Wondering "Should I tell this person my secret?" is often followed by concerns like: "Will they be mad at me once they find out?" People often worry about the other person in these situations. Our research suggests that secrecy isn't just about the information you're trying to hide, but also the relationship with the person you're hiding it from.

Personal Relationships and Secrets

When it comes to secrets, every relationship is different. Your best friend will likely react to a secret quite differently than your parents or significant other would. One friend could understand why you didn't say anything sooner, whereas another will accuse you of not trusting them enough. These scenarios raise the question: Does the experience of secrecy change depending on the specific person the secret is being kept from? And if so, why? 

To answer this question, we asked college students (aged 18-23) and other adult "secret-keepers" (aged 19-72) across the United States about a personal secret that they were currently keeping and the one "target" person they wanted to keep from finding out. Most people said that they were keeping a secret from their friend, parent, or current romantic partner. For college students, the target was primarily a friend. Among other adults, the romantic partner was most likely to be kept in the dark. The top three topics most commonly kept secret by college students were romantic desires, physical and mental health problems, and private opinions. The top three topics most commonly kept by the broader adult sample were financial problems, transgressions (such as theft, property damage, infidelity), and romantic desires.

We asked secret-keepers how positively they viewed their relationship with the target and how much they generally trusted, valued, and respected that person. We also asked how they felt keeping their secret was affecting their relationship. We found that keeping a secret was related to perceptions of relationship quality. Those who rated their relationships more positively kept the secret primarily to maintain their relationship with the target. In fact, people in higher-quality relationships reported that keeping the secret made them feel closer to the target rather than more distant. Although we had initially expected that individuals might feel negatively about keeping a secret from their loved ones, it seems that most people felt that by keeping a secret they were protecting and even enhancing their relationship with the target.

Relevance Matters

We also expected that the secret's relevance to the target would play a role in keeping secrets. Imagine you are keeping an affair secret from two people: your best friend and your partner. For your best friend, your affair may not be as relevant to them as it is for your partner. Your friend may change their opinion of you based on the revelation, but in general, that information does not concern them. Your significant other, however, would most certainly have something to say about your concealing an affair that is directly relevant to their relationship with you.

Our results showed that when the information was more relevant to the target, it was reported as being more difficult to keep. Keeping relevant secrets also had a more negative impact on the secret-keepers' well-being. The secret-keepers also perceived that their secrecy had more negative effects on their relationship and perceived closeness with the target. When we compared these feelings between college students and the broader adult sample, however, we found that college students did not seem to experience the same association between the secret's relevance to the target and concealment being more burdensome. Some research suggests that college students show lower empathy and perspective-taking compared to middle-aged adults. Perhaps college students did not fully appreciate the secret's relevance to the target and as a result did not experience additional stress from keeping that information from them.

Our research suggests that people's motivations for keeping a secret will differ depending on how close their relationship is with the target. A weak relationship (for example, a co-worker or casual friend) is likely to elicit more concerns about privacy or negative reactions, whereas a strong relationship (such as a romantic partner or best friend) is likely to elicit more relationship-oriented concerns such as whether the revelation will cause harm or distress to the target or the relationship. Furthermore, keeping a secret that is directly relevant to the target might make hiding a secret harder.

So, if your secrets are stressing you out, the true culprit might not just be the secret itself but also who it is you're keeping it from.

For Further Reading

Bedrov, A., & Leary, M.R. (2021). What you don't know might hurt me: Keeping secrets in interpersonal relationships. Personal Relationships, 28(3), 495-520. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12373

Alisa Bedrov is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara studying the effects of keeping and sharing secrets on close relationships.