Flirting while married

I’m a flirt. I’ll readily admit that. I’ve been one for as long as I can remember. And it’s something my wife has known about me since we met. After all, I’ve flirted with other women in front of her.

And a lot of people likely assume that my wife and I are headed for divorce because of it. And an observation I recently encountered seems to summarize the point of view regarding married men and women flirting quite succinctly. In an article called “Why Married People Flirt“, author Gray Miller says this:

Some people wonder why married people flirt. They make the false assumption that the taking of vows suddenly turns off any playfulness or sexual attraction with anyone but a spouse.

Or to quote “Married Jake” over at Glamour Smitten in his article “Why Married Men Flirt“:

There are two kinds of married guys: married guys who flirt and married guys who don’t. Married guys who never flirt are a freaking mystery to me. They’re like monks or something. They’re wired differently from me. I respect them tremendously, but I do not envy them. On the other hand, guys who are died-in-the-wool flirts will always flirt, even when they’re married. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to act on that flirtation. It just means they like it. And if they’ve sworn off flirting, it means they’re subverting their flirt impulse. And they’re miserable.

I’m a flirt. I have always been a flirt. Maybe if I had more self-esteem or something I wouldn’t need to do it, but the fact is I love it. Nothing racy. No physical contact. I just like having flirty conversations—playful ones, not overtly sexual or anything. My wife knows about it, and at first she really hated it. But now she just knows it’s who I am. And she remembered that’s why she liked me in the first place and that I will never change, and that she’s the person I like flirting with the most and am committed to entirely. She trusts me that I won’t go over the line, and I trust me that I won’t go over the line. I’ve been with her on-and-off for something like four years, and I’ve never gone over the line.

Indeed, I’ve observed similar:

“Checking out” others is natural. He’s going to look. She’s going to look. Don’t deny it. Don’t treat it as a problem. Showing any kind of attractiveness toward another is not a sign that he or she will stray.

Here’s the ready thing to understand about being a flirt: like “Married Jake”, I’m not trying to score. (Is that something still said today? I guess I’m getting old.) That’s right: flirting is not entirely or exclusively about sex. And that has to be the most common misrepresentation of flirting. Most recently I saw this misrepresentation with Ashley Willis in her article “5 Things Married Women Need to Stop Doing“:

This one probably seems like a no-brainer to most of you, and yet it is a BIG problem in many marriages.  It may start innocently…you share laughs with a co-worker.  Then, you go to lunch…just the two of you.  Before you know it, the emails start coming.  Then, texts and phone calls.  And, then, that man is all you can think about.  You start hiding any communication with this person from your husband.  Before you know it, you find yourself in a sexual affair.

If I had reproduced the above paragraph in an article where I wasn’t talking about flirting, would you have guessed this paragraph was immediately under the header “We need to stop flirting with other men”? Probably not. Because this doesn’t sound like flirting in the least. Instead it sounds exactly like it ends: an affair with a coworker that didn’t start as an affair. A more apt title of the section with that paragraph would be “We need to stop sleeping with other men”.

While flirting can be driven by a desire for sex or a relationship, those aren’t the only reasons. They’re not even the primary ones. They are, however, the only reasons getting all the focus. This leads to the misrepresentation that it’s only about sex, especially if you commit the egregious sin of flirting while married or in a committed relationship.

David Henningsen, PhD, of Northern Illinois University, actually studied why people flirt. And sex, he says, is actually the least-likely reason for people to flirt. Imagine that! Chances are a person who is flirting isn’t trying to woo a potential sex partner.

In other words, ladies, if you see your husband or boyfriend flirting with another woman, chances are he’s not trying to seduce her into sex. “You can’t assume that all or even most flirtations have underlying sexual motivations. People often use the allure of the possibility of sexual interest to help achieve other goals.”

Again, sex is actually the least-likely reason why someone flirts. So what is the top reason? Fun!

Psychology Today published an article in August 2012 called “Why Do We Flirt?” by Sean Horan, PhD, also citing research by Dr Henningsen. Of note is that people flirt with multiple goals in mind.

And I’d agree. Even with how flirtatious I am, it’s infrequent that I do it exclusively for fun. But I also don’t do it with a desire to engage in sex (since I’m married, happily) or form a new relationship (again, married). Instead much of how I’ve flirted has led to more favorable service at restaurants and other venues, and I’ve typically been remembered as a regular after fewer visits by female service staff for that reason, along with the fact that I’m a good tipper. And because my flirting tends to be light and non-obvious, it’s worked pretty well.

