintenance of a positive communication process. That process involves two key components:  supplying self-disclosure and learning to listen. (The listening component is explored in detail in a separate article. This article addresses the issue of self-disclosure.)
Clearly, both components are required for healthy communication. One spouse could supply a strong level of self-disclosure but the communication process is thwarted if the other spouse chooses not to listen. The process is also hindered when there is listening being done but there is no self-disclosure being supplied. Both spouses need to self-disclose to one another and both spouses need to listen to one another.  

As a Family Life Educator and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I’ve been privileged to work with many individuals and couples who were frustrated about insufficient self-disclosure. Most men and women choose to marry in order to enjoy a close, intimate relationship. However, their dream is lost when there is not enough mutual self-disclosure to allow for relationship depth and personal intimacy. Admittedly, some people have a different concept of “intimacy” for which self-disclosure is a non-issue. But for those couples dreaming about emotional closeness the frustration level increases if both spouses have to mind-read and guess about each other’s wants and needs. In the absence of self-disclosure guessing becomes the default game plan. Rather than guess they could simply ignore each other’s wants and needs, but the result will be relationship distance, not closeness. So, what’s the roadmap that will encourage mutual understanding and relationship closeness? Among other ingredients the solution involves appropriate self-disclosure.

                                                                    I.  Assessing the Amount of Self-disclosure

How much self-disclosure is currently being shared by each spouse in your relationship? If you were to assess the level of self-disclosure on a 1-10 scale on which 0-3 equals Low, 4-6 equals Moderate, and 7-10 equals High, where would you fit on the scale? It’s easy to assume that we are providing a high level simply because we talk a lot. However, talking itself does not necessarily include meaningful self-disclosure. We can talk a lot about many topics and share significant facts and interesting details, but in doing so we may share very little about our inner selves. Our failure to reveal personal material results in a Low level of self-disclosure.

A High level of self-disclosure is usually desirable and beneficial in a close relationship like marriage. In other settings a High level could be viewed as inappropriate, such as on a first date when an individual reveals personal information that is clearly too much too soon. In other situations the delay of self-disclosure could be interpreted as “too little too late.” Each couple needs to work toward the level that provides for them the degree of mutual understanding they prefer in their relationship.

The frustration about “too little” is much more common than is the problem with “too much” self-disclosure. Perhaps you can connect with the spouse who said, “I don’t know what you expect of me. You won’t tell me and I’m tired of guessing.” The “guessing game” usually leads to a comment like, “I never know what you expect until I do the wrong thing and I get jumped on.” I continue to be amazed at individuals who assume that their spouses can figure out what is expected in the absence of clear self-disclosure. Many of us actually practice a double standard in that we want our spouses to be clear with us but we require that they guess about us. The “you self-disclose but I’ll just keep silent” approach to marital communication creates relationship imbalance and increased frustration. Without sufficient self-disclosure the observation might be true that “communication is so bad in our marriage that we have to communicate by rumor.”
Are you one of the silent types who self-discloses on a Low level? If so, you may be determined to remain at that level even though the price of Low self-disclosure is limited closeness with your spouse. On the other hand, you might have already realized the limitations you’ve put on your relationship and you want to increase your level of self-disclosure. If so, you can connect with the man who admitted, “I share very little with my wife. How can I be more open with her?” His question invites an important exploration: “How can we increase our self-disclosure in order to deepen and strengthen our marriage relationship?” Let’s consider this process from two perspectives: first, understanding why we choose not to self-disclose and, secondly, developing tools that will increase our self-disclosure.

The failure to self-disclose could result from two possible underlying causes: first, a lack of awareness and, secondly, a choice to withhold. An examination of these causes will hopefully enlighten us about our specific situation and thereby facilitate an increased ability to self-disclose appropriately to our spouse.
Why I Don’t Self-disclose. . .

