When is flirting inappropriate?
April 6, 2006 9:51 AM   Subscribe

Given that you are in a monogamous relationship, when is flirting outside of that relationship inappropriate?

It seems to me that, on some base level, flirting is not destructive. In fact, it may be a perfectly natural and healthy way for two people to interact. Yet, as the level of involvement in flirting increases, the emotional stakes rise for the two involved parties and the uninvolved member of the relationship. What's the difference between being friendly, socialable, or playful and hurting a relationship?

Given that there are probably an immense number of factors that would lead to different answers, please refrain from simply answering always, sometimes, or never without enumerating at least some of your reasoning.
posted by sequential to Human Relations (42 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I agree that flirting is natural. I go out dancing without my husband and with the girls and flirt and dance with guys. But it never goes any further than that. I never ever do it in front of my husband, nor brag or tell tales about the nights out. But he's not the jealous type and we trust each other completely.

Flirting is a great way to feel good about yourself, that you still "have it," and it's fun. I think it's harmless. I have no problem if my husband flirts, as long as it doesn't go anywhere and he doesn't do it in front of me.

We've been together 13 years and still going strong.
posted by aacheson at 9:55 AM on April 6, 2006


I think this is one of those things where it depends on the strength of the relationship, the type of flirting, and whether the people in the relationship are able to keep it to 'just' flirtingm, and maybe the context in which the flirting takes place.
posted by empath at 9:58 AM on April 6, 2006


Yeah - it really boils down to your individual definition of flirting. I know people who think oral sex is flirting, whereas some might feel that merely dancing with an anonymous stranger constitutes flirting.

The most important thing would be your partner's idea of flirting and what is acceptable. I know my wife would let me get away with a much higher level of flirting than I would be comfortable with if it were her doing the flirting.
posted by daveleck at 10:00 AM on April 6, 2006


There's what we psychology types call an attribution bias that plays into this -- who gets to define whether the behavior is appropriate or not?

Typically the person doing the flirting believes it is just fine and harmless. The partner's reaction is minimized or labelled as the problem ("What's wrong with you? Why are you so insecure? I'm just talking! Jeez!!")

A friend's father used to say, "Just because I've ordered doesn't mean I can't look at the menu!" Meanwhile, his wife would roll her eyes and accidently dump her glass of water on him.

I think that in a good relationship each person has to take the other's feelings into account in determining what's appropriate. So if one partner is bothered by the other's flirting, it should be something that could be respectfully discussed, without blaming and/or stigmatizing.
posted by jasper411 at 10:04 AM on April 6, 2006


In regards to a relationship problem I was having a friend once said, "It's not a problem till it's a problem."

I think that advice applies here as well... who can say what level of flirting is okay? It varies from person to person, culture to culture...

Some people are comfortable with their significant others having extended physical relationships with other people... some people fly off the handle when their mate even has minor contact with members of the opposite sex.

I have a friend who's girlfriend essentially cheats on him occasionally - sometimes he finds out about it, sometimes he doesn't - either way he doesn't seem to care and they seem to work fine as a couple.

One person's standard for whats acceptable is going to be different from another person's.

My experience has been that couples who are mutually comfortable with a set level of extra-relationship contact (if any) are the ones that seem healthy. The psycho relationships I've seen have always been where one person was flirtatious and the other was jealous/possessive.
posted by wfrgms at 10:09 AM on April 6, 2006


I agree that a little flirting is fun and not a big deal. One issue might be the potential for more flirting (and beyond).
Flirting with a stranger at a club who you'll never see again is one thing, flirting with an office mate you spend eight hours a day with is another.
posted by clh at 10:13 AM on April 6, 2006


Given that the two of you are both confident in your attractiveness and in the relationship, I would say that anything that could reasonably be considered harmless flirting is OK. However, if one of you is going through a crisis of self-confidence for some reason, the other person needs to be considerate of that and lay off the flirting for a while.
posted by teleskiving at 10:26 AM on April 6, 2006


Not trying to derail, but could some folks please elaborate on exactly what they do when engaged in harmless flirting?

Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I can't even imagine flirting with someone outside of my relationship with my wife. I know that's just me, but I'd like to hear how the other half lives...
posted by daveleck at 10:35 AM on April 6, 2006


My own personal rule is to act as if my SO was always around. If I wouldn't mind her seeing me act this way, then I believe it's okay. If she disagrees, it's something we can talk about. Either way, no one's hiding anything from the other person.

I never ever do it in front of my husband...

Why? Is it somehow innopropriate? This seems strange.
posted by null terminated at 10:41 AM on April 6, 2006


daveleck, I welcome answers to your question. I don't believe it would be a derail at all.
posted by sequential at 10:44 AM on April 6, 2006


I know people who think oral sex is flirting...

Oh, for Christ's sake. You probably know people who think inhaling oxygen constitutes eating, but we don't generally acknowledge the lunatic rantings of psychotics. Intelligent people can disagree, but that doesn't mean that some opinions are stupid.

You've gotten about a dozen good explanations why this question is subjective. You want an objective answer? There's only one: Guilt. When you feel guilty, you've crossed the line.
posted by cribcage at 10:48 AM on April 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


Given that you are in a monogamous relationship, when is flirting outside of that relationship inappropriate?

It's inappropriate if your SO is standing right there. I spent some time this weekend flirting, for no reason except to entertain myself, with a very cute young firefighter who was buying an old motorcycle from me. My husband was working in the house at the time, but I feel that if I had done this while my husband was standing there, it would have sent a very bad message (implied or inferred? not sure about this) about our marriage and my respect for it and him--a message I wouldn't want to send.
posted by scratch at 10:50 AM on April 6, 2006


So, if I don't feel guilty after banging my wife's sister, that's okay? I bet my wife would have a different opinion.
posted by daveleck at 10:53 AM on April 6, 2006


Yeah, don't tell your SO if you're flirting with someone else. That can be hurtful.
posted by grouse at 10:54 AM on April 6, 2006


when is flirting outside of that relationship inappropriate?

it becomes in appropriate at the point which your SO would not approve. for some this may be a lot of flirting, for others none at all.
posted by poppo at 10:59 AM on April 6, 2006


*inappropriate
posted by poppo at 11:00 AM on April 6, 2006


...if I had done this while my husband was standing there, it would have sent a very bad message (implied or inferred? not sure about this) about our marriage and my respect for it and him--a message I wouldn't want to send.

How is that worse than the message you're sending when your husband isn't around? You obviously don't respect him too much if you'll flirt behind his back.
posted by null terminated at 11:01 AM on April 6, 2006


You've gotten about a dozen good explanations why this question is subjective.1
cribcage, I hope it's clear from the small text in the more inside that I understand that this is subjective and cultural. In asking the question, I expected a plurality of answers, none of which I expected to be right.
posted by sequential at 11:04 AM on April 6, 2006


So, if I don't feel guilty after banging my wife's sister, that's okay?

You, sir, are one hell of a flirt!

I think the idea behind the question is where to draw the line between flirting and outright infidelity. OP asked about flirting, not infidelity or cheating.

I would categorize "banging my wife's sister" as the result of a lot of protracted flirting or perhaps a little rohypnol. Either way, not flirting.

To return to the question, I think a little flirting never killed anyone, but doing it on a regular or protracted basis leads to danger. Of course, I may as well be talking about operating a nuclear submarine here - flirting isn't exactly an everyday occurence for me.
posted by GuyZero at 11:08 AM on April 6, 2006


Flirting with strangers when your SO is not around makes no comment at all on your SO. Flirting with friends who know there's a partner in the picture, however, can be disrespectful.

Basically, though, in the same way that you shouldn't expect to get all your conversational/emotional/whatever needs met by your SO, I don't really see how you can get all your ego-boosting-flirting needs met by one person. Getting that little zing of "I'm hot" from others keep you alive as a sexual being, which is good, I think, for your monogamous sexual relationship. If you really believe that no one but your SO finds you attractive and sexy, then you're probably not coming across as attractive and sexy even to your SO. Within reason, I think it's just polite to give other people that same boost, too.

And I'm talking smiling, banter, maybe a little extra swinging of the hips. Nothing physical or that could reasonably be interpreted as leading someone on.
posted by occhiblu at 11:09 AM on April 6, 2006


when is flirting outside of that relationship inappropriate?

