Secret Romances: Not Nearly As Exciting As They Sound

Having a secret relationship is hot, right? That's what the popular media would have us believe. Couples that sneak around together are usually depicted in the movies and on TV as being full of passion and excitement. But is that what secret relationships are actually like in real life? Research suggests that the reality tends to be quite different and that, if anything, secret relationships are likely to fare much worse in most respects than non-secret relationships.

For instance, a 2005 article reporting the results of three separate studies of college students found that higher levels of relationship secrecy were linked to lower relationship quality [1]. Specifically, 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.

Likewise, in research I conducted using larger and more diverse non-student samples, I found that people in secret relationships reported feeling less committed to their partners [2]. These folks also reported that the experience of secrecy itself was stressful and, further, these feelings of stress were linked to reports of worse physical and psychological health. That's right--secret relationships may also have implications that extend to our personal well-being.

Furthermore, in a one-year longitudinal study of secret relationships, I found that people who were hiding their romances were more likely to break-up over time [3]. My results suggested that the greater risk of breakup for secret partners was attributable to having lower initial levels of commitment to the relationship.

By contrast, there is only minimal research suggesting that secret relationships can be fun and exciting, and it comes exclusively from a set of studies published more than two decades ago on college student participants. In this set of studies, students reported that having a secret crush is “hot” and that playing covert “footsie” underneath a table with an attractive stranger is exciting [4].

I would argue that having a secret crush or playing with someone else’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, and co-workers. Thus, while secrecy could be exciting in some very specific contexts, such as a one-night stand or in the early stages of an affair, secrecy is unlikely to have the same implications when you’re doing it long-term in your primary relationship.

That said, I should caution that secret relationships aren’t necessarily always a bad idea or that anyone who’s in one should just give up. For many, the benefits (e.g., fulfillment of intimacy and sexual needs) may outweigh the costs (e.g., stress), particularly in cases where secrecy is perceived as one’s only option for having a relationship.

It’s also worth noting that some types of secrecy may be worse than others. For instance, people who only hide their relationship out in public but can be 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 nature of the experience likely depends upon a number of factors, including the type of relationship, one’s reasons for hiding it, and from whom the secret is being kept. On balance, though, it appears that secret relationships don’t tend to be as happy and healthy as relationships that are out in the open, which suggests that you probably don’t want to keep things secret unless you believe that you absolutely have to.

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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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