And in the fun category, flirting with someone other than your spouse or significant other can actually bring positive energy within your relationship. Provided your spouse/significant other doesn’t get defensive. In an earlier article I wrote this:

If his flirting with another woman offends you, then you are the one with the problem. And if you confront him on it, you will demonstrate that you have the problem.

And I’m not the only person who feels this way. In responding to a woman named “Candace” with a flirtatious husband of 15 years, Evan Marc Katz said this:

First of all, how is your marriage? It may seem like a silly question, given how upset you are, but apart from his interest in looking at/dancing with pretty women, what does the rest of your relationship look like? Is he a good provider? Does he spend a lot of time with you? Is he a solid communicator? Is he an available father? Does he have anger issues? Has he ever actually cheated on you or talked about a divorce?

All of this stuff matters, in my humble opinion.

Because while infidelity itself may be an absolute deal-breaker for your relationship, flirting itself may not be – especially within the context of an otherwise good marriage. And yes, I say this as a flirt and a good husband as well.

It’s also mentioned that her husband is a salsa dancer, which Katz calls “an inherently sexy dance” — flirting just comes with the territory.

Indeed he even points out her insecurity directly, “Should he pretend not to enjoy himself with them because you feel insecure?” I think the better question would be “should he not enjoy himself at all simply because she feels insecure?”

And that insecurity can manifest itself in deeper ways. Raise your hand, ladies, if you’ve ever said or thought, “If he loves me, he won’t look at other women.” Emma McGowan in her article “5 Reasons to be Excited About Your Significant Other Flirting with Other People“:

As for the “looking at other girls means he doesn’t love me,” one, well, it’s time to leave that back in high school, where it belongs. Ask anyone who has been together for decades if they’ve ever looked at or flirted with someone else while they were in a relationship.

Then ask them if they think that means they love their partner any less. If they’re honest with themselves and with you, the answers to those questions will be “yes” and “no, of course not!” respectively. That’s because anyone in a healthy long-term relationship understands that flirting is not only going to happen but that it’s important part of keeping things healthy.

So what about that positive energy, then? For that, let’s turn to Rose Maura Lorre on the site “Scary Mommy” and her article “7 Reasons Flirting is Good for Your Marriage“:

When you’re in a long-term relationship, the belief that “this is the one person I will sleep with” can easily (and unhealthfully) translate into “this is the only person who will sleep with me.” Call me insecure, but I’ve always believed that sexiness is a collective effort. That is, it’s about how you interact with people, not just your one special person.

It can be good to flirt with others who aren’t your spouse just to get some kind of positive indicator that you’re still attractive from someone who didn’t take a vow to keep telling you that you’re sexy even if you’re stuck in bed with a heavy bout of the flu. “Our SOs might tell us we’re great but there’s nothing like getting that verification from a new person to give a little ego boost,” Emma said in her article.

At the same time, seeing your significant other doing the flirting can be a reminder of why you’re together. Again, Emma McGowan:

On the flip side, seeing your S.O. flirt is a great reminder to you that they’re awesome! Have you ever not even thought about someone like that until you found out they were seeing someone? A similar thing happens when you see your SO flirting. For example, my boyfriend and I recently went to a party where I spent most of the time chatting with a new friend and watching him dance from afar. He’s a handsome guy and the ladies were loving it. I soaked up their attentions to him and thought, “Damn! He is so hot!” Seeing him through their eyes reinvigorated something I already knew about him — that he’s the greatest.

Back to Rose, she says later in her article:

I’ve never understood relationships where the two people set “rules” about not being “allowed” to flirt with others. First of all, what I do (i.e., flirting) has nothing to do with who I do (i.e., some rando). I have no interest in ruining my marriage, and even if I did, there are less messy ways to go about it than to go out and start up a raging flirtation. Being free to flirt is exhilarating; it reintroduces the thrill of the unknown into everyday life—which, let’s face it, is a thrill that’s hard to come by once you’re married with children.

Largely, though, these rules are unspoken and unwritten, and enforced through expressions or insinuations of jealousy, wherein someone becomes jealous at their significant other or spouse showing any interest in someone who is not them. Going back to Psychology Today, and the article “What to do when someone flirts with your partner” by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD:

No one can deny that it’s ego-boosting when someone treats you as if you’re funny, sexy, and intelligent. However, when your partner is the recipient of this attention, and it’s not from you, the effect can be jarring. You never thought of yourself as a jealous person, and you know you can trust your partner, so why should this upset you? Are you really that insecure? Or is your partner really so bored or unhappy with you that anyone else seems like a better companion?

