Feeling Our Way

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Is Your Partner a Flirt?

How to set rules before jealousy threatens your relationship.

Every couple needs to set some ground rules, especially for areas where emotions run high. (If the word rules itself makes you balk, consider that a culture is defined by its implicit rules of conduct, so what I’m really talking about is the mini-culture of your romance.) You probably don’t have to formally discuss whether it is the pants-wearer’s or the laundry-doer’s responsibility to check pockets for cash (although it probably wouldn’t hurt), but you’d better nail down what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to flirting.

I’ve met couples with rules so strict they would shock a Puritan: No talking to members of the opposite sex outside of work, and only bare minimum contact at the office. I’ve also met couples with no holds barred, with little more restriction on sexual behavior than they'd when they were single. Neither extreme is sustainable for most couples.

Before settling on your own rules, ask yourselves these questions:

  1. Do you trust each other? If not, you're going to need a stricter set of rules that avoid situations where flirting could lead to cheating. If you and your partner agree on a set of rules that you fear you won’t be able to follow under certain circumstances, you have to take responsibility for avoiding those circumstances.
  2. Should you trust each other? If a couple is 19, perhaps it’s unrealistic to think each partner can pass up every temptation, even if they think they can. Such a couple will need to work to avoid temptation, not merely plan to resist it.
  3. What behavior by the partner would feel like a betrayal? For one partner, it might be dancing with another man; for another, it might be dancing with only one specific man; and for yet another, only copulation would rise to the level of concern. It's crucial to know where your partner draws the line: I met a straight woman who was fine with her man flirting like crazy, even to the point of caressing (but not kissing) a woman at work. She blew up, though, and created a scene in a restaurant, when he casually mentioned that he had helped the same woman start her car during a coffee break. “You can fondle her waist but you can’t HELP her!” she screamed.
  4. What behavior by the partner, in your mini-culture, would cause your partner to lose face? We have to have our partners’ backs, and we can do that by protecting their fronts. Your partner may be completely okay with your drinking and dancing with an eligible friend, but he or she may not be okay with the rumors such a scene generates—or the looks of pity or schadenfreude he or she draws as a result.
  5. Are the demands reasonable in terms of their cost? If a man is so jealous that he feels betrayed if his boyfriend even speaks to another man, can the boyfriend really sacrifice all male contact without undue hardship or the denial of his personality? If not, the jealous partner must try to change.

Many couples feel comfortable drawing a line at flirting that leads to physical contact, but are then surprised and disturbed to find how much fully virtual online relationships (or phone sex) feel like a betrayal, especially when they involve acknowledgements of mutual attraction. Others draw the line at any sexualized behavior, and then find that a source of pleasure and self-esteem in their lives has been lost.

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I’ve suggested to many couples a rule that you can do whatever you feel like as long as no one can tell that it’s sexual, including the person you’re doing it with. This rule allows for some pleasure when you, apparently innocently, get other people to flirt with you, but it also protects your partner’s face (as long as you don’t get caught) and potential for hurt feelings (as long as you follow the rule).

But that’s just one idea. You can develop your own guidelines for flirting after discussing the questions I’ve listed.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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