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The Art of NOT letting go: Social Penetration Theory

Updated on January 7, 2017

Sometimes, relationships are like fairy tale. It starts in an unexpected time like Cinderella, unconsciously like Sleeping Beauty, to an unexpected person like Bella, and a love at first sight like Arielle. But most of the time, we claim that relationships aren’t always like fairy tale. If you lose your shoe at midnight like Cinderella, you’re going to walk home barefoot. If you sleep over for a long period of time like Aurora, you might sleep for eternity. If you fall in love with a beast like Bella, people will think that you’re seriously ill, and if you waste your life for one moment of eye contact and heartbeat like Arielle, your friends will think of you as dumb. After all, happily ever after is so once upon a time. Relationships can end in the same tragic way like Romeo and Juliet, a deathbed full of regrets like Napoleon and Josephine, and a suicidal goodbye like Cleopatra and Mark Anthony.

Our fairy tale stories and history shows us that there were good and bad relationships that have existed even before this generation of early relationships begun. When I hear the word relationship, I can’t help myself from tracing back the timeline of relationships I’ve known in tales, myths, literature, and history. Then I realized that it is so amazing how things that I see in relationships today also happen before. Why am I seeing famous stories that are very similar to Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s - a man of pride, a woman of prejudice, an indulgent mother, and a hindrance in social status? Why is it that Maria Clara and Ibarra’s love story became the typical Filipino love story pattern wherein two lovers have to set apart just because their feuding families are in deep conflict? Then I came to ask myself, “Why and how do these things happen? Why did Hamlet become insane towards Ophelia? Why did Adonis refused to kiss Venus? What is he thinking when he said he’s too young? What makes Psyche so determined towards her love for Cupid? Why did Jason abandoned Medea when they have already spent ten years of their lives happily married? What makes Florante and Laura’s relationship strong?” True enough, relationship stories are pretty complicated. But I had a glimpse of light from total darkness when I learned about Social Penetration Theory, and this helps me in learning more about relationships.

What the theory says

The theory explained it all. The theory deals with the ways in which relationships develop and progress. It explains how communication enriches the relationship of two or more individuals. It says that as relationships develop, interpersonal communication moves from relatively shallow, non-intimate levels, to deeper, more intimate ones. It undergoes into several stages: at first, in the process of self-disclosure, usually, communication is still on the orientation stage, where two people would be aware of the basic things-name, gender, age, etc., until it moves to exploratory stage-the stage of learning each others' goals, ambitions, and purposes in life. Then, it will move to the next stage, which is the stable stage, where the two people who oriented themselves would have a stable feeling towards each other. These stages are illustrated to the layers of an onion, where relationships can reach the core (or the depth), or in many cases, only reach the shallow part (the breadth). It is said that when one reached the core of the other, the relationship would be more intimate. But the core is hard to reach. It is the same as knowing every single detail about that person. Sometimes, relationship starts by aiming at the core, without being oriented about the general information. It's the same thing when a stranger suddenly talks to you about his personal problems, sobbing and crying, without telling you his name and where he came from. But basically, there is no correct way of reaching the core. It is up to the person's communication skills to maintain good relationship.

The concept of 'depentration'

In short, penetration is fast, then it slows down when it reaches the stable stage. Depenetration is also gradual. A warm friendship between two people will deteriorate if they begin to close off areas of their lives that had earlier been opened. Relationships are likely to break down not in an explosive argument but in a gradual cooling off of enjoyment and care. Another thing that may have caused the depenetration is weighing each relationship and interaction with another human on a reward cost scale. It is also possible to have depth without breadth and even breadth without depth. Just like the early relationships today, sometimes, depth comes first. They became close in an instant without knowing each other’s background. On the other hand, they may have known each other for a long time, but no matter how long they have been with each other, they just can’t reach each other’s core. Most probably, these cases will result to gradual depenetration.

The concept of 'Love at First Sight'

Another problem that I see in relationships is the thing they called “love at first sight”. I honestly do not believe in this because logically thinking, how can you love someone in all of a sudden? Maybe it’s an “attraction-at-first-sight”. Just because your heart skips a beat the moment you see that person means that it is love. It’s good to remember that the heart is the most deceitful thing there is. Charm may be false, and prettiness may be in vain. The glitter wrappings of a gift tell you nothing of what’s inside. In fact, the most elegant wrapping may cover a useless gift, and a physically attractive, but senseless person, is like a gold ring in the nose of a pig. As for me, why would I disclose myself so easily? Why waste my entire life in a moment of eye contact and a heartbeat? I remember another memorable line from a popular Korean Drama, saying:

“Eye contact could be considered an indirect skinship. When humans meet the eyes of the one they love, their brain produce dopamine to preserve the sense of well-being. When you kiss, the heart rate doubles that of being in a dormant state, and average the breath rate increases also, by 20 times, and the blood pressure momentarily shoots up as well. As a result, the heart flutters and the breathing becomes labored, and the person can even experience dizziness, which makes it easy to be mistaken as being in love. However, all of these are mere playful games of skinship, and a hormone’s trickery. You must not be taken by this. You must never be deceived. You must differentiate between your heart beating and falling in love.”

This theory taught me a lot of things I need to know about relationships, but just like any other theories, this is not absolute. However, this will help us in maintaining good relationships to people who are important to us.

Tired of being hurt? Tired of always losing someone else? Don't worry. The fact that you were not right in someone’s eyes doesn't mean that you will not be just right in the eyes of someone else. Just because a relationship ends doesn't mean people stopped loving each other. They just stop hurting each other. Anyway, we can always make a new relationship when the previous one wasn't successful. Who knows, when the greatest relationship we can have are the ones we never expected to be in.

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