At first, hooking up with someone "in secret" can be exciting. Maybe you're coworkers and can't let anyone know that you have a fling. Perhaps you're sleeping with someone within your friend group and don't want to tip the balance. Or you might be in your first relationship, ever, and feel anxious telling your friends and family about it. There are myriad reasons why secret relationships can exist, but that doesn't mean that silence is always the best policy.
If you're seeing someone who wants to keep the relationship a secret, it's okay if this strikes you as a red flag, says Lisa Brateman, LCSW, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist in New York City. "Asking someone to collude with you in privacy is not the norm in relationships, so there has to be a pretty big reason," Brateman says. "And what the reason is makes all the difference in the world."
So, what separates a "good" reason from a not-so-good one? It depends on the relationship, but your partner should at least be able to explain to you why they need to keep things a secret, Brateman says. For example, it's understandable if someone just got out of a long-term relationship, and still hasn't resolved issues with their ex. Or some people may not have come out about their sexual orientation, and want to be able to control when that happens. Whatever it is, they should be able to explain it to you.
Behind every secret, there's always shame.
Lisa Brateman, LCSW
Once they've articulated their reason, they should also give you an idea of how long they want to keep this under wraps. And if they don't, it's completely reasonable to ask, Brateman says. "A temporary period with an end date is very different than, I don't want anyone to know about it ever," she says. When someone tells you that your relationship has to be a "dirty little secret" forever, then it can make you feel pretty terrible. And unless you press for a clear explanation, there's a chance you could get strung along in perpetuity.
Being in a secret relationship can tap into very damaging insecurities or self-esteem issues for some people, Brateman says. "Behind a secret, there's always shame," she says. You might be wondering, what is it about the relationship that has to be hidden? Or, what is your partner afraid will happen if you do open up about the relationship? And finally, how serious are they about the relationship if they can't even share it with the people in their life? "It could make the person who's being hidden feel as if they're not important enough," she says.
But it also can be bad for your relationship in general, because it "breeds insecurity in the union," she says. Instead of working as a team, you're operating as an one-sided secret. In fact, research has shown that relationships that have the define-the-relationship talk tend to be associated with positive outcomes. Asking for an explanation doesn't make you needy; it means you're invested in the relationship and hoping they are, too.
If you are in a secret relationship, and you aren't happy with how it's playing out, it's worth it to have a conversation about it, Brateman says. "First and foremost, I'd express what you want," she says. You might say, "I'm not interested in going forward in a relationship where people don't know about it — that's not how I see a true partnership," she suggests. But you should also give your partner a chance to speak their truth, so you might add, "If you need time for some specific reason, then I would want to know what that's about." Also, figure out what would make you happy, like, do you need to be Facebook official or do you just want to be able to go to parties together?
Whatever you and your partner decide, just remember that you have as much of a say in the relationship as they do. Ultimately, it'll make your relationship stronger if you talk about it now, rather than wait it out in hopes that they change their mind. "Love doesn’t flourish in the shadows — if anything it breeds mistrust and uncertainty," Brateman says.