The Private Relationship vs. The “Secret” Relationship: There’s A Difference

January 21, 2014  |  

“Don’t let anybody around here know about your relationship until things are official and you guys have set a wedding date,” a minister from my church told me several years ago. Though his words seemed a bit extreme, they resonated with me and I could tell that they came from a hurting place. The conversation came just months after he’d experienced the painful ending of a very public relationship. People naturally want to win. No one sits down to take a test hoping to fail. No one shows up to a race hoping to lose and no one begins a meaningful relationship hoping to break up. Having been in a situation similar to this particular minister’s, I could completely relate.

Never again would I want to be the subject of those sympathetic gazes or questioning stares. So I swore off things like social media when it came to my relationships and only informed a tiny circle of friends and family members that I was even seeing anyone. My logic: The less people that know about this relationship, the less people I’ll have to deal with looking at me and wondering what went wrong if things happen to go awry. Anything to not have to deal with the shame of a highly visible breakup again. But after closely examining my behavior in relation to other people and my relationships, I began to wonder exactly what kind of relationship I was trying to have.

We’re often advised that one of the best ways to increase the chances of a relationship’s success is to keep it private and keep your business out of the streets. However, with social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram making it possible for the average Joe to broadcast a message to hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of social media users with a few swift keystrokes, maintaining privacy in a relationship has become a rather challenging feat that requires a huge helping of self control. But just how private should a relationship be and what happens when people become too good at keeping their relationships private? What happens when a relationship becomes so private that it becomes a secret?

I suppose the best example of maintaining a private relationship would be Hip-Hop’s beloved couple, Jay Z and Beyoncé. Most didn’t even know the two were dating until several years into their relationship. The Carters are nearly 11 years strong, and there’s still not much that we know about their relationship besides the fact that they’re together and that they share a child. Though they initially played coy about their romance, after a few solid years of dating, establishing that strong foundation, and then jumping the broom, they eventually went public. To contrast, I couldn’t really have this discussion without mentioning Ashanti and Nelly and their attempt to carry on a secret relationship. Though they were together well over six years, they failed to publicly acknowledge one another until the relationship was almost over. I suppose this would be an example of a “secret” relationship. A poorly kept secret, but I suppose it was an attempt nonetheless.

From the outside looking in, it would seem that both of these couples started out with similar intent: Let’s protect our relationship by keeping it on the hush until we’re better established and know where we’re heading. Yet somehow, on the corner of “Let’s keep people out of our business” and “Maybe we shouldn’t acknowledge each other at all,” things appear to have gotten a little murky. A person in love wants to be many things, but in most situations, a secret is not one of them. Dr. Justin J. Lehmiller conducted a study in 2009 on secret relationships for his dissertation at Colorado State University and what he found isn’t a complete surprise. According to Dr. Lehmiller’s studies, keeping a relationship a secret was ultimately detrimental to the relationship.

“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,” said Lehmiller. 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.”

Of course, some instances require that a relationship be kept a secret, at least for a while. But just how healthy can a relationship be if the couple is spending more time hiding their love than actually nurturing it?

Have you ever been in a “secret” relationship? How did things turn out?

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