Many people are intrigued by the proverbial mysterious stranger. Lack of knowledge allows the imagination to run wild, augmenting the few known facts about a casual acquaintance with arousing, exciting details.

Yet some people keep secrets to avoid emotional entanglement. Ironically, some of the strategies people use to avoid intimacy actually increase their desirability. Here is how it happens.

Everyone Loves a Good Mystery: Infatuation by Intrigue[1]  

A friend of mine named Jill meets Justin, an FBI agent. They meet at a dive bar where he is out with coworkers—a factor that is revealing in retrospect. Having watched every episode of the X-Files, Jill is wildly curious about the life of a real federal agent, and the fact that Justin is evasive about his job description only makes him more alluring.       

They go on a few dates, but he is not opening up. When she asks about his personal life, he plays the artful dodger. He is nonresponsive and evasive. He is also slow in responding to her e-mails and voice mail messages. He must be busy, she thinks.

When they run into some of his colleagues at a sports bar (another red flag regarding his selected location for a “date”) one night, he does not introduce her. Again, she gives him the benefit of the doubt. Probably slipped his mind.  

When Jill’s friends warn her that Justin’s nonchalant attitude signals disinterest, she contends that he is just being cautious. After all, given the work that he does, he probably just wants to move slowly. Actually, Justin doesn’t want to move at all—and it has nothing to do with his job. 

Secret Keepers May Be Avoiding Emotional Entanglement

For people like Justin, relationships are casual and the focus is physical. They avoid incorporating sexual partners into their life, preferring to associate with colleagues without significant others. 

Jonason and Buss, in a study called “Avoiding Entangling Commitments,” (2012), find that an evasive relational style demonstrates a tactical avoidance of commitment.[2] They list indications of this type of short-term relationship strategy as including inaction, such as failing to return messages or ignoring a partner, avoiding physical intimacy such as “cuddling,” and failing to introduce a partner to family and friends. In reality, in order to increase their chances of hooking up with like-minded partners, many of these men patronize dive bars—just like the one where Jill met Justin in the first place. 

When Less Is More: The Appeal of Uncertainty 

How does one become infatuated with a partner in a relationship that is both secretive and superficial? The answer is that in a dating context, sometimes less is more. When a person does not know much about a prospective romantic partner, the uncertainty can be alluring.

In a study by Whitchurch et al. (2011) entitled “‘He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not . . .’,” the researchers demonstrate that some women find men to be more attractive when the man’s affections are uncertain.[3] They explain how this phenomenon, illustrated through the poetic routine of picking petals off of a flower, demonstrates how uncertainty regarding a person’s affections may cause us to think about them more intently—and more favorably.

Secrets Breed Suspicion, But Do Not Have to Be Relationship Saboteurs

Secrets create distrust and inhibit intimacy. When it comes to relational disclosure, less is not more. When you know the least, you fear the worst. Whether in the form of nondisclosure or omissions, secrecy stifles intimacy. Partners who deliberately keep you in the dark about certain aspects of their lives generate distrust about others.

Yet there is one important caveat. Some people conceal personal information not because they are being unfaithful or leading a double life, but out of insecurity, fearing rejection. The first few dates is the time to showcase the positive and downplay the negative. Accordingly, from personal situations to past indiscretions, many people are less then forthcoming about details they fear would cast them in a negative light.

As relationships progress, partners gradually increase disclosure in order to test the waters. Instead of a data dump on a single occasion, perhaps after having had too much to drink, a trust building process involves slow wading into the deep end.  Most partners are forgiving and accepting—because everyone has their own areas of vulnerability, including personal flaws and regrets. 

Remember this possibility when faced with the initial reluctance of a new love interest to open up completely. Consider that time will tell.

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert. She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

References

[1] This example is from my book Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press, 2015).

[2]. See generally, Peter K. Jonason and David M. Buss, “Avoiding Entangling Commitments: Tactics for Implementing a Short-Term Mating Strategy,” Personality and Individual Differences 52 (2012): 606–610 (610), doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.12.015.

[3]. Erin Whitchurch, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert, “‘He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not . . .’: Uncertainty Can Increase Romantic Attraction,” Psychological Science 22, no. 2 (2011): 172–175.

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