"You can choose your friends, but your family is provided for you." This age-old maxim holds the key to understanding the different dynamic in interpersonal communication between friends and family. The ability to to exercise choice controls the amount of self-disclosure present in a relationship, thus regulating the degree of intimacy.
Process of Friendship
The amount of self-disclosure present in a relationship relates to the degree of intimacy present in that relationship. In a safe, nurturing relationship, both individuals feel secure in sharing and are mutually rewarded for doing so. The process of friendship lends itself to to a greater degree of self-disclosure. The foundational work of family therapist Salvador Minuchin and his Structural Theory shows that friendships build through a process of mutual sharing and discovery. If an individual discloses something personal and is met with a mutual disclosure or a response that promotes security, it establishes a foundation for greater disclosure and ultimately a greater level of intimacy.
Proximity of Family
Conversely, the proximity of family relationships often results in "too much information" situations where people find out more than they really wanted to know about another family member. Also, because of the physical presence of family members, relational energy is often focused on establishing boundaries rather than looking for ways to mutually share. This is the main reason many parents and children really don't become "friends" until the child moves out and physical proximity is no longer a threat to relational intimacy.
The willingness to self-disclose is apparent in the nature of secret-keeping. In family relationships, family secrets are most often embarrassing facts or events that the family wants kept in-house to preserve the family's reputation. Toxic when they concern incidents of abuse or psychic injury, keeping the secret isn't a matter of a sacred trust but a "dirty secret" that must be guarded against revelation. In friendships, however, secrets are most often freely revealed, not discovered, creating a dynamic of trust between friends.
Dealing with Conflict
The lack of choice in family relationships does provide a positive, however, in conflict resolution. Because family members view the relationship as permanent and inescapable, they're often much more willing to disclose frustrations and problems with family members. If security exists in this process within the family, the conflict can be worked out. In contrast, friends often feel less secure about conflict. The knowledge that the relationship exists through mutual choice leads to a fear that saying something negative could threaten the friendship. This lack of disclosure of inevitably leads to a build-up and an explosion that can be fatal to the relationship.
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