Chances are you or someone you know has been in a secret romantic relationship. It’s actually a pretty common dynamic and has been for a long time — see the world’s most famous pair of lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Obviously, however, people don’t usually talk publicly about their secret affairs.
Jenna, 26, recalls meeting a guy at a party, and immediately falling for him. Things between them moved quickly, but he asked her to keep their relationship a secret so he could avoid drama with an ex. “I think I agreed because I was hoping one day I wouldn’t have to be a secret anymore,” she says. And in the beginning, it was exciting. “Having a secret that nobody else knew was fun.”
In order for the two to go out in public together, Jenna’s boyfriend called on his best friend. “I would go and hang out with his best friend, and then we would meet [my boyfriend] so it wouldn’t look like my boyfriend and I were together,” she says. Sometimes, she adds, her guy gave their friend money to pay for her dinner when they were hanging out with other people.
This elaborate song and dance was likely a result of Jenna’s boyfriend feeling, perhaps illegitimately, that he couldn’t reveal that they were together. And at its core, a secret relationship is about safety: One or both partners decide, for whatever reason, that it’s best not to publicize the fact that they’re dating.
For some people, concealing a romance may be their only option — particularly if they believe they are likely to experience discrimination or backlash. For example, some people who identify as LGBTQ or those with strict religious or cultural backgrounds may find it safer to date discreetly, depending on their location and circumstances. But for others, like Jenna’s ex, keeping a dating relationship hidden is just about trying to keep other people from getting in their business.
Certainly, people are entitled to some semblance of privacy in their lives, says dating expert Veronica Mobley, especially considering how much pressure there is to share everything on social media. One of the perks of keeping a new romance private is that it allows you to work on building a strong foundation before inviting others in, she says.
“When you’re trying to decide if you like a person or if there’s any promise, it’s very important to minimize the voices, opinions, and input that you [may] receive from others,” Mobley explains. “In the beginning stages of getting to know someone, being able to be singularly focused on that process [is key].”
Sometimes, however, secret relationships can come with their own set of problems. Jenna eventually ended hers because her then-boyfriend wouldn’t claim her publicly, and she didn’t feel validated. “It felt like it wasn’t going to go anywhere,” she says.
Mobley says secret relationships usually become problematic when both people are not equally interested in maintaining privacy. If one person is pushing to keep the relationship hush-hush, it looks like they’re trying to hide something. That, she says, “can feel like a slap in the face” to the person who wants to be open about their romance.
That’s what happened to Sam, now 33, after a guest speaker caught her eye during a senior seminar class in college. The two added each other on social media, and he asked her out.
“Every time we saw each other [after that first date], it was always a quick visit to my place, [on his schedule],” Sam says. “If I was around him in public, he introduced me as his rock. I was his support system. But in the years we spent secretly hooking up [while I acted as] his emotional support, he publicly dated women that were more socially acceptable — meaning, his race and also much thinner.” (He is black; Sam is white.)
“I went along with this for far too long because I think I was scared that no one else would want me,” Sam continues. “That this was as good as I could get. Some part of me thought that he would snap out of it someday and realize that we had so much more than just physical attraction.”
Mobley says Sam’s situation is common. Oftentimes, one person doesn’t feel comfortable dating secretly, but they go along with their partner’s wishes in the hopes that the dynamics will shift at some point. “Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, but feeling like you’re not good enough for your partner to reveal you to the world can [impact] you psychologically and emotionally,” Mobley adds.
Although social scientists don’t know a lot about the effects of hidden romances, one study found that people who agree to maintain secrecy report feeling more stressed, and thus experience more negative health issues (such as headaches, nausea, or feeling unenergetic).
That makes sense: After all, an undercover relationship requires more effort — it’s not like you can invite your sweetie to join you and your friends at your weekly pub trivia night.
The same study also found that people who date secretly report feeling less committed to their partner. That’s probably because a relationship usually means becoming embedded in your partner’s life. “If the secret relationship is such that you’re not revealed to any of their friends, family, or social network, how do you grow in that?” Mobley asks.
Of course, that’s not to say you can’t gain anything worthwhile from dating someone on the DL. Jayne*, 34, says her “secret situationship” with a man who was good friends with her ex happened just when she needed it.
“I kept it a secret because I didn’t want anyone to think I was doing it out of spite, because I truly wasn’t,” she says. “I just needed something to make me feel better, and it became a more emotionally intimate situation than the relationship [with my ex] had been, and lasted much longer, even though it was very casual.”
But, she adds: “It could never really go anywhere because we put it in this box, and it couldn’t come out of the box.”
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.