You touch his hand and let your fingers linger. He praises your beautiful smile. Butterflies are fluttering in your stomach, but there’s just one problem — this isn’t your spouse. Is it a harmless flirtation, or could welcome advances signal the downfall of your marriage?
We sat down with Seven Year Switch‘s Dr. Jessica Griffin and Charles J. Orlando to find out the difference between flirting playfully and playing with fire.
You notice your partner flirting with someone who isn’t you. Is it time to reconsider your relationship?
Charles J. Orlando: It’s time to talk about what you consider flirting. Clear communication about what makes you uncomfortable — and the motivation behind your partner’s behavior — is needed.
So there’s no universal threshold that marks when innocent flirting crosses into dangerous territory?
Dr. Jessica Griffin: Flirting happens along a continuum, and people flirt for different reasons. Sometimes it’s an innocent way to establish a connection with someone else or to boost one’s self-esteem. Other times there may be relatively harmless instrumental motivation at stake — imagine someone flirting with hotel staff to get a room upgrade. What’s considered harmful flirting for one couple may be deemed totally appropriate for a couple that sees it as just friendly behavior.
How do you know if you’re taking flirting too far?
Dr. Griffin: Playful banter can be harmless if you’re maintaining boundaries, but it may also be sexually motivated. That’s where things get problematic. What begins as flirting can result in lines being crossed down the road.
There are clues that flirting may be disruptive to your marriage. Ask yourself: Is it done in secret? Are there sexual overtones? Do you feel guilty? Are you spending a significant amount of time talking to this person? Are you finding that you are sharing things with this person you are not sharing with your spouse and establishing emotional intimacy? Does your spouse not like it?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you may be in fact be flirting with the notion of divorce. At a minimum, an affirmative answer can indicate emotional cheating.
Is there a difference between emotional cheating and physical cheating?
Orlando: There’s a big difference. One is investment of the body, the other is investment of the mind, and both require intimacy. Flirting isn’t necessarily emotional cheating, but it can be a “gateway drug” to a deeper connection with someone who isn’t your partner.
Dr. Griffin: And, for many people, there isn’t much of a difference on the heart! Studies have demonstrated that men actually struggle more with the idea of their spouse cheating on them, physically, while women suffer more when there is emotional infidelity. Both are painful, yet it’s possible to fully recover from either if you take the right steps to repairing your relationship.