Why do secret relationships
hold so much power over us?

The secret relationship between New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian and former MP Daryl Maguire could be the undoing of the party leader’s career… so why would she leave herself open to such risk? Psychologists Briony Leo and Elisabeth Shaw explain the incredible influence that covert relationships can wield, and why they are not always healthy.

This article was originally written for Body + Soul 

Some Australians might be scratching their head at the recent controversy that has engulfed New South Wales Premiere Gladys Berejiklian, regarding the revelation that she had a five-year-long, secret relationship with former (and now disgraced) MP Daryl Maguire. Not because she perhaps has questionable choice when it comes to a romantic partner (haven’t we all at some point?), but why a politician of her standing would risk her career and integrity by continuing a “close, personal relationship” with someone who had been under investigation by Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) not once but twice, and who she herself had to fire from the NSW Liberal Party after he was accused of corruption. Mind boggling, no?

ICAC heard yesterday that Berejiklian was in a relationship with the former member for Wagga Wagga from 2015, until only a few months ago.

But the power of a secret relationship should not be underestimated. Even for seemingly sane and rational women like Berejiklian. I asked two psychologists who specialise in relationships, Elisabeth Shaw and Briony Leo, to explain the unexplainable… how do covert relationships hold such pull over those they entangle, and why are they so hard to end… even when the writing is clearly on the wall.

What is the appeal of a secret relationship?

From the outside, you might think ‘why bother’ with a secret relationship – especially where risk to your career or reputation is involved, like in Berejiklian’s case. But a covert relationship comes with its own set of very unique – and potent – selling points for those involved.

Briony Leo, a New York-based psychologist specialising in relationship explain the myriad of appeals. “Firstly, if you’re a public figure it can be quite intrusive to have the public know about a relationship – especially one that is not ‘defined’ as of yet. It’s actually understandable that lots of celebrities keep their relationships secret at the beginning, since their personal lives are public property. Another benefit is – of course- the secrecy and excitement that comes with seeing someone privately. In terms of people who have divorced or re-partnered, it can also avoid difficult conversations and challenges with introducing children and previous partners.”

Elisabeth Shaw is the CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, and she echoes Leo’s thoughts around excitement levels, stating that “Beyond the attraction and excitement of the relationship itself, the secrecy amplifies the intensity through the shared secret. It can make the arrangements for meeting, and the time together, more exciting and intense.”

However she counters that this lack of ‘reality’ can also be the undoing of a secret relationship, because “time is limited and the circumstances in which you meet are restricted, there is little testing of an ongoing relationship; such as doing the shopping together or meeting the in-laws. Instead, you meet purely to connect, and that is very engaging. It can also prolong a relationship that might fizzle out otherwise, if you had a chance to explore it in a fuller form.”

The ‘siloed’ beginnings

When describing how or why a secret relationship may blossom, both Leo and Shaw point to non-traditional start points. Shaw puts it succinctly, saying, “Opportunistically!” She explains, saying that it’s “Often to do with being thrown together on a project or work trip, where there is already something rather siloed about the terms of you meeting/being together.”

Leo concurs, suggesting that “for many, they may start as work colleagues or friendships that evolve over time. It is probably less likely for a traditional dating situation to turn into a secret relationship, since there is no real motive to keeping it a secret (other than a desire for privacy).”

The powerful pull of covert courtships

Explaining why a secret relationship can wield more power over our actions, and judgements, than a relationship that is out in the open, Leo concludes that “the secrecy makes things more intense, and since you aren’t really able to discuss it with anyone else, it may become toxic or boundaries may be breached unknowingly. We really benefit from being able to discuss our relationships with friends and loved ones, since they can give us feedback and point out potential red flags – but a secret relationship we have to deal with on our own.”

When a private joy turns into a dirty secret

Leo warns of the danger of secret relations turning sour, fast. She says, “Generally, secret relations can become unhealthy when there is a “formal or informal boundary breach (eg. boss with colleague, a mutual acquaintance with former partner), which is when the relationship may turn sour and stressful – since there is secrecy and also potential ramifications if it is found out. Additionally, it can be unhealthy if there are elements of abuse or deception in the relationship; it can be really hard to reach out for help since nobody is looking for any signs (as they believe the person is single).”

Shaw also points out that it can turn especially dangerous for women in a secret relationship, specifically “when the individuals involved put other relationship options on hold for this relationship, and when the secret relationship may never progress. Women can be vulnerable in this regard.”

Why are secret relationships so hard to end?

ES: “As they are by their nature limited in time, the people involved might minimise the time and engagement, and any harm that may be done, and keep it going for longer.

If the parties are extremely busy and otherwise satisfied with life or have no time for any other relationship, it simply might be a good fit to have a limited, exciting opportunity like this that fits their circumstances. It “works”.

If you are bonded by the secrecy and sauciness, at the end of the relationship you could start to fear what might happen as this pleasure ebbs away; for example, whether your partner will betray you if they are less happy about the ending. That could also lead to stringing it out and hoping it just fizzles out for both of you.”

B:” “I’d say because the boundaries are so blurred – there is no rulebook for breakups in secret relationships, and again it is really hard to reach out for support and help with processing things. When a marriage or major relationship ends, we can talk to our boss and ask for time off, and process with friends – but a secret relationship we may have to deal with ourselves and pretend that everything is fine. It may also be hard to let go of the mystery and excitement of the situation, as well as the hope for the relationship that it may turn into something permanent and open.”

Finding closure can feel impossible

Due to the unusual circumstances of the relationship, finding closure after a secret romance ends can be harder than for a relationship played out in public. Leo suggests the best of dealing with this would be “to find someone to help you process what has happened – this might be a trusted friend or perhaps a professional such as a counsellor or psychologist. Particularly if there were some boundary breaches, or if the relationship was ‘forbidden’ (eg. an affair, a workplace romance, ect), as it is helpful to talk through your feelings with someone and work out where you are right now.”

She explains the extra struggle associated by saying “It can be hard to ‘grieve’ a secret relationship because we don’t have people around us to support, so it is important that at least one other person is available to talk it through. Most of the time if we can process a relationship breakup – secret or not – in time, we can heal emotionally and move on with our lives with confidence. A secret relationship breakup has the risk of being harder to heal from because of the complexity, so it is important to seek support if it ends. This is particularly true if the end of the relationship has also resulted in other losses, such as the loss of a job or status – as these are additional losses to grieve.”

A fact that Gladys probably knows all too well.

Elisabeth Shaw is CEO of Relationships Australia NSW and a clinical and counselling psychologist specialising in couple and family work.

Briony Leo is an Australian psychologist, currently based in New York City, with specialist training in EMDR, neurofeedback, schema therapy and ACT therapy. 

For support with parenting, family relationships and managing conflict RANSW is here to help, on 1300 364 277, or visit our website,  www.relationshipsnsw.org.au

Contact Us

Check out our latest resources

Read Now