Although it is safe to say that many of the variables that influence initial attraction remain important in longer-term relationships, other variables also come into play over time. One important change is that as a relationship progresses, the partners come to know each other more fully and care about each other to a greater degree. In successful relationships, the partners feel increasingly close to each other over time, whereas in unsuccessful relationships, closeness does not increase and may even decrease. The closeness experienced in these relationships is marked in part by reciprocal self-disclosure—the tendency to communicate frequently, without fear of reprisal, and in an accepting and empathetic manner.
When the partners in a relationship feel that they are close, and when they indicate that the relationship is based on caring, warmth, acceptance, and social support, we can say that the relationship is intimate (Sternberg, 1986). Partners in intimate relationships are likely to think of the couple as “we” rather than as two separate individuals. People who have a sense of closeness with their partner are better able to maintain positive feelings about the relationship while at the same time are able to express negative feelings and to have accurate (although sometimes less than positive) judgments of the other (Neff & Karney, 2002). People may also use their close partner’s positive characteristics to feel better about themselves (Lockwood, Dolderman, Sadler, & Gerchak, 2004).
Arthur Aron and his colleagues (Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992) have assessed the role of closeness in relationships directly, using the simple measure shown in Figure 7.8 You might try completing the measure yourself for some different people that you know—for instance, your family members, your friends, your spouse, or your girlfriend or boyfriend. The measure is simple to use and to interpret. If a person chooses a circle that represents the self and the other as more overlapping, this means that the relationship is close. But if they choose a circle that is less overlapping, then the relationship is less so.
This measure is used to determine how close two partners feel to each other. The respondent simply circles which of the figures he or she feels characterizes the relationship. From Aron, Aron, and Smollan (1992).
Although the closeness measure is simple, it has been found to be highly predictive of people’s satisfaction with their close relationships and of the tendency for couples to stay together. In fact, the perceived closeness between romantic partners can be a better predictor of how long a relationship will last than is the number of positive feelings that the partners indicate having for each other. In successful close relationships, cognitive representations of the self and the other tend to merge together into one, and it is this tie—based on acceptance, caring, and social support—that is so important (Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991).
Aron and his colleagues (Aron, Melinat, Aron, & Vallone, 1997) used an experimental design to test whether self-disclosure of intimate thoughts to others would increase closeness. In a laboratory, they paired college students with another student, one whom they did not know. Some of the students were asked to share some intimate thoughts with each other by asking and answering questions such as “When did you last cry in front of another person?” In comparison with control participants who only engaged in small talk with their partners (answering questions such as “What is your favorite holiday?”), the students who disclosed more intimate experiences reported feeling significantly closer to each other at the end of the conversation.