You catch someone's eye from across the room. Maybe you smile and hold their gaze for a moment. Or perhaps you're having a conversation with your crush, and you laugh a little more freely when they make a joke.
When most of us think about flirting, we tend to think about gestures or interactions such as these that are motivated by our interest in establishing a new sexual or romantic relationship. But fast-forward a few months, or even years, after a relationship becomes established. Do flirting behaviors stick around? Do they disappear? Or do they take on a different form and purpose?
After one of my married clients recently talked about how much she missed flirting in her relationship, I did some digging into the research to see what I could find.
Limited Data on Flirting Within Marriage
When I began my search, I was not surprised to see that most of the research on flirting focused on the dating context. There were studies on different flirting styles, gender differences in flirting, flirting motivations, the list goes on.
But what did surprise me was that there really wasn't that much on what flirting looks like in the context of long-term relationships and marriage. After all, this certainly wasn't the first time that the importance of flirting had come up in my clinical practice (not to mention conversations with friends).
Fortunately, there was a notable exception to the pattern of research on flirting during the dating stage. The title alone caught my attention: "Without Flirting, It Wouldn't Be a Marriage."
Flirting in Relationships
In her qualitative research, Brandi Frisby interviewed nine married, heterosexual couples (18 participants in total, all between 26 and 33 years old) with the hopes of better understanding the functions and motivations of flirting during marriage, and whether there might be any differences in how married people flirt with one another versus when they were dating. Through her analysis, she found that participants talked about a few reasons for flirting in their marriages:
1. More Relational Than Sexual
First, while we may have flirted when we were dating with the hopes of it leading to something sexual, in relationships, participants described flirting for, not surprisingly, more relational reasons. That is, they described flirting in their marriages as a way to help make their partner feel loved, important, and special. For example: "I flirt with my husband to make him feel loved and important to me, not just another person."
2. Increased Self-Esteem
Participants in this study also described how being on the receiving end of their partner's flirting could result in higher self-esteem and a boost in self-confidence in their relationship. For example: "Before it was more about the sexual undertones, I would say there is more now for the purpose of feeling better."
Another participant also described how it was important to receive assurance in marriage through flirting: "Once you are married, you want some affirmation that we do still find one another attractive: I want him to want me, not just because I am his wife."
3. Maintaining Intimacy
Some participants in this study described how flirting was a way of maintaining a level of intimacy, as it was considered a private or secret language that only the individuals within the couple were privy to: "Flirting is anything that, um . . . gets my attention or his attention, but only between us, just the way I communicate with him and nobody else."
4. Reducing Tension and Fighting
Finally, flirting was described as a way to reduce tension and fights in a relationship. Participants noted that if they felt tension, a bit of flirting could cut through it. For example: "I think it gives relief from hard conversations, like if there has been a hard one, he will flirt to let me know there’s not a problem anymore."
There is not only a gap in research on flirting in general but a notable gap in our understanding of flirting within long-term relationships specifically. However, having our partner flirt with us is one of the ways we feel loved, special, attractive, and cared for. In contrast, the absence of flirting in a long-term relationship can make us doubt our partner's feelings and attraction towards us.
Just because flirting most often is considered a thing for singles entering into new sexual and/or romantic partnerships, continuing to engage in flirting in a longer-term, committed partnership appears to have many positive benefits. While a small, qualitative study, the findings here suggest that flirting in marriage may play a role in reducing fighting and increasing self-esteem.
To quote another participant: "Flirtation in the marriage is probably more important than most people, well, at least myself, would give it credit for."
Facebook image: nd3000/Shutterstock
Brandi N. Frisby (2009) “Without Flirting, It Wouldn't be a Marriage”: Flirtatious Communication Between Relational Partners, Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 10:1, 55-60, DOI: 10.1080/17459430902839066