There is something slightly alluring about the idea of a secret relationship, where the subtle glances and the sneaking around make for great foreplay. And this sort of playful secrecy almost seems like it has been romanticized since the beginning of time – think Romeo and Juliet and throw in a little bit of Anna Karenina.
But do secret relationships really inspire the obsessive preoccupation so often depicted in literature and film? In 1994, Daniel M. Wegner, a psychology professor, teamed up with two others at the University of Virginia and ventured to find out.
Wegner’s logic was that a secret relationship, by definition, can only exist if the couple make a conscious effort to hide their thoughts and emotions from those around them. It would therefore make sense for this intense secrecy to induce the couple to become more obsessed with the relationship, so that they may even find it more fulfilling than if their romance was public knowledge.
The three researchers set out to discover whether this was the case by conducting a series of studies. Through the use of questionnaires, they found out that subjects repeatedly dished out higher ratings for past secret relationships than bygone romances that had not been secret, regardless of recency. Continued preoccupation with a relationship that had ended was more likely if relations had been covert in a “sneak-out-the-back-door-and-make-sure-no-one-sees-you” kind of way.
In the second study, four participants (two females and two males) were seated at a table and instructed to play a simple card game where each woman was paired up with a man. Each table now seated two couples. Some of the partners received instructions to play footsie with each other, but in such a way that this non-verbal communication would not be noticed by the other two participants sitting at the table. Other partners were instructed to use their feet for contact, but were also ordered to let the other team know that that this was the case. Couples in the third condition were not instructed to communication with their partners any way except for verbally.
What the researchers really wanted to do test was the power of secrecy, and how this particular concept may possible affect how attracted team mates were to each other. The results of the study showed that participants who had played footsie with each other in secret tended to have great attraction for their partners than both subjects who had publicly played footsie and those who had not taken part in some sort of contact with their partner.
In combination, these two studies both have important findings and applications. That secrecy plays such a vital role in romance can even be applied to secret crushes, when a person hides his or her attraction from the very person they are attracted to. Consequently, this person would find it more difficult to move on.
And because secret flirtation – like footsie that goes unnoticed by everyone except for the couple involved – leads the two people to be more attracted to each other, the findings of this study even suggest that secrecy may be therapeutic if partners are facing difficulties in their relationship.
Alia Wilhelm is a student at Northwestern University where she studies Journalism and Psychology.