Is your partner okay with you flirting with other people and vice versa? Do you have different ideas about what constitutes flirting? And could this cause a problem?
Cassie*, a 28-year-old Auckland marketing executive, has always been what she calls ‘a flirt’. Before she met her boyfriend a year ago, she’d been largely single for six years, with a few short-term relationships and a few one-night stands. Cassie would often go out to bars with friends and flirt with guys she met. “I like to dance, I like to have a few drinks, and I like to flirt,” she says.
Things have changed to an extent now that Cassie has a boyfriend. “I recently mentioned to him that, when I was out on the town with my friends, a guy bought me a couple of drinks and danced with us. My boyfriend was like ‘whoa, that’s not okay!’ and I said ‘it was only some harmless flirting!”. But he said he was uncomfortable with any flirting, and asked me not to do it. I thought ‘well, that’s a bit silly, but I’ll have to respect his wishes’. Yet we haven’t actually really discussed what exactly flirting is!”
What Counts As Flirting?
There are different opinions about what constitutes flirting. A friend tells me that it is, to a degree, in the eye of the beholder. “Where does flirting end? Saying hello and smiling at someone? Having a meaningful conversation? Telling smutty jokes? Kissing someone on the hand? Touching someone? Being vulnerable and telling someone how you feel about something significant?”
In this story, by ‘flirting’, we’re not talking about emotional cheating or anything that involves communication via social media, text message, phonecalls and CERTAINLY not dating apps. We’re talking about what can happen face to face that stops short of kissing or physical touch (not counting a hug there and there). Someone who is already in a relationship might flirt with a person they meet while out with friends, or flirt with a colleague at after-work drinks or a work Christmas party.
So how much flirting is okay? Capsule did a poll on its Substack newsletter, asking ‘if you’re in a relationship, do you consider flirting with other people to be…’
- Fine, I trust my partner (37%)
- Always a bad idea (48%)
- On par with cheating (15%)
- It would never happen (0%)
So it seems like it happens heaps, even though a lot of people say it’s always a bad idea. Hmmm, might that be a problem? Then again, just over a third of people said it was fine because they trusted their partner.
The most important question is whether the people in the relationship share the same view. Recently, Maia*, a lawyer from Wellington, found that she and her partner did not. “He and I talked about it because we eventually realised we had different expectations around flirting. I thought it was okay and he didn’t, but we didn’t realise that until I, in his view, crossed a line.”
She doesn’t want to elaborate. So what happened afterwards? “I agreed to a no-flirting policy after learning and realising that I respected his views. And I understand more about why I used to be inclined to flirt, and I just don’t feel that way anymore.”
“Also, if I was [in a relationship] with someone different I might have a different policy. I don’t think any position is wrong. You just run into problems when you have mismatched expectations.”
Because what constitutes flirting can vary from person to person, and from relationship to relationship – as in perhaps your ex was okay with you flirting with other people, but your current partner is not.
Does Flirting Count As Cheating?
Fifteen percent of people we polled say that it is on par with cheating. That’s more than we expected!
Brittany Loggins has written an article called ‘Is Flirting Cheating? How to Talk With Your Partner About Flirtatious Interactions’. She points out that studies show that men and women can have different ideas of what constitutes flirting. One study called ‘Flirting With Meaning’ found that “men tend to view flirting as more sexual than women do, and women attribute more relational and fun motivations to flirting interactions than do men”.
For different reasons, as Brittany says, “it’s understandable if your definition differs from the definition held by your partner. This doesn’t mean that couples can’t overcome this issue. Setting up non-negotiables is one way to make sure that both you and your partner are comfortable”.
Brittany says that relationship therapist Anita Chlipala “encourages her patients to be specific about their non-negotiables. Instead of telling your partner to stop flirting altogether, you can let them know that you feel most uncomfortable when they playfully touch a mutual friend or try to impress that one co-worker with their best jokes time and time again”.
What’s important is communicating clearly.
Ground Rules For You And Your Partner
Have a conversation about what each of you considers flirting to be. Ask what the other person’s boundaries are. What behaviour would feel like a betrayal (e.g. dancing with someone)? What behaviour is fine (e.g. some banter with a flirtatious edge to it)? If someone is far more comfortable with flirting than their partner is, it’s worth discussing whether there’s an unmet need within the relationship – though it could just be a question of two different personalities.
You might decide on a ground rule such as:
- Don’t do any flirting (after agreeing what constitutes flirting)
- It’s okay if the person you’re flirting with knows you have a partner
- It’s okay it it’s just a bit of playful banter
- It’s okay as long as you aren’t having thoughts about it leading to anything more
- It’s not okay if you’re doing repeated flirting with a specific person or seeking out that person
- It’s not okay if you’re being deceptive to your partner in any way
No matter what you decide, it’s all about healthy communication.