Inappropriate is a word that just applies to normative standards, not absolute mathematical distinctions. In general, flirting is inappropriate if your partner says it makes them feel bad. Over time, you and your partner may evolve an understanding in your relationship of "how much is too much" but for starters, you start with what they say and go from there.

As jasper411 says, it's easy to use the anecdotal evidence of a bunch of strangers to tell your SO "hey, you're hypersensitive, what I am doing is NORMAL" but if it makes your SO feel weird (either by being around it, or by hearing about it from other people) then you and your SO need to work that out.

Another metric could be that flirting is inappropriate when it gives the wrong message to other people. I had a boyfriend who was a big flirt once and I didn't mind much on a personal I'm-jealous level, but it was clear that some of the people he was flirting with were unclear about the monogamous nature of our relationship and didn't see his flirting as only flirting. So, he sent mixed signals which resulted in eventual hurt feelings for other people. I clued into this being a problem sooner than he did and so I'd tell him "Um I think your level of flirting is inappropriate if you're not trying to indicate to these women that you want a relationship with them."

and to daveleck, I think of harmless flirting as being warm and friendly towards people in a way that says "you're attractive" more than just "you're nice" For people that are comfortable with this level of interaction, it's not really doing anything special, maybe smiling, eye contact, casual touching, attentiveness, flattery. For people who don't flirt naturally, it can definitely seem a little too familiar possibly. I'm flirty sometimes and I'm also comfortable in my monogamous relationship. There's a fine line between indicating "you're attractive" to someone and indicating "...and I'm available" but that's really where a lot of flirting lies in my opinion.
posted by jessamyn at 11:10 AM on April 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


Yes -- I would say that appropriate light flirting is a way of politely affirming that your conversational partner is attractive without necessarily implying that you're attracted to him.
posted by occhiblu at 11:13 AM on April 6, 2006


null terminated - I disagree. Flirting when your SO isn't around is no big deal in my opinion. But if he/she is there, the exact same actions take on a different meaning. It becomes disrespectful because you're not just giving someone else attention, you're specifically directing it away from you're SO. Think of it like ballroom dancing for a minute. No biggie to choose another partner for a waltz if yours isn't there, but a nasty snub if he is.
posted by synapse at 11:19 AM on April 6, 2006


I hope it's clear from the small text in the more inside that I understand that this is subjective and cultural.

It was. I wanted to offer the other side.
posted by cribcage at 11:21 AM on April 6, 2006


Jessamyn - excellent points. I guess that's where my hangup begins. I view flirting as the gateway to seduction, so the notion of flirting with someone other than my wife kind of creeps me out. I know that is my own hang-up, though...

I have no trouble telling someone other than my wife that they are attractive, but I don't consider that flirting.
posted by daveleck at 11:22 AM on April 6, 2006


That didn't sound right. I also tell my wife that she is attractive...
posted by daveleck at 11:25 AM on April 6, 2006


Why is it inappropriate to flirt when your SO is right by you? If you are not crossing The Line (as agreed to with your SO), and your SO knows what you are doing, with whom you are doing it, why is it inappropriate?

The statement in our household is "(S)he knows where I sleep and who I'm going home with." Both of us have the right to discreetly, politely tell each other "You're being an ass" or "What you're doing is making me uncomfortable." Maybe my husband and I are more open than the average bears, but we both flirt in front of each other all the time, especially amongst our good friends.

I'm not trying to seduce anyone. I'm giving some playful attention to another person and enjoying some attention in return.
posted by onhazier at 11:29 AM on April 6, 2006


Post posting: I disagree with synapse. I do not believe that my SO and I should have to attend to or entertain each other. When we go to social events, we're there to be social. What fun would it be to only dance with your partner and not accept an invitation from another dancer? (to carry your metaphor)
posted by onhazier at 11:33 AM on April 6, 2006


Actually, onhazier, that's a great point, and I suspect my own behavior is more like yours in most social situations. And of course it's about comfort level. My husband and I use the lyrics from "Save the last dance for me" as our house rule. I do think though, that if I was with my husband and one other person in a every day situation (commercial interaction for example), I'd flirt significantly less since my focus would be more on my husband. And I guess that's what I was responding to.
posted by synapse at 11:39 AM on April 6, 2006


