In Praise Of Secret Relationships

Keep off Instagram, you’ll be happier that way

by Jenna Birch

A few years ago, my now-ex boyfriend asked me if I wanted to make our relationship “Facebook official.” God, no, I thought. It felt to me, then, like there was something special about keeping a relationship a private thing, singular to just the two people involved in it. To be public with it felt, well, too much.

Recently, those feelings came rushing back. After Taylor Swift dropped Reputation in November, I realized I’d never seen a picture of the album’s central muse, Swift’s latest boyfriend and actor Joe Alwyn. Similarly, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement with a single interview, just two months after their first-ever public outing. Overall, the details of the royal engagement were few and veiled; they were clearly continuing to keep their notoriously secret relationship a private affair.

The internet buzzed once again in early December when Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis hit the red carpet arm-in-arm. Someone was paying attention to just how “rare” the event was; they’d apparently never stepped out together in the history of their romantic relationship. The last joint red carpet they attended was for That ‘70s Show as co-stars about a decade prior.

“I loved you in secret,” Swift sings on “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” a song most likely about her very low-profile current boyfriend. This is because, for the most part, "in secret" is a smart way to love.

It’s easy to get enthralled by those “I have nothing to hide,” share-your-love-everywhere relationships. We like imagining and discussing the private lives of others; it’s what gossip mags, Instagram feeds, midweek happy hours, and Sunday brunches are all built around. We all have various levels of openness. In celeb land, Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani, for instance, are very vocal about their love. Newly recoupled Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, similarly, are not afraid to let paps catch them hanging out. 

But it's hard not to wonder if many of these relationships are destined for a crash and burn, à la Swift’s very public relationship with her ex Tom Hiddleston. Maybe making your most intimate bond public damages it. And, if it doesn't inherently damage it, at least it makes it all the more surprising to outsiders when that bond breaks apart, as can be seen just this past year, as the spotlight captured the rise and fall of couples like Chris Pratt and Anna Faris, The Weeknd and Gomez, and Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom.

But while celebrities live under the glare of a super-bright spotlight, we all live in a social media-saturated culture now, and so all our relationships are subject to its effects. Everyone is analyzing everything and everyone—not just celebrities. Your friends and acquaintances are looking at your photos and @ mentions online, checking out who you’re talking to and who's talking to you. This type of situation has recently been made worse with new forms of technology and the designation of “Instagram official” couples, but even the ceremonial changing of a Facebook relationship status has always been too much for me. 

Maybe it’s counterintuitive. “What’s there to hide?” I’ve heard friends utter when they hear someone clam up around certain relationship-based questions, like, “What are you two?” or “How’s it going with insert-romantic-interest-here?” The thing is, I get the side-stepping; I have participated in it.

It’s not that the secretive among us have anything to hide, per se, it's more that the bond you have with a significant other or romantic interest is worth protecting. Plus, there is ample evidence that staying mum and keeping private about your love may lead to more positive outcomes. 

A 2014 study examined “relationship visibility,” which is basically how much you post about your love on social media. The results reveal that it's actually those people who feel more insecure in their relationships that tend to post more frequently. So just because your friend broadcasts a selfie with their partner or tags the restaurant where they went for “date night,” does not mean they feel content behind the scenes. 

This seems to be a result of a compensation effect of sorts, as if having tangible evidence in the form of happy photos confirms that your bond is real even if you're questioning it in your head. That said, if you’re spending a lot of time worrying about your relationship's presence on your social feeds, you are probably not spending enough time worrying about the relationship itself; research has shown that posting too much actually detracts from your relationship's health. 

However, there is something to the idea that if you post about something, it might go from being virtual reality and into literal reality. After all, the idea of “social contagion” has been well-studied; the concept involves the way in which we unconsciously mimic the behavior of our peers. This is why it can feel like everyone you know gets engaged at the same time. But it also works in a negative way: Pew research has shown that divorce, for instance, is also “contagious.” If a friend is divorced, your odds of divorce increase by 75 percent

None of this is to say you shouldn’t share your relationship with anyone at all. But over time, often with years and increasing wisdom, you start to learn the best outlets for your feelings. You start to discover the friends and family members who support and give honest feedback, versus those who criticize or complain—and even sometimes sow seeds of doubt that possibly shouldn't even exist, affecting the mood and trust in a relationship even unintentionally.

In researching a book on relationships recently, one of my favorite pieces of insight from an interviewee was simple: Make sure “external pressures” do not guide your relationship decisions in any form or fashion. These pressures could come from anywhere. Maybe it’s your mom. Maybe it's your best friend. Maybe it's your culture, upbringing, or societal norms. Whatever. 

The effects are insidious, but the more private you keep your relationship, the more in tune with your own intuitive guide you'll be, and the less you'll compare yourself to others and the fewer unwanted opinions you'll take in. This way, you stay more aware of the ebb and flow of your own feelings and can make moves and choices from a place of self-knowledge—not of pressure. You'll be better able to ask yourself questions, like, Am I happy? Is my partner happy? Is our bond healthy? Is this what I want and need? And better able to really answer them.

Of course, everyone is different, and everyone decides what works best for them. If you’re a “shout it from the rooftops” person, immune to what other people are saying and thoroughly happy, I’m not going to say that sharing everything about your relationship is a bad idea. But if discussing your relationship, PDA, social media, or any other form of publicizing your love irks you somewhere deep down, listen to your gut. You don’t have to say a thing.

And if you don’t ever want to discuss your relationship? Ever? At a girls’ night, or at brunch, or happy hour, or phone date with your mom? Cool. That’s your prerogative. And as a friend, I am here for your “secret” relationship, even if I never know what’s going on within it.