People often claim, “My partner knows me inside and out.” Sure, in our close relationships, we’d like to think we know the person with whom we share our bed, our meals, and our time. But is it necessary to know absolutely everything about your significant other? And if you have a few skeletons yourself that you’d like to keep in the proverbial closet, how far would you go to keep them there? On the mystery-thriller TV series Pretty Little Liars, some of the characters resort to murder to keep their secrets safe.
When we’re the ones hiding negative parts of ourselves from others, it may come naturally to protect our images rather than seem dishonest or hurtful. Even though this self-concealment has been linked to poor well-being outcomes (e.g., anxiety, stress, lower self-esteem, physical symptoms),1 we justify our behavior by believing that circumstances call for it. For instance, Pretty Little Liars character Aria Montgomery was afraid to tell her boyfriend Ezra Fitz about her involvement in blinding another girl, since such a serious offense might change how Ezra viewed Aria. Ezra was ultimately accepting and reassuring once Aria revealed this secret, but it remains to be seen how the other secrets in their relationship will play out.
Some research on married couples has shown that shying away from problematic topics does help to maintain relationship satisfaction, but when the problematic issue affects whether or not the relationship can continue (e.g., being attracted to someone else, having a child with an ex-partner), it must be confronted eventually.2 Both one-time surveys and daily record studies have found negative outcomes for relationships (e.g., lower relationship satisfaction and commitment) when partners self-conceal from each other.2,3 Other research shows that self-concealment in one’s relationship is linked to greater conflict.3,5
On the other hand, when our partners withhold something from us, we tend to think their deceit isn’t justified. (“Why didn’t you just tell me about her?”; see video below). Also, once that secret information is revealed, it may rock the foundation of the relationship. Currently, another girl on Pretty Little Liars, Spencer Hastings, is unaware that her seemingly faultless boyfriend Toby Cavanaugh is actually one of the people tormenting her and her friends. Will he ever tell her? When secret-keepers are less worried about being judged for their secrets, or when they aren’t concerned about the future of their relationships, they are more likely to reveal secrets to their loved ones.4
In other words, assuming Toby still cares for Spencer, Toby has a lot to lose if Spencer discovers his involvement in life-threatening plots against her and her friends. Because of this, Spencer will probably learn about Toby’s indiscretion from someone else. (Never a good way to discover bad news!) Once his betrayal becomes clear, she’ll question everything he’s ever told her. Additionally, when people think their partners are hiding something, they often feel rejected and excluded.5 Therefore, Spencer could both lose trust in Toby and also wonder if she has some personal flaw that motivated him to hurt her. These doubts would not bode well for the survival of their relationship.
Thus, lovers beware! Perhaps you’ve successfully kept or revealed secrets about yourself in your relationships, but don’t think there aren’t consequences in the future. You and your partner may end up stuck in an unfortunate cycle of self-concealment and reduced trust.6 For example, if Ezra thinks Aria is hiding something from him, he may trust her less and start concealing more. Then, if Aria feels he’s keeping something from her, she may grow distrustful and hide even more from him, until one of them breaks the cycle of deception…or breaks up with the other. Remember, secrets, drama, and betrayal may make for great television entertainment – but when they occur in real life, changing the channel is not a solution.
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1Uysal, A., Lin, H.L., & Knee, C.R. (2010). The role of need satisfaction in self-concealment and well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(2), 187-199. doi: 10.1177/0146167209354518
2Finkenauer, C. & Hazam, H. (2000). Disclosure and Secrecy in Marriage: Do Both Contribute to Marital Satisfaction? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17(2), 245-263. doi: 10.1177/0265407500172005
3Uysal, A., Lin, H.L., Knee, C.R., & Bush, A.L. (2012). The association between self-concealment from one’s partner and relationship well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(1), 39-51. doi: 10.1177/0146167211429331
4Caughlin, J.P., Afifi, W.A., Carpenter-Theune, K.E., & Miller, L.E. (2005). Reasons for, and consequences of, revealing personal secrets in close relationships: A longitudinal study. Personal Relationships, 12, 43-59. doi: 10.1111/j.1350-4126.2005.00101.x
5Finkenauer, C., Kerkhof, P., Righetti, F., & Branje, S. (2009). Living together apart: Perceived concealment as a signal of exclusion in marital relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(10), 1410-1422. doi: 10.1177/0146167209339629
6Uysal, A., Lin, H.L., & Bush, A.L. (in press, 2012). The reciprocal cycle of self-concealment and trust in romantic relationships. European Journal of Social Psychology. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.1904
Dr. Helen Lee Lin – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Helen’s past research has focused on potential problems in relationships, such as keeping secrets from a significant other. She is also interested in communication as well as the use and consumption of media in relationships, and is planning to work in applied contexts for her future projects.