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Research / Discovery

Study shows secret romantic relationships can be unhealthy

January 26, 2009

Secret romances have been present throughout history. Despite their frequency, very few scientific studies have actually addressed them. Justin J. Lehmiller recently completed a series of studies that focused on what types of relationships are kept secret, why people do it, and who they're hidden from. He also explored how keeping a romance secret affects the quality of the relationship and the physical and psychological health of the people involved.

Social taboo

Lehmiller earned his bachelor’s and master’s in general psychology before beginning his doctoral studies in the field of social psychology just over five years ago. It was then that Lehmiller began researching people’s romances.

“I had a general interest in romantic relationships that I began to pursue at that time, but it has evolved to focus primarily on relationships that are often considered to be socially taboo, hence my interest in secret romances. My interest in secret relationships in particular is something that I have really only begun to explore in the last two years,” Lehmiller says.

Anonymity for participants

His current studies on secret romantic relationships were conducted as part of his dissertation at Purdue University before Lehmiller came to CSU this past summer as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. This research became an extension of his earlier work, which focused on the nature of relationships that might be socially marginalized and how such disapproval might ultimately weaken the relationship.

Lehmiller conducted three studies on secret relationships that, together, involved over 1,000 individuals. The majority of the participants were recruited over the internet, which allowed anonymity when answering questions about their relationship and permitted the secret relationship to stay so.

Research Q & A with Lehmiller

What kinds of relationships are likely to be kept secret?

Many different types of relationships are subject to secrecy at one point or another. In my research, the romances that were most likely to be kept secret were those that are typically marginalized by our society. These include relationships where the partners are of different racial/ethnic backgrounds, of different religious backgrounds, of the same sex, from different social classes, or separated by an age difference of greater than 10 years. Of course, people having affairs were likely to keep their relationships secret too.

Are you focusing on affairs?

Affairs are certainly one type of secret relationship, but by no means is it the only type. As I mentioned earlier, secret relationships can take many different forms. In fact, in my research, the vast majority of participants were not having affairs. I definitely do think affairs are interesting and worthy of study in their own right, but when it comes to the topic of romantic secrecy, I think the most fascinating thing about it is how common it is and how many different types of relationships it affects.

Why do people do it?

The primary motivation behind keeping secrets in general is the avoidance of social disapproval. My research suggests that the same is true when it comes to keeping a romantic relationship secret. In particular, participants expressed a desire to avoid being looked down upon because of their relationship by their family and close friends.

Some of my research participants expressed other motivations for romantic secrecy, and these included a desire to keep one’s options open, a need for privacy, and a desire to prevent others from getting hurt. These other reasons appeared with much less frequency, however.

Who do people tend to hide their secret relationships from?

Participants indicated hiding their romances from a wide variety of social targets, including family members, friends, roommates, co-workers, and employers/supervisors. This varied a bit across individuals, but family and friends were the most frequent targets of secrecy among participants in my studies.

Were there any unusual findings in the studies?

I would not necessarily call this “unusual,” but I think one of the most important findings from this research is that keeping your relationship secret can be detrimental not only to the relationship itself, but also to the health and well-being of the partners involved.

Specifically, my results indicated that keeping one’s relationship secret was linked to being less committed to one’s partner, reporting more symptoms of poor physical health, and having lower self-esteem (i.e., feeling worse about oneself). It appears that keeping one’s relationship secret from others is stressful, which puts wear and tear on both the relationship and on the partners’ physical and psychological health.

This is not to say that keeping a relationship secret is necessarily a bad thing, because there are certainly cases where keeping a relationship secret is likely to result in positive outcomes. For instance, some people may find that the only relationship option open to them is one that necessitates secrecy.

Although such relationship circumstances are far from ideal, this arrangement might be the only way that they can have their romantic needs fulfilled. Thus, even though secrecy is often quite negative, some partners may find that the benefits of just being in a relationship can outweigh the costs of having to hide it.

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Research to be presented at international psychology conference

Lehmiller will be presenting his research on secret romantic relationships during the 2009 Society for Personality and Social Psychology Conference, the world’s largest annual gathering focused on social psychological research. The conference will be held in Tampa, Fla. on Feb. 5-7. For more information on the conference, visit the SPSP meeting website.


Contact: Anh Ha
E-mail: Anh.Ha@ColoState.edu
Phone: (970) 491-4161