One reason for Low self-disclosure is simply lack of awareness. “If there is something inside of me to self-disclose, I’m not aware of it.” One fellow told his wife that her basic assumption was wrong. She assumed that he had lots of feelings and “stuff” that could be self-disclosed with her but he chose not to share. He tried to explain to her that “there’s just not much to share.” His explanation prompted me to compose the following limerick about “Self-Disclosure.”
          My wife says she wants more revealing,
          I tell her I’m never concealing—
                “There’s no depth and no wit
                 And no feelings to fit
          The subjects with which I am dealing.”
                                             -- Dr. Bill Baker (2011)

You might like to argue with this fellow and claim that “there has to be more stuff in there” than he thinks. But perhaps he is being honest with himself—there’s “not much water in the well.” Clearly, we cannot draw water from a well that is dry! However, the problem is usually a matter of awareness rather than existence. There is “water in the well” but I just don’t know it. My challenge is to increase my awareness and understanding of thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs that are within me. That awareness would then lead to a choice I get to make: to self-disclose that personal information to my spouse or to keep the information to myself.

A second reason for Low disclosure is a choice to withhold. Simply put, I shut up or I clam up. Either way I’m making a specific decision to withhold personal information, thereby maintaining a Low self-disclosure level. This choice invites the question, “Why do I withhold from someone I love?” At least two responses may answer the question. I could choose to “shut up” for a positive purpose, specifically to protect our relationship from additional damage. For example, you’re in a discussion with your spouse and you know that you’re getting very upset. Your emotions intensify and you’re quickly approaching a point of explosion. Your brain kicks in to alert you and to recommend, “Shut up! If you say another word, you’re going to damage your marriage. Don’t say another word.” You listen to your “mental gatekeeper” and decide to stop talking. You make a predetermined, recognizable “Time-out” signal to your spouse to clarify your action as you remove yourself from the current discussion and head toward a place where you can “cool down” and regain your composure. After a pre-set period of time has elapsed for the “Time-out,” you go back to your spouse to re-engage and to complete the discussion in a more productive manner. This type of “shut up” withholding has a positive intention and, when used effectively, can safeguard a relationship from hurt and harm. 

However, the second type of withholding has a different intention and a negative impact on the relationship. A choice to “clam up” means that inner thoughts and feelings are purposely stuffed inside where they fester and grow into full-blown resentment or alienation. The decision to “clam up” represents a behavioral pattern that will lead to a total breakdown on the Relationship Highway. Since a “clam up” pattern is clearly a death sentence to relationship health, we need to understand why any of us would choose to engage in this type of withholding behavior.

Basically, we choose to “clam up” for one of two reasons:  to protect ourselves or to hurt the other person. These two reasons are prompted and fueled by at least three important motivations. Let’s explore these motivations so we can understand why we “clam up” when we do.
The Pain Motivation . . .

Many people “clam up” simply because of pain—or the fear of pain. The pain factor is a frequent explanation for the “clam up” response. In communication workshops and in therapy sessions I’ve asked an important question:  “What causes you to clam up and withhold yourself from your spouse whom you say you love?” The answers vary but all contain some dimension of emotional pain, and some even reflect physical pain. Let me share a few of these typical responses.
           “If I tell how I really feel inside, I know I’ll be slapped or hit. It’s not worth it.”
           “My spouse makes public things that are very intimate and private to me.”
           “She discloses secrets.”
           “He betrays confidence”
           “I’m afraid he’ll be disappointed in me or critical.”
           “She contradicts or corrects me in front of others—to an excess”
           “He acts as though my opinion or feelings are immaterial to the discussion.”

One husband’s story might connect with you. He arrived home one evening feeling extremely stressed out about work.  When his wife asked him about his day he chose to share his feelings with her. Half-way through his story she interrupted (as she was prone to do) with criticism regarding the way he had dealt with the stress. Her critical remarks hit him hard. The last thing he needed at home was more criticism; it was too painful for him. According to him, he stopped talking, grabbed his briefcase which he had laid on the sofa, and left the room. Based on her negative responses he made a clear decision: “I will never again tell her anything about my work, no matter what.” With that choice this man entered the “clam up” zone, and an important area of self-disclosure was removed from their husband-wife relationship. It was interesting and puzzling to me that this wife said that she valued her husband’s self-disclosure and wished he would do more sharing with her. Then she sabotaged the process by the hurtful way she handled his story when he did self-disclose. Unfortunately, her criticalness was a pattern that predictably led to emotional distance and ultimately to an unnecessary divorce.

Whether physical or emotional in nature, pain is a huge deterrent to open and honest self-disclosure. Until the actual pain or the fear of potential pain is realized and resolved, the “clam up” pattern will probably continue, and the couple’s relationship will be limited in both depth and closeness.
The Power Motivation . . .

