Whether single or married, you’ve probably experienced the upside of flirting. Whether on the giving or receiving end, flirtatious behavior can feel terrific, and it can be great fun. "So..." you might ask, "what could be the downside of flirting?" Four simple questions give us the answers: Is flirting appropriate given the relationship status? Is there appropriate intent in the behavior? Is the setting suitable? Is mutuality present? Things can get dangerous when the response to any of these four questions is a "No!"
Before moving on, it’s important to understand a bit more about why humans flirt. Taking a quick look at the sociological aspect of flirting, it’s interesting to note that flirtatious behaviors are found in every culture. As an often-used method of human interaction, flirting occurs in many settings, from home and work environments to supermarkets.
Indeed, flirting can be used to gain—and give—attention in a socially acceptable manner. Especially when single and dating, flirting is usually viewed as a normal, harmless aspect of human interactions. Flirting is often used as a subtle, indirect means of making an advance toward a person of interest. Whether highly sexual or low-key, flirting can be expressed through body language or words—both written and oral. The goal of flirtatious behavior is often to signal attraction. While the underlying intention may be to show serious interest, flirting can also be simply playful in nature. This gray area is where both the fun can begin and the trouble can start.
When in a committed relationship such as marriage, flirtatious behavior can enhance fun, connection, and intimacy between partners. It’s the same in dating relationship—particularly when both parties have similar intentions. However, the fun turns into dangerous territory when intentions are misconstrued, unwanted, or—as in the case of flirting outside of a committed relationship—simply inappropriate because it sends the wrong message.
"Well," you might be thinking, "I’m married, but I like to flirt. I like the attention I get, and it’s a fun way to engage with others. No real harm is done when I flirt..." Unfortunately, so-called harmless flirting outside the marriage is problem for many couples. Flirtatious behavior often speaks to deeper, unresolved issues, such as communication difficulties, sexual concerns, and general disrespect for the marriage or partner.
“I’m married, but I like to flirt. I like the attention I get, and it’s a fun way to engage with others. No real harm is done when I flirt...”
As in the case of an actual married couple, one partner began "innocently" flirting at the gym. Feeling unappreciated and unloved by her husband, she enjoyed flirtatious exchanges with a friendly, married man who was in her spin class. At first, quick flirtatious smiles signaled interest; they opened the door for more. As the smiles and eye contact became more frequent and flirty, chatty conversations began. Not too long after that, "innocent" post-workout lunches were shared. Away from the reality of home and work life, she enjoyed the distraction and attention. The line between being gym acquaintances and intimate friends began to blur as they increasingly shared personal details. Soon, they were commiserating about feeling sexually dissatisfied. Before a few more weeks passed, the "innocent" friendship and flirting had moved into a full-fledged affair. Sadly, two marriages failed as a result—and the flirtatious duo have gone their separate ways. This type of tale is, unfortunately, all too common.
In another case, the problematic behavior was subtler and hard to spot. This couple found their marriage on the rocks when the wife, seemingly oblivious to the over-friendly intentions of a co-worker, ultimately found herself in a difficult situation. The wife didn’t notice that a certain male co-worker took every opportunity to sit next to her during office meetings. She didn’t notice that he slipped next to her in company photos or during business get-togethers. Over time, the co-worker began bringing her coffee. Before long, he was sharing lunch and personal discussions at her desk. Fellow employees couldn’t help notice an increase in bodily contact as he began leaning in toward her, placing his hand on her shoulder, and then moving in to offer her end-of-the-day hugs. An observant co-worker, who also knew the husband, finally leaked his concerns during a barbecue.
Although no sexual interactions had occurred, the husband felt humiliated by his wife’s behavior. Knowing that they clear agreements about what constituted appropriate and inappropriate behavior outside the marriage, he felt betrayed. Rather than taking responsibility, the wife responded, "You’re making a big deal out of nothing. It’s not like I had sex with him or anything. We’re just friends." Adding insult to injury, she added, "I think the problem is with you. You’re jealous and suspicious. Can’t you be a little flexible?" From the husband’s point of view, his wife had betrayed him emotionally. As he told his wife, "I wonder what might have happened if I’d not been told about what was going on. It could have continued to progress until it was sexual." Indeed, the wife’s poor boundaries in the workplace led to marital difficulties that were hard to repair.
The third scenario offers an interesting twist. In this case, a married man assumed that flirtatious behavior was a necessary and even appropriate part of his business. As he said, "It’s good business to flirt—it makes women smile, and then they do what you want." He didn’t see the downside of flirtatious behavior. Behind the scenes, his flirty behavior had earned him the reputation of being a womanizer. Knowing he was married, certain clients questioned his intentions—and integrity. Those who found him unresponsive to their invitations to take flirting to the next level found him insincere. Someone—whether an irritated client or co-worker, apparently had enough and slipped a condom and love note in the man’s jacket pocket. As often happens in such situations, the wife inadvertently found them. The husband had to soul-search and explain.