One might argue that sometimes it’s good to challenge your assumptions about your partner. Taking each other for granted can be the first in a series of steps toward dissatisfaction if not dissolution. When you see your partner in the reflected admiration of a stranger, perhaps it’s a wake-up call that you need to stop being so complacent. The jealousy you feel might even inspire you to do some of your own counter-flirting, as it were, to “win” your partner back.

Seeing someone else flirting with your spouse or significant other can certainly be jarring, but only if you let it be. If your response to the display is to get territorial or thinking that he or she is a cheater just looking for an opportunity, that actually says more about you. It says you don’t have a high level of trust in your relationship, or you’re projecting your own faults onto your significant other.

And if you don’t have a high level of trust with your significant other, or if you feel you can’t trust your significant other, you need to re-evaluate your relationship.

Unfortunately, jumping to the conclusion that flirting means he/she will cheat is all too common. In searching with the terms (without quotes) “flirting while married”, most of the search results on the first few pages, boiled down, basically said flirting (while married or in a relationship) absolutely is cheating, or heavily imply or outright says it’s a recipe for “disaster” and/or will lead to cheating. Any idea that flirting could still be fun and exciting, even if married or in a relationship, is entirely lost on the idea I’ve seen reproduced countless times that it’s disrespectful to your significant other and should never happen.

Well, fuck that!

Not only is flirting fun, as Dr Henningsen noted, that’s the main reason people do it! And I don’t recall anywhere in my vows that I wouldn’t have fun. Sure boundaries need to be respected, but I’m not out there flirting with women with the intent of hooking up with any of them. Again, Emma McGowan:

“Flirting” does not mean getting a bunch of numbers, because that kind of activity has intent to hook up behind it. If a couple has an arrangement that allows for that kind of outside contact, that’s fine, but if they don’t? It’s definitely not. However, a little bit of arm touching and laughing at party does not cheating make. And also, there are ways to flirt that are cool within a relationship (i.e. mentioning early that you have a S.O.) and ways that are not (i.e. acting like you’re going to go home with them and then ghosting or, even worse, not ghosting and making out in the bathroom).

And one way to keep things in check is to make sure you’re not consuming alcohol to a significant degree, as that has a demonstrable ability to lessen a person’s inhibitions.

And if both of you are out and flirting with other people, chances are both of you will be building up a pretty high level of sexual energy that needs to go… well… somewhere.

It’s the ultimate positive energy you can get out of flirting with other people. It’s one thing for your significant other to tell you you’re sexy, and it’s a whole other thing when someone else is showing you that you are. But you want to make sure all that sexual energy goes to your significant other or spouse and not into the last person with whom you were flirting.

Meaning both of you come home to each other and have a night of sex — on the couch or in a chair since you’ll probably not even make it to the bed unless you live in a studio — that leaves both of you exhaustively satisfied, possibly waking up in the morning a little sore because you ended up overdoing it.

Which is the major benefit of flirting while married or in a committed relationship. Not only are you building up sexual energy, probably higher than you’d be able to with just your significant other, you’re almost guaranteed to have an outlet that you can trust and know is safe. Again back to Emma McGowan:

And you know what my boyfriend did after a night of flirting with beautiful women at a pool party? Walked over, gave me a huge kiss, and took me home with him. Yup; it’s always good to get the guy (or girl) in the end.

But you need to have self control. And you need to trust yourself enough that you will keep things in check.

And self control is what many presume is non-existent when it comes to those of us who flirt while married or in a committed relationship. Looking at a number of articles regarding flirting while married, many of the authors assume that flirting will lead to cheating. That we’ll just jump in the sack (or back seat of a car) with anyone showing enough interest, whether it’s a coworker or some random person in the checkout line at the grocery store.

Interesting how many are willing to jump right to a bad outcome, if not the worst outcome, with regard to an interaction. This is known as “worst first” thinking. While Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids, who arguably conjured the concept, talks about it with regard to children, that mentality has invaded our society in so many more ways.

When you recognize the “worst first” mentality for the fallacy it absolutely is, you can recognize that often the worst outcome in a scenario is the least likely outcome and not really worth your energy or attention. So too it is with flirting while married. It doesn’t mean infidelity is around the corner, and no one should jump to that conclusion.

Indeed the research behind why we flirt shows that we do it predominantly for fun. Not for sex, not to try to “hook up”. Infidelity likely isn’t around the corner if you or your significant other flirts while married.

So just have fun with it and stop making it out to be more than it is.