The Consequences of Keeping Romantic and Sexual Secrets

Secrets can impair self-regard, feelings of authenticity, and relationships.

Posted Mar 06, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

  • People most often keep secrets about sex and relationships, as compared to topics such as illegal behavior, mental health, or trauma.
  • When people keep secrets from a romantic partner, they think about the secret more when they are alone than when they are with their partner.
  • Keeping secrets from a partner is linked to lower relationship quality, research suggests, perhaps because secret-keeping reduces the ability to be authentic.

In 2017, Michael Slepian and colleagues from Columbia University published an ambitious research project involving 10 separate studies investigating secrecy. The authors defined secrecy as the “intention to conceal information from one or more individuals.”

The studies were conducted both in-person and online and addressed the diverse types of secrets people keep, whether those secrets are shared with anyone else, and the effects of those secrets over the long-term on individual well-being and relationship quality.

The Most Common Secrets

First the authors asked “a diverse sample of tourists in a major metropolitan area” as well as online samples of respondents to consider a list of categories of different types of secrets and to indicate whether they were currently keeping such secrets. The categories ranged from drug or alcohol use, illegal behavior, experiencing trauma, mental health issues, and lying to romantic desires, emotional infidelity, sexual infidelity, cheating, hidden relationships, and pregnancy.

Some of the most frequent secrets that participants indicated they had shared with no one included “extra-relational thoughts, sexual behavior, a lie, and romantic desire” with “extra-relational thoughts, a particular sexual behavior, and emotional infidelity” emerging as the most frequent secrets people kept entirely to themselves. The authors also found that “drug use, work discontent, and surprises for other people” were also frequently kept secret, but these secrets were often shared with at least one other person.

The Negative Effects of Secrets

The authors also asked participants how frequently their minds wandered to their secrets and to self-report their well-being. Several studies showed that participants who thought about their own secrets more often also reported reduced feelings of well-being. Interestingly, thinking about our secrets not only decreases our own feelings of self-regard, but these thoughts can also be detrimental to our relationships.

Mathilde Langevin/Unsplash
Source: Mathilde Langevin/Unsplash

Sharing secrets increases intimacy so it is not surprising that keeping secrets can imperil our intimate relationships. In one study, the researchers asked participants to think about a “significant secret” that they were specifically keeping from a romantic partner. They found that individuals thought about these secrets more when they were not in their partner’s presence versus when they were together with their partner. Also, the more individuals thought about this secret, the lower they reported their relationship quality to be. The researchers suggested that keeping secrets from a romantic partner led individuals to feel as though they were not sharing their authentic selves with their partners.

In sum, most of our secrets are romantic or sexual in nature and these secrets can have negative consequences for our self-regard and for our relationships. The authors conclude that preoccupation with secrets is burdensome both to our self-regard and to our relationships. 

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Slepian, M. L., Chun, J. S., & Mason, M. F. (2017). The experience of secrecy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(1), 1.