“I’m embarrassed to think that there are women in our community—and beyond—who knows he acted that way.”
Six months of marriage therapy later, the relationship still suffers. As the wife says, "I believe that he didn’t have sex with someone else. That’s not the issue. I just can’t wrap my arms around the idea that he used flirting as a business tool. I’m embarrassed to think that there are women in our community—and beyond—who knows he acted that way. It’s not the man I know. I still get queasy when I think of him using his charms to make deals. I want to be able to look at him and see the man I used to see." As the husband now realizes, his behavior has endangered the health of his marriage. A glutton for attention and affirmation, he unwittingly used his "It’s good for business!" motto to stoke his self-esteem. Unfortunately, his behavior cost him his wife’s esteem. In certain ways, his behavior also cost him respect in the public’s eye. Unwittingly, he’d gained the reputation as a flirtatious womanizer. As he now knows, it’s an easy reputation to create, but a very difficult one to erase.
The fourth scenario held both financial and personal implications. A business owner began flirting with an employee, and she with him. He was married, and she was not. His side of the story is a sad one. "She was cute, youngish, and—yes—sexy. At first, it was as simple as her leaving me funny notes on my desk. One day, I was at the store and bought her a cute coffee mug. I didn’t think much of it. We had this little back-and-forth going. It was distracting and fun. We ended up staying later and later at work to be alone. For a long time, nothing sexual happened. Looking back, I think she almost set it up that way. So that I let my guard down. Anyway, she bought me a cute gift for Valentine’s Day. I shouldn’t have, but I went out and got her a box of chocolates. Then, she made the first move. She kissed me in the hallway. After that, we had sex in the elevator—she says it wasn’t consensual, but it was. What started as innocent, casual flirting has turned into a mess. She called it sexual harassment. There’s a big lawsuit. My wife is talking divorce—she can’t stand the sight of me. My reputation is shot. I need help putting my life back together."
All four scenarios illuminate various downsides of flirting. What often begins as a subtle or fun interaction can quickly—or slowly—spiral out of control. What may seem to be an innocent, well-intentioned office or social friendship can ease toward comfortable, more intimate interchanges. At this point, boundaries can become easily blurred, leading to behaviors that are highly destructive to all concerned. Simply put, it comes down to having solid boundaries and a good moral compass. When you don’t engage in flirtatious behavior, your actions can’t be misinterpreted. By keeping your behavior clean and above reproach, you don’t open the door for problems and speculation.
“In the end, the energy put into flirty behavior outside the committed relationship is far better spent on the relationship itself.”
Returning to the four key issues surrounding flirtatious behavior, it becomes easy to spot the root issues. Looking at the first issue—relationship status—it’s clear that every situation involved a committed relationship. Given the relationship status (whether marriage, engaged, or exclusive in some other form), flirtatious behavior outside the marriage is inappropriate. Moving to the second marker—appropriate intent—it becomes easy to see that flirtatious behavior can subtly morph into destructive behavior, even when one or both parties didn’t begin with inappropriate intentions. The third issue—appropriate setting—is an easy one. Flirting, when in a committed relationship, belongs exclusively within the committed relationship. Finally, looking at the issue of mutuality, it becomes clear that flirting is appropriate between two single, mutually agreeable or interested parties. Of course, for those committed couples who find flirting fun and sexy within their own relationship—flirt away!
So, if you find yourself tempted to engage in flirtatious behavior, turn inwards and ask yourself why. Do you need to ask for more attention or sexual intimacy from your partner? Is your self-confidence low? Have your standards or boundaries become off kilter and blurry? Flirting might feel good, but it won’t solve underlying issues that need attention. In the end, the energy put into flirty behavior outside the committed relationship is far better spent on the relationship itself. So, take some time to consider what’s really going on. And then, turn that flirtatious behavior toward your sweetheart; the upside is huge.
As a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, California, Dr. Carla Marie Manly maintains a focus on helping clients transform their lives and their relationships. Using a body-mind-spirit approach that underscores the importance of overall wellness, Dr. Manly works with her clients on a highly individualized basis to uncover the core concerns that often manifest as psychological, behavioral, and somatic symptoms. Combining traditional depth psychotherapy with somatic therapy, Dr. Manly offers her clients a specialized approach to creating passionate, joy-filled lives. Working in both individual and group settings, she strives to promote change by increasing her clients’ personal self-awareness and insight. A devoted writer, speaker, and yoga instructor, Dr. Manly is dedicated to helping others create the lives of their dreams. California License: Psy25539. For more, visit www.drcarlagreco.com and follow her on Google+.