Romantic Secrecy

Romantic Secrecy Definition

Romantic secrecy is the process by which an individual deliberately conceals his or her ongoing romantic relationship from a person or persons outside of the relationship. Romantic secrecy is typically associated with deception about the nature of a romantic relationship. Romantic secrecy occurs most clearly when an individual conceals all aspects of his or her romantic relationship from others. An individual can maintain such pretenses by meeting privately with only his or her romantic partner or by concealing the romantic nature of the relationship when in public. Romantic secrecy occurs similarly when an individual acknowledges an ongoing romantic relationship, but conceals the romantic partner. Finally, romantic secrecy occurs to a lesser degree when an individual acknowledges a romantic relationship, but goes to lengths to hide the emotional depth of the relationship.

Romantic SecrecyRomantic secrecy occurs for two general reasons. First, individuals commonly engage in romantic secrecy during early relationship development. That is, individuals frequently maintain the privacy of a new relationship until they consider it the right time to reveal the relationship to others. For example, an individual might wait until a new relationship becomes more serious before disclosing the relationship to friends. This form of romantic secrecy is probably benign insofar as it involves low levels of deliberate deception and any relationship concealment can be regulated easily by romantic relationship partners. Second, and more important, individuals might maintain romantic secrecy because of identifiable external constraints that make relationship disclosure appear harmful. The notion of romantic secrecy generally refers to these kinds of relationships. In these cases, romantic secrecy goes beyond the relatively brief romantic relationship concealment that partners might invoke in developing relationships. Instead, relationship partners experience heightened anxiety about possible romantic relationship disclosure and maintain romantic secrecy for extended periods. For example, romantic partners in an interreligious relationship might keep their relationship secret because they anticipate strong disapproval from friends and family.

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Relationships that contain high levels of romantic secrecy are often thought of as “secret relationships.” However, even relationships that appear to be nonsecret can contain milder levels of romantic secrecy. To illustrate, partners who conceal their romantic relationship from one person might not identify their own relationship as secret but still engage in some elements of romantic secrecy.

Prevalence of Romantic Secrecy

Individuals usually maintain romantic secrecy to avoid negative outcomes that they believe would result from relationship disclosure. Individuals might engage in romantic secrecy to avoid personal harm (e.g., an individual might hide a homosexual relationship to avoid social disapproval). Similarly, individuals might engage in romantic secrecy to protect their romantic partners from harm (e.g., an individual might conceal a romantic relationship to avoid creating a rift between the partner and the partner’s parents). Lastly, individuals might maintain romantic secrecy to protect others outside of the relationship (e.g., single parents might keep newer, unstable romances secret from children to avoid causing them distress).

Individuals might underestimate the prevalence of romantic secrecy because it does not seem a part of the prototypical adult romantic relationship. However, some common forms of romantic secrecy demonstrate the ubiquitous nature of this phenomenon. To begin, workplace romances are common, and romantically involved coworkers frequently conceal their relationships to avoid gossip and potential administrative repercussions. Members of homosexual, interracial, and interreligious relationships might maintain romantic secrecy because others are more likely to disapprove of these relationships. Members of these so-called stigmatized relationships, particularly members of homosexual relationships, might also worry about more serious issues such as employment termination and even violence.

Romantic affairs are another common source of romantic secrecy. Romantic affairs are noteworthy because they can create two simultaneous forms of romantic secrecy. Romantic affairs might be kept secret from long-term relationship partners, and long-term relationships (e.g., marriages) might be kept secret from extra-relationship partners. For obvious reasons, romantic affairs often require inordinately high levels of romantic secrecy. On a related note, individuals who do not have full-scale affairs might still employ romantic secrecy to leave open the option to “trade up.” Put differently, individuals might avoid revealing their existing romances when in the presence of romantically intriguing and newly met others, particularly when their current relationships are less satisfactory than they used to be.

Romantic Secrecy and Relationship Quality

Many individuals believe that romantic secrecy increases romantic attraction. According to one theory, romantic secrecy causes individuals to think more frequently about their romantic partners, which, in turn, heightens romantic attraction. Although some evidence supports this theory, research indicates generally that romantic secrecy decreases relationship quality. Individuals in ongoing romantic relationships who report greater levels of romantic secrecy also tend to report reduced relationship quality (e.g., love). Similarly, members of interracial and homosexual relationships appear to find the requirements of romantic secrecy aversive rather than alluring. Romantic secrecy might inhibit relationship quality because relationships with greater levels of romantic secrecy are more difficult to manage and receive less social support. Individuals should be aware of these potential challenges when entering or maintaining relationships that require romantic secrecy.


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