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Research / Discovery

Keeping that relationship secret?

November 5, 2009

People who keep their relationships secret may face damage to their health as well as their relationship over the long-term, a Colorado State University psychology professor says in a new published set of studies.

Health issues surrounding secret relationships

Justin Lehmiller, assistant professor of Applied Social Psychology.

The research, by Justin Lehmiller, assistant professor of Applied Social Psychology, is the first to look at the health issues surrounding secret relationships – information that could someday help the psychology profession with couples counseling.

The studies appeared in the November issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Secrecy limits closeness

Lehmiller examined online responses of two different groups totaling more than 700 people. A large number of respondents indicated that they were keeping their relationships secret from other persons.

Those relationships that were being kept secret ranged from interracial and same-sex partnerships to workplace romances. All participants were asked to report on their feelings about their relationship, as well as their personal physical and psychological health.

“We found people who keep relationships secret tend to be less committed – secrecy seems to limit how close you can get to a partner and whether they can become a central part of your life,” Lehmiller said.

Keeping relationship secret is stressful

“Such people also reported worse physical health outcomes and lower self-esteem. The data suggests that one of the reasons for this seems to be that keeping a relationship secret is stressful. It makes people nervous and anxious and scared. We suspect that when people chronically experience those negative emotions, that’s what undermines your health.”

People in secret relationships reported more frequent symptoms of poor health, such as headaches, loss of sexual interest/pleasure, low energy and poor appetite. They also had lower self-esteem, or more negative feelings about who they are as people.

Only general trends. . . secret relationships not inherently bad

Lehmiller cautioned that the studies only reveal general trends and should not be taken to mean that secret relationships are inherently bad. People with particularly strong social support networks may be less likely to suffer even if they keep their relationships secret, he said.

Therapists could potentially use the results to help individuals or couples seeking treatment, Lehmiller said: “We know that being in a secret relationship is challenging and may have negative effects on both the relationship and the partners’ health. This means therapists need to evaluate these situations carefully and ask ‘Is it worthwhile to disclose the relationship?’ It’s possible that, for some, disclosure might improve the health of the individuals as well as their partnerships because it reduces stress and burden.”

Most surprised by variety of secret relationships

Lehmiller was most surprised by the variety of secret relationships that people disclosed in the surveys. He plans to conduct long-term follow-up studies with the same individuals to see how they’re coping with their relationships and whether the effects of secrecy change over time.


Contact: Emily Wilmsen
E-mail: Emily.Wilmsen@colostate.edu
Phone: (970) 491-2336