- Though open communication helps build intimacy, individuals in a relationship may prefer to avoid learning certain things about each other.
- People often want to avoid information related to a romantic partner's prejudices and sexual thoughts or behaviors, especially infidelity.
- Avoidance of information concerning a romantic partner is higher in those who are older, more anxious, and more avoidant.
Whether they are dating, engaged, or married, members of a couple do not know everything about each other. But would they want to?
According to a paper by Hussain et al., published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, people desire to avoid certain types of information concerning their romantic partner. A summary of the authors’ two studies is provided below.
The type of information people avoid learning about a partner
Sample: 142 adults; average age of 27 years old (range of 18 to 68 years); 105 women; 121 White; 70% in a romantic relationship.
Participants were asked whether there was any information (concerning their romantic partner) they preferred not to know; and if so, what information they least wanted to know. Those not in a relationship presently were instructed to refer to a past relationship when responding to the questions.
Nearly 35% (40 of 115 respondents) answered yes to the first question. As for the type of information participants wished to avoid, their responses were coded and three categories identified: relationship issues, sexual thoughts and behavior, and miscellaneous. Descriptions of these three categories follow (examples in parentheses).
Sexual thoughts and behavior: Here, several subcategories were identified, including infidelity, which comprised sexual infidelity (past affairs), emotional infidelity (keeping in touch with someone with whom the individual had cheated), and sexual desire (sexual attraction toward anybody aside from the person’s mate). The rest of the subcategories comprised sexuality (being attracted to a gender different from the partner’s), sexual history (degree of sexual involvement with previous romantic partners or the number of past partners), and other sexual behaviors and thoughts (fantasies, masturbation).
Relationship issues: This category included other relationships (the partner still thinking about an ex), negative perceptions (how the partner rates the individual), and other relationship issues (e.g., pregnancy).
Miscellaneous: Matters that did not fit in the above categories.
The most frequently mentioned categories and subcategories of information people wished to avoid were:
- Sexual thoughts and behavior (52%): infidelity (34%) and sexual history (11%).
- Relationship issues (34%): other relationships (23%), such as learning that one’s romantic partner is unable to get over an ex; and negative perceptions (10%), such as information regarding how the person’s romantic partner rates him or her.
- Miscellaneous (14%): Information regarding drug use, criminal activities, and other issues (e.g., online stalking).
Overall, the desire to avoid information was much higher for past romantic relationships (58%) than current romantic relationships (26%).
Individual differences in information avoidance
Sample: 184 adults; in a current romantic relationship (71 engaged/married); average age of 26 years old (range of 18 to 67 years); 110 women; 112 White. The gender of the couples: Two non-binary/queer/transgender, 29 man-man, 38 woman-woman, and 115 man-woman.
Over 60 statements were rated in terms of how much the participants wished to avoid learning these types of information. The items were generated partly based on the previous study’s findings but also included a few new items (e.g., romantic partner’s prejudices).
The statements concerning the romantic partner were categorized in the following way:
- Sexual behavior/infidelity (e.g., sexual promiscuity before the current relationship)
- Prejudices (e.g., racial or gender-based discrimination)
- Relationship concerns (e.g., having a negative view of the relationship)
- Health issues (e.g., physical health or mental health issues)
- Troublesome or illegal behavior (e.g., alcohol or illegal drugs use)
Each category distinguished between past information (i.e. before or early in the current relationship) and present information (ongoing problems).
Participants then completed a measure of adult attachment style, consisting of anxious attachment (worries regarding rejection or abandonment by a partner) and avoidant attachment (difficulty opening up or depending on one’s romantic partner).
For most items, the desire to avoid the information was average or below average.
In general, information avoidance was greater in those who were older and higher on anxious attachment or avoidant attachment, or when the information related to past (rather than current) issues.
The information the respondents wanted to avoid most was a partner’s prejudices and sexual behavior/infidelity. These were followed by other relationship concerns, troublesome or illegal behavior, and health issues.
In summary, people in romantic relationships were more open to learning about current than past relationships. Why? Perhaps because they do not want to have to reexamine an old relationship or experience new doubts related to their ability to select suitable romantic partners.
New information people wanted to avoid the most were either related to the partner’s prejudices or were sexual in nature (e.g., the spouse’s sexual thoughts, sexual history, and infidelity), possibly because these types of information are more likely to result in severe conflict and even the dissolution of a relationship.
Many also wished to avoid information about their romantic partner’s past (vs. current) behaviors and thoughts, potentially because the information seemed less useful—or in conflict with the need to idealize their partner’s past.
Analysis of data showed the desire to avoid information was often higher in older individuals. Why? Maybe they feel more committed to their current romantic relationship or have fewer romantic options available, so they would rather avoid any information that could threaten their current relationship.
Those who were emotionally insecure and anxious (i.e. anxious attachment and avoidant attachment) also showed greater information avoidance. Perhaps anxious individuals feared that exposure to worrisome information would negatively impact their views of themselves (e.g., seeing themselves as even more unworthy or unlovable). Individuals high on avoidant attachment, in contrast, may have wished to protect themselves from information that could result in greater emotional closeness and intimacy.
Nevertheless, in general, there was no particular type of information that people wanted to avoid completely.
This suggests those a romantic relationship prefer to know rather than (fully) avoid the truth about their significant other. So, better the unpleasant truths than comforting lies—or, rather, the comfort of not knowing at all.
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