The issue of power (or control) is a significant element in every human relationship, including marriage. To exert or maintain power some people resort to the “silent mode” of communication. That choice usually places the “clammed up” person in control. The underlying message may be, “See, I’m not talking and there’s nothing you can do to make me talk. So I’m more powerful than you are.” The other spouse is left to mind-reading or guessing to figure out what the “clammed up” spouse is thinking.

Some spouses use the “clammed up” silent treatment to manipulate the other spouse to agree to some action, such as admitting fault, making apologies, or performing actions that the silent spouse requires before the silence is removed. In many relationships the “clammed up” mode is used as a powerful tool to manipulate each other for selfish, self-serving purposes. Without exception these manipulations serve only to destroy trust and hinder intimacy. 
The Punishment Motivation . . .  

In all human relationships mistakes are made and the people involved feel hurt. If the hurt is dealt with and healing occurs, the relationship probably stays on course. However, if the hurt is not resolved satisfactorily, the person who was hurt could become resentful and may resort to punishing the offender through “clamming up.” In this scenario the silent treatment is used to punish the offender for what is perceived to be hurtful behavior. This kind of unhealthy silence can extend into grudge-holding. Perhaps you can think of two people, such as relatives or friends, who get their feelings hurt, develop resentment, and grow a grudge of silence that may last for many years. Clearly, this negative behavioral pattern spells disaster for any married couple or, for that matter, any two people in a close relationship. 

In summary, we demonstrate a Low level of self-disclosure because we have a lack of personal awareness or we simply choose to withhold self-disclosure. Our choice to withhold may be that we “shut up” temporarily to safeguard the relationship from further harm, or, more likely, we withhold because of issues such as pain, power, and punishment. These causes of Low self-disclosure need to be addressed and resolved before any couple can travel in their marital journey toward higher levels of mutual self-disclosure. With this material in mind let’s explore briefly some thoughts and tools that can help us supply self-disclosure so that our communication patterns will be positive and healthy. 

                                                                      II. Assisting the Achievement of Self-disclosure

Supplying self-disclosure is a key component of effective communication. The other component is listening. To achieve success with both components a simple formula needs to be understood and utilized. The formula states that Attitude + Ability + Action = “A+” Communication. A high grade on our “Communication Report Card” requires work on all three factors. The process begins with the right attitude—the desire to grow a healthy relationship through mutual understanding achieved through appropriate self-disclosure and effective listening. Secondly, motivated by that positive attitude we develop the ability to self-disclose and to listen effectively. Thirdly, we put those abilities into action in that we practice daily the skills that encourage and enrich the overall communication process.

How can I increase my level of self-disclosure in a way that will improve my overall relationship? That is an excellent question! Let’s explore the process of self-disclosure through the usage of an acrostic, the word “SPEAK.”  Each letter will represent one of five facets that are all key elements or steps of the self-disclosure process. 
S= Self-awareness . . . 
Supplying self-disclosure simply means that you share your inner thoughts and feelings with your spouse or friend. However, before you can share you must first become aware of what is on the inside. I like to think of your “inner stuff” as being your “story.” So I might say to you, “Share your story with me; tell me what’s going on inside of you about this particular issue we’re discussing.” I’m asking you to disclose to me your inner self.

How much self-awareness do we have about our “inner stuff”? How can we increase our self-awareness? Over the years I’ve seen numerous concepts, models, or tools related to the issue of self-awareness. Most of these resources would probably be helpful to you. Of all the self-awareness models I’ve studied I have found the “Awareness Wheel” to be the most practical and usable. I learned about the “Awareness Wheel” in graduate school when I was going through training to become a Certified Instructor and Trainer for Couple Communication Workshops. The program was developed originally by Sherod Miller, Ph.D. and several of his co-workers, and is described in detail in his book entitled, Talking and Listening Together.* The hub of the Awareness Wheel is the specific issue being discussed. The wheel is composed of five dimensions that surround the hub: Sensations, Thoughts, Feelings, Intentions, and Actions. The Sensations dimension contains the “raw data” we gain through our five senses (what we see, hear, etc.). The Thoughts dimension contains the beliefs, opinions, and ideas we develop from the “raw data” or Sensation area. The Feelings dimension contains all of the emotions we’re experiencing related to the issue in the hub of the wheel. The Intentions dimension contains our wants and preferences in regard to the issue. The Actions dimension contains our past, present, and future actions related to the issue under discussion. A “full awareness” means that we are aware of the contents of all five dimensions. Our awareness is limited if we do not perceive the contents of one or more dimensions. My professional experience has indicated to me that, generally speaking, men tend to have fuller awareness of Sensations, Thoughts, and Actions, whereas women, generally speaking, tend to be more aware of the Feelings and Intentions dimensions. The question “How do you feel about that?” asks about information in the Feelings dimension. The question “What do you want to do?” deals with the Intentions dimension. Our challenge is to explore all five dimensions within us, thereby increasing our overall self-awareness about the issue under consideration. 
P= Purpose . . . 

