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Gender Differences, Family Privacy, Parents And Child PrivacyConclusion

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).

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.


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