Communication Currents

Discovering Secrets in Romantic Relationships

October 1, 2015
Interpersonal Communication

Secrecy is a common phenomenon in close relationships. Most of the time, people have control over their decisions to keep or reveal secrets. There are circumstances, however, when others learn secrets without the secret keeper knowing. When people discover their romantic partner is keeping a secret from them but allow their partner to believe the secret is still unknown, they have what researchers refer to as a putative secret. 

One potential issue with putative secrets is that individuals often feel excluded and/or deceived when they believe their romantic partner is keeping secrets from them. Furthermore, researchers note there are culturally constructed expectations for openness in romantic relationships in the United States. If unmet, these expectations can create difficulties for relational partners. When people believe their partner is keeping a secret from them, it could make them question their relationship and produce conflict between the relational partners—even if the topic of the secrecy or the secrecy itself is never discussed.

Examining putative secrets in dating relationships is especially important because dating relationships are a “training ground” for marriage. Analyzing the effect of putative secrets could help explain why some couples are more successful than others at managing conflict and maintaining long-term, healthy relationships. Even more important, the way couples manage conflict is a strong predictor of relational well-being. While conflict is a natural and inevitable part of interpersonal relationships and can promote growth, intense and enduring conflict can harm individual and relational development.

Putative secrets could escalate conflict in romantic relationships because people often view secrecy as a violation of relational rules. Individuals may not trust their dating partner if they think their partner is keeping a secret from them, which may make their relationship more unstable or turbulent. Therefore, the primary purpose of our investigation was to understand how knowing one’s partner is keeping a secret, but not revealing this knowledge to the secret keeper, influences the intensity of conflict in romantic relationships over time.

In short, a putative secret can be a source of conflict because it violates expectations for openness in romantic relationships in the United States. This may be especially true for individuals who are currently managing putative secrets because the effect of the secret keeping is ongoing and they are determining how to manage the information they have about the secret keeping and the secret itself. We were also interested in whether the effect of the putative secret would be magnified by relationship dissatisfaction (or when people are unhappy in their relationship), such that individuals with a current putative secret who are more dissatisfied relationally should have the most intense conflict, as well as more changes in conflict, over time.

The perceived reasons for concealing secrets and their impact on conflict are also likely to be dependent on relationship satisfaction. For example, dissatisfied individuals should be more likely to explain their partners’ behavior from a more critical perspective (i.e., “My partner is embarrassed by the information” or “My partner has something to gain or benefit from by keeping this secret”). Individuals who are already satisfied may interpret their partner’s efforts to protect the relationship by keeping information secret in relatively benevolent ways (e.g., “My partner cares enough about our relationship to protect it”), while those who are dissatisfied may view the same behavior as a measure of weakness (e.g., “My partner can’t handle the effect it would have on our relationship”).

To test our predictions, 305 dating individuals described either a current putative secret their partners were keeping or a putative secret kept in the past, or said they had never discovered a secret their partner was keeping. The participants in the study then completed online diary entries for three weeks to track any conflict that occurred with their partners. 

Our results revealed that individuals who currently were managing a putative secret had higher levels of conflict as well as more fluctuations in the level of conflict in their relationship over the three-week period than individuals who experienced a putative secret in the past or no putative secrets at all. The types of secrets our participants discovered their partners were keeping ranged from information regarding their partners’ cheating and betrayal of trust to their partners’ dating and sexual history.

While individuals’ perceived reasons for their partners’ secret-keeping were important, they often depended upon relationship satisfaction and whether the individuals currently were dealing with the putative secret. For instance, individuals who reported current putative secrets and were more dissatisfied also reported the most intense conflict, and at some point had noticeably higher levels of conflict than everyone else who participated in the study. One explanation for the important role of relationship satisfaction with regard to putative secrets is that individuals who are satisfied with their partner probably communicate about their relationship problems in more constructive ways than individuals who are less satisfied.

When taken together, our study offers new insights into the secret-keeping process and the impact it has on romantic relationships. Even though individuals who are currently experiencing a putative secret are likely to have more conflict, our results suggest that these effects may dissipate over time as the relationship progresses and the secret is no longer a current issue. Our findings also suggest that while the reasons for keeping the secret may matter, they are not strong predictors of conflict compared with the fact that the secret was kept in the first place. Finally, other factors, including satisfaction with one’s relationship, may expedite the rate at which relationships can recover from putative secrets. Ultimately, being satisfied with one’s relational partner seems to ameliorate much of the impact of putative secrets on romantic relationships.

With specific regard to romantic relationships, the results of our study also lend themselves to some practical recommendations for anyone facing the issue of secrecy in their relationship. Those who have discovered a putative secret their partner is keeping should consider two factors before revealing they know the secret: how happy they are in their relationship and why they believe their partner is concealing information. Satisfied couples may frame their partners’ behavior in more positive ways than couples who are less satisfied. Research also shows that reactions to secret information often are received more positively than the secret-keeper may anticipate. Therefore, secret keepers should reveal their secret, especially if the reason for keeping it was to avoid negative reactions in the first place. Revealing a secret could make a close relationship even closer.

About the author (s)

Desiree Aldeis

University of California, Santa Barbara


Tamara D. Afifi

University of California, Santa Barbara

University of California, Santa Barbara