A recurring theme in many television shows and movies is that secret relationships are hot. Couples that sneak around together seem to find it pretty exciting—they can’t stop thinking about each other, and when they’re together, they have a hard time keeping their hands off one another. But is that what secret relationships are like in real life? Are they really as full of passion and excitement as the popular media makes them out to be? A growing amount of research suggests not. In fact, secret relationships appear to fare much worse than relationships that are out in the open.
For instance, one journal article reporting the results of three separate studies of college students consistently found that as relationship secrecy increased, the quality of the relationship suffered.1 Specifically, greater secrecy was linked to feeling less attraction to and less love for one’s partner, as well as less distress about the prospect of a future breakup. A more recent set of studies based upon Internet samples found that people in secret relationships reported less closeness to their partners and lower levels of relationship commitment.2 Furthermore, a one-year longitudinal study found that people in secret romances were more likely to break-up over time, seemingly because they were less “into” their relationships.3
The only scientific research suggesting that secret relationships might be fun and exciting comes from a set of studies published two decades ago in which college student participants reported that (1) having a secret crush is “hot” and (2) that playing secret “footsie” underneath a table with an attractive stranger is exciting.4 However, having a secret crush or covertly playing with someone else’s foot under a table is not the same as having an on-going relationship that you're trying to hide from the most important people in your life. Thus, while secrecy might be exciting in the context of, say, a one-night stand, the weight of the scientific evidence suggests that secrecy is anything but exciting in a longer-term relationship.
This is not to say that secret relationships are always a bad idea and that people who are in them should just give up. For some people, maintaining secrecy may be perceived as the only option for having a romantic relationship (e.g., gay and lesbian people who live in very homophobic areas). In such cases, the benefits of just having a relationship may outweigh the potential costs of secrecy. In addition, some types of secrecy may be worse than others. For instance, people who only hide their relationship out in public but are open about it with their family and friends are likely to find the experience far less stressful than people who hide their relationship from everyone. Thus, the type of relationship, the reasons for keeping it secret, and who it’s being kept from probably all affect the nature of the experience. On balance, however, secret relationships usually appear to have more negatives than positives.
1Foster, C. A., & Campbell, W. K. (2005). The adversity of secret relationships. Personal Relationships, 12, 125–143.
2Lehmiller, J. J. (2009). Secret romantic relationships: Consequences for personal and relational well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1452-1466.
3Wegner, D. M., Lane, J. D., & Dimitri, S. (1994). The allure of secret relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 287–300.
4Lehmiller, 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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