Do you wish to make your relationships more intimate? Then understanding the social penetration theory can help you significantly in getting close to the people you care about.
What is the social penetration theory?
Developed by psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor, the social penetration theory or SPT focuses on the various ways a relationship grows, progresses, and becomes more intimate. It claims that interpersonal communication plays a crucial role in bringing two or more individuals closer and enriching a relationship by developing closeness.
The concept posits that with the development of a relationship, communication becomes more deeper and intimate, instead of being shallow and cold. In their 1973 research, Altman and Taylor state that relationships require and “involve different levels of intimacy of exchange or degree of social penetration.”
Being an objective theory, SPT reveals that interpersonal relationships grow mainly through deliberately revealing personal information about one’s self like personal values, motivations, experiences, intentions, thoughts, and emotions to another person they deem close. This is known as self-disclosure.
This psychological theory also assumes that relationships grow and progress in a predictable, yet systematic manner. Self-disclosure allows a relationship to develop by shifting from superficial layers of communication to more intimate exchanges. However, it can also explain how a relationship deteriorates and comes to an end.
Understanding social penetration theory
According to the Social Penetration Theory, if you wish to move your relationship from a non-intimate level to a more personal and deeper level, self-disclosure is key. According to Altman and Taylor’s theory, closeness and intimacy is a gradual process that is based on interpersonal communication, mutual self-disclosure, and exchanging vulnerabilities.
The researchers believed that social penetration occurs faster during the initial stages of a relationship. However, it slows down remarkably as the relationship grows old.
As it is, the concept is based on four core assumptions:
- Self-disclosure is the most important element of relational development.
- Relationships generally develop in a systematic, yet predictable manner.
- Interpersonal relationships move from non-intimate stages to intimate stages.
- Development of a relationship naturally involves depenetration & dissolution.
According to a 2015 study by researchers Amanda Carpenter and Kathryn Greene at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA, “Social penetration theory describes the role of disclosure in relationship development, focusing specifically on how self‐disclosure functions in developing relationships.”
The study also mentions that the onion model of self-disclosure is used as a framework to explain penetration or closeness. “In developing relationships, people use self‐disclosure to increase intimacy including through breadth, depth, and the norm of reciprocity,” add Carpenter and Greene. It is also believed that penetration occurs through various stages and also involves rewards and costs.
The Onion Analogy
Self-disclosure was initially described as peeling the layers of an onion according to the social penetration theory by Altman and Taylor. This means self-disclosure includes both breadth and depth as we can find in an onion. In this context, breadth means the different aspects of ourselves and our lives, like our work, family, passions, dreams, goals, and community. Depth, on the other hand, deals with the intricate details related to these aspects of the self.
The Onion Analogy explains that human personality is like the multilayered onion. We have a superficial outer self, which we reveal to the public, like our jobs, gender, height, weight; and we have a deeper, more personal self, like our values, deep emotions, and concept of self, which we reveal only to our closest loved ones. As we choose to self-disclose to our partner or a close friend, we peel our outer layers and expose our core, inner layers which often makes us feel vulnerable.