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The Allure of Forbidden Relationships

And why it isn't helpful to try to prevent them.

Blend Images/Shutterstock
Source: Blend Images/Shutterstock

Forbidden relationships can take many forms: Parents may forbid their children from engaging with certain friends or significant others; friends or family members may disapprove of our relationship partners; or we may fall in love with a coworker, supervisor, or someone who is already committed to a serious relationship. The obstacles to these relationships may be explicit or implied, but these obstacles may actually serve to strengthen our forbidden relationships.

When we were in high school, my friend Jayda* met her boyfriend Ty at work. He was more than 10 years older than she was, and her parents immediately forbade Jayda from seeing him further. Jayda, of course, continued to see him secretly and fell in love with him. Soon they got married; eventually, they divorced. By forbidding their relationship, Jayda’s parents may have unintentionally caused Jayda’s feelings to deepen, and their banned relationship to progress.

How does forbidding relationships make those relationships stronger?

Cognitive Dissonance

Before Jayda’s parents prevented her from seeing Ty, it was easy for the couple to get together: They would go out after Jayda got out of school or after they finished working together. After her parents forbade them from seeing one another, they had to work harder to get together. They fabricated excuses for her parents and met at distant destinations where they wouldn’t be caught. Their time together was restricted, and so they valued it more.

Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) predicts that exerting more effort to achieve a goal will lead to valuing the achievement of that goal more so than if very little effort were necessary to achieve it (see Aronson and Mills, 1959). Because Jayda had to work harder to see Ty, she began to perceive that their relationship was worth the extra effort, more so than she might have if her parents had never prevented her from seeing him.

Psychological Reactance

As members of a highly individualistic society, Americans do not like to be told what to do or how to feel. When others try to influence our behaviors or opinions, we often respond with psychological reactance, the tendency to react against threats to our freedom by asserting ourselves (Kassin et al., 2011, p. 233). This tendency is so strong that when someone explicitly tries to influence our opinions in one direction, we will even change our attitudes in a direction opposite to our original feelings (Heller et al., 1973). When Jayda’s parents forbade her from seeing Ty, she was forced to defend her feelings for him and her commitment to their relationship, and through this defense, her feelings for him actually became stronger. Similarly, when parents prohibit friendships, adolescents actually spend more time with those forbidden friends and may engage in more delinquent behaviors as well (Keijsers et al., 2011).

Secrecy Increases Intimacy

Prohibiting friendships or relationships often forces us to keep those relationships a secret in order to continue them. Research shows that sharing secrets increases intimacy and feelings of liking, even among strangers (Aron et al., 1997). Sharing secrets can also enhance one’s commitment to a relationship and facilitate the development of a couple’s sense of "we" or "us" (Richardson, 1988). Also, because forbidden relationships take place out of view of most friends and family, they are not "socially tested" (p. 217) and therefore may be idealized.

What to Do If You Witness an Inappropriate Relationship

Although forbidden relationships may be strengthened by the disapproval of others over the short term, over the long term, relationships that are supported by friends and family members are happier and more likely to endure (Sinclair et al., 2014). Researchers recommend explaining the reasons for opposition to a relationship in a supportive way and allowing individuals to retain their autonomy by not attempting to force them to give up a relationship (Keijsers et al., 2011). Having supportive family and friends who express their concerns about a bad relationship may help individuals who are interested in ending their relationships to accomplish that difficult task (Copp et al., 2015).

* All names have been changed.

Portions of this post were also published in The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships.

Copyright 2015 Madeleine A. Fugère.


Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(4), 363-377.

Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959).The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59(2), 177–181. doi:10.1037/h0047195

Copp, J. E., Giordano, P. C., Longmore, M. A., & Manning, W. D. (2015). Stay-or-leave decision making in nonviolent and violent dating relationships. Violence and Victims, 30(4), 581-599.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press. Retrieved from PsycINFO database.

Heller, J., Pallak, M., & Picek, J. (1973). The interactive effects of intent and threat on boomerang attitude change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26(2), 273–279. doi:10.1037/h003446

Kassin, S. M., Fein, S., & Markus, H. R. (2011). Social Psychology (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Keijsers, L., Branje, S., Hawk, S. T., Schwartz, S. J., Frijns, T., Koot, H. M., ... & Meeus, W. (2012). Forbidden friends as forbidden fruit: Parental supervision of friendships, contact with deviant peers, and adolescent delinquency. Child development, 83(2), 651-666.

Richardson, L. (1988). Secrecy and status: The social construction of forbidden relationships. American Sociological Review, 209-219.

Sinclair, H. C., Hood, K. B., & Wright, B. L. (2014). Revisiting the Romeo and Juliet effect (Driscoll, Davis, & Lipetz, 1972): Reexamining the links between social network opinions and romantic relationship outcomes. Social Psychology, 45(3), 170-178. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000181

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