Dating & Relationships

Should You Ever Keep a Relationship Secret?

July 31, 2019 by Justin Lehmiller

Keeping a relationship secret is exciting, right?

That’s what movies and television shows might lead you to believe. Couples who sneak around together are usually depicted as full of passion and excitement. For example, remember when Monica and Chandler started sneaking around together on Friends? But is that what secret relationships are really like in real life, or is this just Hollywood fiction? Research suggests secrecy is usually more onerous than it is exciting.

One of the earliest papers examining the effects of hiding a relationship reported the results of three separate studies. They consistently found that higher levels of secrecy were linked to lower relationship quality [1]. For instance, greater secrecy was associated with feeling less love and attraction for one’s partner, as well as less distress about the thought of ending one’s relationship.

In a series of studies I conducted a few years later (which, incidentally, was my dissertation research back in graduate school), I found that people in secret relationships reported feeling less committed to their partners [2]. These individuals also said that the experience of hiding a relationship was stressful and, further, these feelings of stress were linked to worse physical and psychological health. In other words, secret relationships may have implications for our personal well-being, too.

I later conducted a longitudinal study of secret relationships and found that people who were hiding their romances were more likely to break-up over the course of a year [3]. The results suggested that the greater odds of breakup for those hiding their relationships was a product of being less committed to the relationship initially.

With all of that said, there is some research suggesting that having a secret lover can be fun and exciting; however, it comes exclusively from a set of studies published a quarter-century ago on college students. This research found that students reported that having a secret crush is “hot” and that playing covert “footsie” under a table with an attractive stranger is exciting [4].

However, it should go without saying that having a secret crush or playing with someone’s foot under a table is not the same as having an ongoing relationship that you’re trying to hide every day from your family, friends, co-workers, and other important people in your life. Thus, while secrecy could potentially be exciting under limited circumstances—for instance, perhaps in the very early stages of an affair—secrecy is unlikely to have the same implications when you’re doing it long-term in a primary relationship.

This isn’t to say that secret relationships are necessarily always a bad idea or that anyone who’s in one should resign themselves to disappointment. In some cases, the benefits might potentially outweigh the costs, especially in cases where secrecy is seen as one’s only option for having a relationship or where there might be a serious risk of harm if one’s relationship were to be revealed.

It is also possible that some types of secrecy are worse than others. For example, people who only hide their relationship in public but are open about it with family and friends are likely to find the experience less burdensome than people who hide their relationship from everyone.

The effects of secrecy are therefore likely to depend on multiple factors, such as the type of relationship, one’s reasons for hiding it, and from whom the secret is being kept. Generally speaking, though, it appears that secret relationships aren’t likely to be as happy and healthy as relationships that are out in the open. This suggests that you probably don’t want to keep things secret unless you believe it to be absolutely necessary.

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[1] Foster, C. A., & Campbell, W. K. (2005). The adversity of secret relationships. Personal Relationships, 12, 125–143.

[2] Lehmiller, J. J. (2009). Secret romantic relationships: Consequences for personal and relational well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1452-1466.

[3] Wegner, D. M., Lane, J. D., & Dimitri, S. (1994). The allure of secret relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 287–300.

[4] Lehmiller, J. J. (2011, January). Romantic relationship concealment: A longitudinal assessment. Paper presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Conference, San Antonio, TX.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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