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The Truth About Secret Relationships

Can private pairings be matches made in heaven? The answer might surprise you.

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Anyone who has ever had a forbidden friend or secret paramour knows that planning time together can be both exciting and exhausting. Both thrilling and taxing. And depending on the reason for wanting to lay low, maintaining such relationships can also be complicated and challenging — not a great recipe for success over time.

The Study of Secret

Researching hidden romances is challenging due to the clandestine nature of such relationships. Some stealth daters avoid ever being seen in public together, while others go out together, but maintain that they are “just friends.” In either case, the true nature of such relationships often flies under the radar. But the relevant question is always there: Can covert couplings survive — and thrive?

One obvious answer has to do with the reason the partners are keeping the relationship secret. Couples engaging in infidelity should be justifiably pessimistic about their future. On the other hand, single co-workers attempting to downplay a budding romance in order to avoid workplace gossip or the drama of dating on the job may have a higher likelihood of success.

We can all, however, relate to one of the biggest challenges of secret relationships: the difficulty of keeping them secret. The time, trouble, and tactics necessary to keep the romance under wraps are a few of the reasons many such relationships are ultimately unsuccessful. But research indicates there are other reasons why pairings made in private are not matches made in heaven.

The Difficulty of Romancing Under the Radar

Craig A. Foster et al. (2010) in an article entitled "Are Secret Relationships Hot, then Not?” examined the association between romantic secrecy and relational duration [i]. They recognized prior research suggesting that secrecy enhances relational satisfaction by increasing obsessive preoccupation with romantic partners. They also, however, recognize research pointing in the opposite direction, suggesting that secrecy undermines romantic relationships, because it is burdensome.

In seeking to explain these conflicting results and determine whether secret romance is, in their words, “alluring or aversive,” Foster et al. examined the issue using an Internet-based sample of 564 individuals. They predicted romantic secrecy might benefit new relationships, but burden older ones. Their results, however, showed that romantic secrecy negatively impacted all relationships. Despite the popular Romeo-and-Juliet stereotypical allure of secret romance, romantic secrecy is apparently experienced as burdensome during all stages of a relationship.

Some of the complicating factors noted by Foster et al., experienced by participants in covert couplings, include the deception and relational costs involved in secret relationships, as well as the lack of social support.

Secrets Can Sabotage Emotional and Physical Health

Other research describes the potentially negative impact of covert relationships on relational well-being, and even physical health.

Justin J. Lehmiller (2009) examined the impact of relational secrecy on well-being [ii]. Building on prior research finding that keeping a relationship hidden from other people predicts lower relational quality, he sought to examine the potential impact of relationship concealment on personal health and relational commitment.

He found that greater secrecy was linked to lower relational commitment, decreased self-esteem, and a greater number of health consequences. He also found that romantic secrecy limits psychological closeness, which undermines relational commitment and threatens personal health through symptoms of negative affect, such as fear and nervousness. Consequently, he notes that his findings may signal harmful consequences for both partners, as well as the relationship itself.

How exactly does relational secrecy adversely affect relational commitment? Lehmiller explains that although as a practical matter, relational concealment curtails physical engagement and behavior, it is secrecy-induced cognitive constraints that appear to undermine relational commitment. Secrecy apparently has the potential to limit relational interconnectedness, which otherwise could allow partners to bond on a cognitive level, and become a central part of each other's lives. He explains that this lack of cognitive interdependence may adversely impact relational quality.

But there were even more negative findings. Lehmiller found that higher relational secrecy was associated with reduced self-esteem and negative personal health. He notes that other research corroborates the fact that secret-keeping, in general, has a deleterious effect on well-being, and that romantic secrecy, in particular, may pose a personal health threat, because it causes partners to feel bad about their relationship.

Visibility and Durability

Obviously, every case is different. Research shows, however, that despite the stereotype that “forbidden fruit tastes sweeter,” many secret relationships are not satisfying unions. The balance of risk and reward inherent in covert couplings causes many prospective partners to carefully evaluate romantic prospects, with the goal of establishing relationships that are healthy, durable, and (eventually) visible.


[i]Craig A. Foster, Joshua D. Foster, and W. K. Campbell. "Are Secret Relationships Hot, then Not? Romantic Secrecy as a Function of Relationship Duration." The Journal of Social Psychology 150, no. 6 (2010): 668-688.

[ii]Justin J. Lehmiller, “Secret Romantic Relationships: Consequences for Personal and Relational Well-Being.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin35, no. 11 (November 2009): 1452–66.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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