The Secret of Secrecy
Anyone who has heard of love has heard of Romeo and Juliet; however, they may not have heard that this play inspired an actual, social psychological term: the Romeo and Juliet effect.
This phenomenon asserts that when there is interference or suppression of a romantic relationship (usually by parents), feelings of romantic love intensify—an effect occurring due to reactance. That is, when we are told we can’t do something, we feel that our freedom is being constrained, and to prove that we are in fact “still free,” we want to do exactly what’s being prohibited.
Thus, if a parent tells you that you can’t date someone, your innate desire to freely make your own decisions means you pursue the romantic interest even more strongly, resulting in augmented attraction.
However, as we age, outsider approval becomes less dictating in romantic pursuits; but in its place, a related factor emerges with similar effects—namely, secrecy.
Researchers brought participants into the lab in groups of four and put them into heterosexual pairs, informing the participants they’d be playing a card game against the other pair. And while one of the pairs played the game normally, the other pair was additionally told to have their feet touching during the game (i.e., play “footsie”).
Importantly, though, half of all footsie partners were told to play their flirtatious game in secret, while the other half of footsie partners played with the other pair aware of their side game.
Afterward, the researchers looked at how attractive the participants rated their partners, and although playing footsie increased overall attraction, those who played it in secret were attracted to their partners the most.
Other studies conducted by these researchers also showed that people think more about previous secret (vs. non-secret) relationships, and furthermore, secret (vs. non-secret) relationships result in more obsessive preoccupation.
So why is a dash of secrecy so powerful?
First, if you’re in a secret relationship, you are thinking about it more frequently to remember what should not be revealed. And simply by thinking extensively about something, you infer (via self-perception) that this relationship must be important to you. That is, considering your own behavior, you conclude: “If I’m thinking about this other person so much, I must really like them!”
Second, with the relationship being secret, it implies a sense of scarcity. That is, because you’re keeping this relationship from other people, you are treating this partner as if they were something “rare” and not to be lost. And as decades of research have shown, the rarer we think something is—even if we’re not interested in it!—the more valuable we tend to perceive it.
However, although secrecy may boost attraction in the beginning, sustained secrecy reduces commitment and trust, decreasing relationship satisfaction in the long run. So if you’re in a secret relationship (or plan to use “secrecy” to your advantage), don’t keep it a secret for too long or all of the intensity may very well be lost.
Love on the Brain? Secret romances can have some other effects on you that probably wouldn’t have believed possible.
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