Is Flirting Cheating? Relationship Pros Weigh In

Photo: Stocksy/Hillary Fox
A bashful gaze, a suggestive gesture, a touch of the arm. These are all commonly held telltale signs of flirting. But, it's necessary to note that since flirting isn't a science and is rather completely subjective, what one person might qualify and interpret as flirtatious behavior might be completely disparate from another person's take. And while the playful back-and-forth is considered harmless and often even encouraged among singles, for those who are coupled up, it's complicated to decipher where the line is between harmless and totally inappropriate. So, in the scope of a committed relationship, is flirting cheating?

According to relationship experts, the short answer to the question of is flirting cheating is that it depends. But dating coach Jess McCann, author of You Lost Him at Hello, for one, says no, flirting is not cheating or micro-cheating. “The cheating line is crossed only when flirting turns to something physical or emotional with another person,” she says. “Otherwise, it is more of a respect issue than anything else.”

"The cheating line is crossed only when flirting turns to something physical or emotional with another person. Otherwise, it is more of a respect issue than anything else.” —Jess McCann, dating coach

On the other hand, though, is Caitlin Killoren, a relationship-theory researcher and writer at relationship-training app Relish, who offers a different take: It’s up to the couple to determine whether or not flirting counts as cheating. “Each relationship will establish different boundaries around what’s acceptable and what’s betrayal,” she says. She also notes that “there’s an inverse correlation between relationship satisfaction and flirting. The less secure a couple is, the more things they’ll flag as flirting.” Meaning, if you're happy in your relationship, you're theoretically less likely to register any flirting behavior from your partner as problematic.

There is, however, one red flag Killoren says is a solid sign that flirtation has veered into cheating territory: “The distinction between harmless flirting and something more sinister is the element of secrecy. If you don’t want your partner finding out about it, it’s probably cheating, not flirting.” Other red flags include getting defensive if your partner brings up the flirtation, or feeling remorseful or guilty as a result of flirting.

So while flirting isn't necessarily cheating behavior every single time, it’s ultimately up to the couple in question to set their own guidelines for what's allowed and what's not. But, that vague-leaning conclusion still leaves a few questions unanswered: Why do people flirt in the first place if they're in happy and secure partnerships? Can flirting ever be healthy for your relationship? And, if your partner does flirts, and you’re not cool with it, what's the best course of action? Keep reading to learn the answers.

Why people flirt

There are several reasons why people flirt, and they expand way beyond physical attraction and the person who's flirting having any intention to transform the flirtation into anything more. “Most people flirt for attention or to have fun,” McCann says. “It’s a form of communication between people that feels good to both the flirter and the flirtee. Most of the time, there is no long-term objective behind it.” In other words, flirting, in many cases, is a confidence booster more than anything else.

That said, the subject of the flirtation may not necessarily be on the same page regarding intentions, or lack thereof, from the flirter, which is where the whole interaction becomes at risk for becoming a deeper issue. “Flirting is also an invitation to another person to reciprocate your sexual invitation, even if that is not the clear intention,” says psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD. “[Getting] attention back is very seductive and can push the flirter to do more than they meant to at the start.”

Is flirting cheating, or healthy for your relationship?

For some couples, flirting with other people can be a totally healthy thing. “If you and your partner are both gregarious, charming people, it’s very likely that you’ll enjoy the occasional flirt (and enjoy watching each other do so) because it stokes that fire that was already present in your relationship,” Killoren says. This is assuming, of course, that flirting is as far as the act goes.

But this is hardly the case for everyone. For some couples, flirting can be very hurtful, even if it doesn't violate fidelity or whatever your specific relationship agreement entails. “If you did not start your relationship on those terms, but suddenly try to impress or entertain your partner with flirty asides to others, it might not land with the intended effect,” Killoren says, adding that sudden changes like that in a relationship can be symptomatic of a deeper shift within the relationship, which is worth exploring together.

What to do if your partner flirts (and you don't like it)

If your partner is perhaps getting a little too chummy with other people for your comfort, that’s a perfectly okay way to feel. Remember, you as a couple define what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to flirting. If you're not feeling secure in your relationship as a result of the flirting culture that's taken shape, Dr. Saltz recommends just being honest about how you're feeling. “Tell them it hurts your feelings and ask them not to [flirt anymore],” she says. Also, it should perhaps go without saying, but if you don’t like your partner flirting, then you should also refrain from doing it. It’s only fair.

Furthermore, having a conversation about why either of you flirts in the first place can be helpful for getting on the same page, squelching hurt feelings and jealously, and promoting open communication lines. “If one of you feels a desperate need to flirt and get that attention, take a look at why that is,” Dr. Saltz says. Is there perhaps a deeper issue in your relationship that needs attention or an unmet need? Pencil in time to have a serious conversation about this before any potential touchiness turns legitimately problematic, and possibly even turns into actual cheating.

Curious about what definitely does constitute cheating? Here are the telltale signs of a serial cheater, and how to see signs of cheating on your partner's face.

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