- Existing research suggests that guarding a secret from a romantic partner is linked with diminished personal and relationship wellness.
- Among people who keep secrets, what they conceal and their reasons for doing so fall into different groupings.
- Longitudinal research highlights a connection between feeling scared that a partner will learn of a secret and increasing distress.
- This research doesn't apply to all secrets.
Have you ever kept something hidden from a romantic partner? If so, you’re definitely not alone.
Available evidence indicates that roughly 60% of people have done so. Considering how common secrecy in love is, it’s worth thinking about what impact this can have. And in a new article that recently came out (May 2021), a team of researchers at Carleton University sought to build on previous work in this area to provide more insight on why secrets might have the impact that they do.
They started by summarizing the existing science on hiding something in romantic relationships, highlighting how it’s linked with diminished health in a relationship with a partner, and with reduced physical and mental wellness. Then across two studies, they proceeded to examine whether a person’s “fear of discovery” (they defined this as “the secret keeper’s fear that relevant people will discover [their] secret through means other than personal self-disclosure”) might play a role in the connection between reduced well-being and secrecy. Their results illuminated two main points.
First, they found that people hide certain kinds of facts from their partner. For instance, about 23% of the people in the study (only people who were concealing a secret in their romantic relationship were allowed to participate in the research) kept quiet about an affair, and about 19% hid their attraction to someone else. About 18% cloaked a personal fact they saw as shaming, 10% concealed an addiction, and around 8% hid issues at work, a childhood event, or loneliness. Moreover, the participants in the study shared why they were engaging in concealment. About 55% did so out of shame, and around 46% tried to spare themselves embarrassment. And 43% were secretive to safeguard themselves, whereas 32% wanted to shield their relationship. Not only that, the study revealed that just because a person doesn’t disclose what they’re hiding to another person, this doesn’t mean other people don’t know. This was illustrated in the finding that even though almost 65% hadn’t opened up about their concealed fact to anyone, only 48% of those individuals could also say that no one else knew about it (meaning that for around 23%, someone else was aware).
Second, in the longitudinal part of the study (which took place over four weeks) the researchers found that the extent to which a person fears their partner will become aware of their secret is linked to a) fixating more on the very thing they’re trying to hide, and b) feeling unsettling emotions. More specifically, this research revealed that as people’s angst over their secret being learned grew, so did their obsession with their secret and the distressing emotions they felt.
As the investigators pointed out, this research isn’t demonstrating a cause and effect relationship, and it’s also not the case that every person who feels frightened their partner will learn of a secret feels upset. As a case in point, they gave the example of someone who’s keeping a happy secret, such as quietly planning to propose. And there are other exemplars we could think of, such as hiding a special gift for a partner, furtively arranging a birthday surprise, or putting together a romantic evening for a partner on the sly.
Nevertheless, what this and other research do indicate is that it can be distressing and even detrimental to be secretive with a romantic partner. And when someone is scared their partner will come to learn of what they’re hiding, this could compound the problem. So what guidance does this research offer for anyone who’s keeping a secret from their partner? Ultimately, because an individual’s secret and their circumstances are unique to them, it wouldn’t be useful to assume there’s a blanket answer for every situation. But I think that what it does do is offer an invitation for people hiding a secret to balance the possible consequences of telling their partner against the actual lived experience of holding that secret inside and feeling frightened it will come to light. Sure, some will decide that maintaining their silence is the better option in their situation. At the same time, there are likely to be others who, upon reflection, will come to realize that the distress of covering something up is not worth it and that, just maybe, their partner may even be more understanding, supportive, and nonjudgmental than they could have imagined.
Thank you for reading.
Davis, C.G., Brazeau, H., Xie, E.B., & McKee, K. (2021). Secrets, psychological health, and fear of discovery. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 47, 781-795.
Easterling, B., Knox, D., & Bracket., A. (2012). Secrets in romantic relationships: Does sexual orientation matter? Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 8, 196-208.