Also - so I guess the dance metaphor wasn't a good fit after all!
posted by synapse at 11:42 AM on April 6, 2006


The content of ones character is reveal in what they do when no one is watching. In this case it's when their significant other isn't watching. I think anything that you do that would cause them emotional anguish if they were there with you would be too much, because it's disrespectful to them. It also shows your level of commitment to your relationship. Some people are fine with their SO dancing with someone else, others have a hard time with it. You need to find that line and respect it, where ever they happen to be located. If you're not happy with that line then work that out first before crossing it. If you act in a certain way that you wouldn't want your spouse to see, then you're lying to your spouse, that other person, and ultimately yourself about how much you value your relationship and the people in it.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:49 AM on April 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


That being said, there is a lot of room in a mutually respectful relationship to have fun and communicate with other people in meaningful ways outside of the couple, you just need to know where the boundries are.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:51 AM on April 6, 2006


Also, I am remonded of a recent Canadian court ruling. Some people actually enjoy having their SO "flirt" with other people.
posted by GuyZero at 11:57 AM on April 6, 2006


I really need to learn to write concise replies more quickly. Please excuse the length of this comment.

For what it is worth, as some of you have surmised, there was an impetus, in my own relationship, to asking this question. My fiancee is an attractive woman. Though that's a subjective statement, and my own belief, I mean to imply that nearly every day she turns down a man or a woman who has asked her out. There are occasions where her suitor does so in front of me, sometimes even knowing that we are a couple. In my life, I can think of only a handful of occasions where women have openly and obviously courted me, regardless of whether or not I am in a relationship. Only a handful more men than women have done the same.

As you might imagine, this is something that she and I have discussed. It's been happening since pretty much the first time we met. Initially, I asked how she wanted me to react. It turns out that she's flattered by moderate amounts of protective or jealous behavior, but she gets a kick out of turning people down, too. We agreed that it's in the best interest of our relationship to be up front about our relationship with people we might engage in flirting with and that we'd be open about any interactions that we believe the other would find uncomfortable. It was a non-issue for a number of years. Furthermore, I encourage her to flirt with women innocently and she encourages me to flirt with men, as it's a specific area that neither of us can fulfill with each other. As such, same-sex flirting has never once been an issue since. (It's a little hard to swallow when it happens in front of one another, but perhaps that's to be expected.)

Recently, she began working in a salon with straight male co-workers and clients. It's the first time she's been in such a situation. Perhaps the resulting hypersexuality, sexual harassment laws be damned, is not universal, but she works in an environment where both sexes talk about things that most of us would be fired for in our workplaces. They have the state sexual harassment laws posted, but only as a trophy of which laws the owner has personally broken at work.

From her first day of work it was clear that this made her uncomfortable, but she is unwilling to lose her employment over the matter. Sure, she likes the attention of her clients and coworkers, but such attention is often at the expense of her productivity or our relationship. Instead of being a prude, her words, not mine, she asks me to come into the salon regularly, to reinforce our relationship in the face of her coworkers and clients. Yet, there is at least one coworker who continues to act inappropriately, to the point that she is uncomfortable being left alone with him.

She has been up front, for the most part, about her interactions. It wasn't until we disagreed about what to do one night that she ever admitted anything that actually hurt me. During that disagreement, she essentially said, "If we don't do what I want to do, I'll just go out with one of the many guys I flirt with at the salon." It then became apparent to both of us that something wasn't kosher.

Over the course of a week, she reexamined the situation. She decided she was uncomfortable with how she told me and with what she was doing. As a result, she wants to change her relationships with her coworkers and clients in an effort to make a clear commitment to our relationship. Lastly, she is making an effort to seek more attention from me, something I am more than happy to lavish on her. In some ways, the result has been rewarding, but at the cost of some difficult emotions and damaged trust.

In asking this question, I was hoping to hear a number of different answers to help me examine my own situation. This isn't exactly the kind of thing either one of us feel comfortable asking our friends and acquaintances about. Despite having been very emotional and difficult, giving anyone in our peer group the impression that things were difficult to us would actually make matters worse. Yes, that's a terrible thing to say about our friends, but it's a fair assessment given our experiences.

