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Small secrets can strengthen relationships, research finds

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Posted at 2:42 PM, Oct 03, 2022

Most relationship counselors don’t encourage their clients to lie to their partners.

But recent research could change how we feel about the ‘little secret.’

“What we can say,” said Kelley Gullo Wight, a professor at Indiana University, “is that the occasional small consumption secrets can have a net positive for the relationship.”

“It can result in pro-relationship intentions,” said Danielle Brick, a professor at the University of Connecticut. “These things can be good for the relationships because there's a tiny bit of guilt, which then drives or encourages people to want to do something for their partner.”

That’s right.

Keeping small secrets can actually motivate you to do nice things for your partner, which boosts overall relationship satisfaction.

“They’re more likely to, say, spend on Valentine’s Day more,” said Wight. “And then their partner is actually happier with how Valentine’s Day went. They’re just putting either money or time or effort into doing something that’s going to make their partner happy.”

In a first-of-its-kind study published this summer, Brick, Wight, and collaborator Gavan Fitzsimmons looked at how small secrets can impact a relationship.

They discovered the practice is incredibly common.

There was at least one secret-keeper in every couple surveyed for one piece of the study.

“About 90% of people [overall] have kept a small secret from their partner,” Brick said.

These are relatively low-stakes secrets.

One person reported having a beer with dinner while their partner was out for the night.

Another person admitted to grabbing McDonald’s on the drive home while their partner was trying to lose weight.

Even the researchers acknowledged their own small secrets.

“My husband likes to drink Red Bull, and he knows that I don’t always love it,” Brick said. “So sometimes he doesn’t tell me about that Red Bull consumption.”

“My husband can’t eat cheese, so as soon as he goes out of town, that’s when I’m ordering pizza,” Wight said. “And it doesn’t bother him that I’m getting pizza. … He’s not missing out on anything if he doesn’t know about it. But it wouldn’t bother him if he’d learned.”

That is a key to the research: Most people said their partner wouldn’t mind the behavior if they knew about it.

“We can’t say that it’s good to do all things behind your partner’s back,” Wight said. “There’s a lot of previous research that definitely shows that keeping big secrets can have really harmful effects for the relationship.”

But the researchers expressed hope that their work can ease some guilt for people who are stopping for a second Starbucks on the ride home from work.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, these small secrets,” Wight said. “It does seem very universal, and I would argue healthy for a relationship.”