Have you ever been in a relationship that you hid from others? If you answered “YES”, you’re not alone; 62% of Science of Relationships readers responding to our recent poll have done the same. There are lots of reasons to keep a relationship under the figurative (and literal, as we’ll see later) table. Maybe you’re dating your boss, seeing someone significantly older or younger than you, got back together with your ex (that your friends all hated), or are having an affair with someone who is currently married and you need to be discreet about your tryst. Sounds pretty hot, right?
Survey research has found that people who were in secret relationships, compared to those in ‘public’ relationships, tend to ruminate more and think obsessively about their past relationships.1 But how do you study secrecy in the lab, so you can see if it actually causes people to be more preoccupied with thoughts about their partners?
As you may know, sometimes partners play “footsies” under the table, where they use their feet to romantically touch each other without others discovering them (or so I’ve been told). This simple act is charged with romantic undertones, and is especially powerful because couples are probably doing this without their other dining companions being aware of it. Do you really want your parents to know that you are sliding your big toe up your date’s leg while waiting for your meal to come? What if we could harness the power of “footsie” in the lab to test the effect of secrecy on obsessive thoughts and attraction? Well, in a very clever study, that’s exactly what Dr. Dan Wegner and colleagues did.1
Imagine a card game with four people sitting around a table; the game works in pairs, and you’re teamed up with the opposite-sex stranger sitting across from you. Some of the pairs are given an instruction to secretly communicate with their partners under the table using their feet. Essentially, they can gain an advantage in the game by passing information to each other by playing footsies without the other team knowing (secret condition). Other pairs are also told to communicate with their feet, but that the opposing team will know what they are up to (non-secret condition). Finally, a third group of teams played the game without any under the table contact (non-contact condition).
After playing the card game for 10 minutes, participants were separated from their groups and rated both their partner and the opposite-sex player on the opposing team on a number of factors, including: (a) their attractiveness, (b) whether they could see themselves hanging out with that person again, (c) if s/he would make a good romantic partner, and (d) if they’d like to be his/her partner in future studies. In addition, they were asked how often they had intrusive thoughts about the partner (“Even now, thoughts of my partner keep popping into my mind”).
What did they find? Participants were most attracted to their partners and had the most preoccupied thoughts about them when they had a “secret relationship” with him/her, compared to the non-secret footsie-players and those who didn’t play footsies at all. In short, it’s not enough to just play footsies or cooperate with someone — it has to be unknown to others as well for attraction and obsession to be elevated.
What does this mean for your secret relationships? Well, it wouldn’t be surprising if they are enhanced by the secrecy; that it elevates your ratings of your partner’s attractiveness and causes you to think about them more. So secrecy is good for relationships, right? Not so fast. We’re talking about attractiveness and obsessive thoughts here, not other markers of relationship quality. If your friends and family don’t know about your relationship, they can’t offer support and approval (which can enhance commitment and stability).2 Or maybe you’re keeping your relationship secret for a reason (like your friends would disapprove of you seeing a married man/woman). Relationships with this sort of baggage probably have problems that can’t be overcome despite the little bit of extra attraction caused by some secret foot-rubbing.
1Wegner, D. M., Lane, J. D., & Dimitri, S. (1994). The allure of secret relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 287-300.
2Etcheverry, P. E., & Agnew C. R. (2004). Subjective norms and the prediction of romantic relationship state and fate. Personal Relationships, 11, 409-428.
Dr. Benjamin Le – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.