I did not ask about our particular situation so as not to poison the well with potential gender biases or other issues. Given the quality of the answers thus far, I am satisfied that sharing this would be a benefit to, not a deterrent to, the conversation.
posted by sequential at 12:01 PM on April 6, 2006


Given that you are in a monogamous relationship, when is flirting outside of that relationship inappropriate?

When it's a violation of the agreement/understanding you have with your significant other.

During that disagreement, she essentially said, "If we don't do what I want to do, I'll just go out with one of the many guys I flirt with at the salon."

At the risk of annoying some other mefites, you're in the "go get counciling" phase of your question. What can anyone here tell you that's going to help when you're at the point in your relationship where one of you is giving the other "my way or the highway" ultimatums? You have a situation where the issue isn't just flirting.
posted by phearlez at 12:46 PM on April 6, 2006


phearlez, thanks for your response, but we've actually, absent any professional help, worked through the matter. That is why I said, "In some ways, the result has been rewarding, but at the cost of some difficult emotions and damaged trust." In other words, these events are in the past.

Or am I missing something?
What can anyone here tell you that's going to help when you're at the point in your relationship where one of you is giving the other "my way or the highway" ultimatums?
That's not an accurate characterization of what happened, though it may reflect well on what I wrote. Immediately after she said this, she apologized, said she took the joke to far, and that's when the whole process of healing began. It was in no way an ultimatum. Instead, it was a poor attempt to win an disagreement with hurtful humor that backfired.
You have a situation where the issue isn't just flirting.
Yes, she said something hurtful. If it's not clear from my small novel comment above, she has not engaged in anything otherwise that, absent her snark, would have hurt me. To me, this does not rise to the level of seek professional help.
posted by sequential at 1:06 PM on April 6, 2006


It doesn't matter where you get your appetitte as long as you eat at home.
posted by jasondigitized at 1:09 PM on April 6, 2006


Does flirting mean that you have to show interest in the other person?

Can it be that you just give them genuine attention and treat them in a caring manner?
posted by mhuckaba at 1:30 PM on April 6, 2006


Waiterrant just wrote a great post about flirting at work (waitressing in that case), and how female staff have to learn about using it while simultaneously establishing boundaries.

It seems like that's the project that you and your SO need to undertake - how to set the boundaries around your relationship. If you become a familiar figure at the salon, and you guys display all the right "we're in a relationship" cues, most people who have a clue will ultimately get it.

It also sounds like there's a asshat guy at her work who isn't going to get the message unless he's slammed down hard. Does she want you to help her handle this? Or does she want to handle him herself? Unless you're going to go in and "have a talk" with the guy, she may have to call the police on him if he gets threatening with her. She should also document it every time she complains about his behavior to the boss, so there'll be lots of incentive for the workplace to take it seriously.
posted by jasper411 at 1:45 PM on April 6, 2006


sequential, it does sound like what you're talking about falls way outside the bounds of "flirting" and into some sort of harassment (in that your SO doesn't particularly enjoy it).
posted by occhiblu at 3:18 PM on April 6, 2006


As everyone has said, it really depends on the couple. For instance, someone wrote this:

I agree that flirting is natural. I go out dancing without my husband and with the girls and flirt and dance with guys. But it never goes any further than that. I never ever do it in front of my husband, nor brag or tell tales about the nights out. But he's not the jealous type and we trust each other completely.

And it works for them, but it couldn't be more wrong for me. Going out with your gf/wife, I don't mind her flirting with other guys in front of me. She's going back home with me, and it's a turnon to see her wrap a guy around her finger.

But not in front of me? I wouldn't want to be with someone that felt the need to do it when not around me. And it has nothing to do with jealousy or trust.
posted by justgary at 6:25 PM on April 6, 2006


I think everyone has a different baseline for what's appropriate and what's not; my own rule of thumb is that I wont do anything I wouldn't be comfortable doing with my fiance standing right there. The fact that I would have to (for all intents and purposes) hide my actions from him implies to me that I feel guilty about it on some level - thus, I choose not to overtly flirt with other men, period.
posted by supercrayon at 6:42 PM on April 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


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