Our self-awareness will not be known or understood by another person unless we choose to self-disclose through some medium (talking, writing, etc.). We make a personal choice either to share our awareness or not to share. The “not-to-share choice” has been explored earlier in this article. If we decide to share this personal information, we would do well to first consider our purpose in self-disclosing.

Two basic self-disclosure purposes are possible:  to “build up” or to “tear down.” If my honest purpose is to build up my spouse and our relationship and I believe that my inner information will help that process, I will have a positive purpose in self-disclosure. However, my purpose may be selfish and self-serving in that I’m only trying to “get what I want” and the impact on the relationship is negative and destructive. If my basic purpose is to use my self-disclosure to selfishly manipulate the situation and thereby tear down my spouse and our relationship, my basic purpose is unhealthy and I’m probably better off choosing not to self-disclose.
E= Expression . . .

The third term “expression” deals with the “how” of self-disclosure. We can express our self-disclosure in numerous positive or negative formats and styles, each of which will influence the ultimate outcome, that is, whether our spouse or relationship is built up or torn down.  The material being disclosed might be positive and important to the relationship, but the delivery style used is so negative that the relationship is damaged by the self-disclosure. The voice tone, the body language, and the specific words are all vital elements of the delivery process. No doubt you’ve heard the comment, “It’s not so much what you say as it is the way you say it.” Or perhaps you’ve heard it said, “The truth of what you’re saying gets lost in the hurtful delivery of the message.”

We can choose to use a negative delivery style but the price tag is high. A negative style invites a defensive reaction in that your spouse will probably “fight back” or for self-protection will withdraw in unproductive silence. For our self-disclosure to benefit the relationship we must make certain that we express the material in a way that is accurate and clear but in a style that is caring and compassionate. The highest goal of the communication process is mutual understanding that promotes the “building up” of the marriage relationship.
A= Assessment . . . 

The fourth step in the self-disclosure process is assessment. As the speaker self-discloses (or “tells his story”), he watches the listener carefully to assess the level of understanding. Is his self-disclosure being understood by the listener? How is the listener reacting to the information being shared? This assessment will help the speaker to choose to continue self-disclosing, to change his delivery style, or to stop talking temporarily. He might ask the listener to repeat back what was shared so that the speaker can confirm the understanding or clarify the portion that was not understood.
K= Knowledge . . .

The final facet is the word “knowledge.” If the first four steps are completed in an effective manner, the final result is increased knowledge based upon the shared self-disclosure. That knowledge should increase the level of mutual understanding within the relationship and will hopefully deepen and strengthen the total relationship. If the knowledge gained involves some type of dissatisfaction or frustration, the couple can use that knowledge to explore solutions for satisfying needs or resolving conflicts.

The acrostic SPEAK could provide a type of communication roadmap for healthy self-disclosure within any human relationship. When used consistently and effectively the five facets will further equip us for positive self-disclosure and will thereby enrich the total relationship. 

                                                                      III. Assuring the Arena of Self-disclosure

As stated earlier, meaningful self-disclosure will probably not occur if the speaker perceives the communication climate to be unsafe. The perceived lack of emotional and/or physical safety will cause most people to keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves. Therefore, the cultivation and maintenance of a “safe communication climate” should be a high priority for every relationship couple.

In my professional therapy work I’ve had countless spouses, usually wives, express their frustration that their spouse will not talk or self-disclose. Why won’t their spouses talk to them? Why won’t they self-disclose what’s going on inside of them? The frustration they’re feeling is very real and the emotional pain can be quite severe.

If your spouse is not very self-disclosing or is “clammed up,” you might do well to examine the communication climate. You could be doing something, known or unknown, that is creating for your spouse an unsafe setting for honest self-disclosure. Your listening habits or your response patterns may lead your spouse to clam up. On the other hand, you might be doing everything possible in a positive way to create a safe climate but your spouse continues to feel unsafe and unwilling to share. This situation probably merits a few sessions with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist or similar professional to explore and resolve the communication roadblocks.

A safe arena can be assured by the presence of two important qualities: respect and trust. Spouses who respect each other will strive to build each other up rather than tear each other down. All self-disclosure will be treated with sincere respect. Each spouse will work hard to listen first before responding to make sure that accurate understanding has been gained. Disagreements are shared and explored in a mutually respectful manner. Furthermore, the presence of trust will encourage continuing self-disclosure and listening. The spouses trust each other to keep confidential anything that is clearly specified as “private.” They trust that their self-disclosures will not be brought up inappropriately in the future as weapons used against them.

Respect also includes patience in listening. Two specific habits reflect a lack of patience. The impatient listener will interrupt the speaker in order to disagree or to verbalize his own point of view, or he will interrupt to complete the speaker’s sentences for him. Both habits are counter-productive in that they usually encourage the speaker to “shut up” or to “clam up.” Patience shows respect, and respect safeguards the communication arena.

The speaker (the one self-disclosing his “story”) has a huge responsibility in regard to the communication climate. What he says and the way he says it will promote either a safe or an unsafe arena for communication. The practice of self-disclosure is never a license to demean, put-down, and verbally abuse the listener. Physical expressions (or “body language”) need to be positive and appropriate so that physical safety is safeguarded. The usage of loud, harsh, angry tones combined with profanities and put-downs is usually a guaranteed method for destroying a safe arena. Put-downs are like “daggers in the heart” and are inherently destructive. For example, one fellow, now divorced from his wife, was hurt deeply by her frequent put-downs, such as her comment “I should never have sent a boy to do a man’s job.” Thinking such a thought is one thing; self-disclosing the thought in such a hurtful way is inexcusable. I’ve long valued the adage, “All mud thrown is ground lost.” The word MUD could represent many things, including the phrase “MUglyDisclosures.” When spouses start “slinging mud” toward each other, the communication arena is compromised and the Communication Highway turns into a “Dangerous Travel” zone.   

The communication arena is vitally important and must be protected with great diligence. Both spouses must work hard to assure the existence of physical and emotional safety within that arena. The presence of safety may not guarantee an “A+” grade on the Communication Travel Report, but the lack of safety is definitely the road to failure.
Concluding Thoughts . . .

For many people self-disclosure is a natural and easy action to perform. For other people, however, the action may be unnatural and difficult. I extend my congratulations to the first group. You’ve already learned a skill that is essential to meaningful communication, whether you’re in a marriage or a friendship relationship. To the second group I extend my encouragement to start working on the development of positive self-disclosure skills.

You have many good resources available to you, including helpful books and professional therapists. The work involved may force you to “stretch your comfort zone,” but the end result will make the effort worthwhile for you.

Healthy relationships are precious. They are worth cultivating—and safeguarding. Appropriate self-disclosure and effective listening are key components that promote both good communication and healthy relationships. Our journeys along the Communication Highway are much more enjoyable and meaningful when the communication is positive and productive. I wish you well as you strive to improve your personal communication skills.

As always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys. 

*Miller, Sherod, (1991). Talking and Listening Together: Couple Communication One. Interpersonal Communications Program, Inc.

Related Resources for You . . .

Listening:  Dr. Baker has written and published on this website a companion article entitled “Communication:  Learning to Listen.” To view that article please click here.

If you are interested in several helpful resource books or relevant websites that deal with marital communication and conflict, check out the materials on this website. Go to Home Page, click on Resources, then on List of Categories, and then on Communication and Conflict. Or, you can just click here.

To view a sample declaration of the “Commitment to Communication” (PDF format) described in Dr. Baker's article about "Learning to Listen," please click the image to the right or just click here.

For more information (PDF) about the Speaker/Listener skill mentioned in Dr. Baker's article about "Learning to Listen," please click the image to the right or just click here.



 VIDEO:  To view a television interview in which Dr. Baker explores the topic "Preventing Clam-ups in Relationships" please click here or click on the image to the right.








VIDEO: To see a short television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses self-
disclosure and listening in "How Listening Helps Relationships" please click the image to the right or just click here.






(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)


                      (Blog #505)


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