Is flirting outside your relationship cheating?

KATHERINE FEENEY
Last updated 05:00 06/07/2013
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Marco Del Grande

A QUESTION OF FIDELITY: Is flirting cheating?

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Flirting is something we do when we want to have sex with someone else.

True or false?

Depending on your response, you might think it possible to flirt with others and remain faithful to your one and only. Or you might think the whole 'one and only' notion is somewhat defeated by flirtations with other ones.

Regardless, it's an interesting question. And one we often don't consider until we are hard-up against a problem brought to bear by ignorance of the issue.

Which is why it's probably worth nipping potential troubles in the proverbial bud by having a conversation with your partner in which you discuss whether it's ok, or not, to flirt with other people.

And, like so many discussions, it's one that really needs to begin with a definition. A definition that clearly outlines what does and does not constitute flirtatious behaviour, so clearly setting the boundaries around what should and should not be done, and what is or is not ok. Anyone who's tried to mount this conversation will know how hard it can be. Flirting is such a subjective idea.

For example, how would you answer this preliminary question: What is flirting?

Flirting is something that occurs at the beginning of a relationship. It's a building block, so to speak. Most people would agree that couples come together usually because they've flirted their way there. They met, they flirted, they probably fooled around, and then they decided to forgo all others in favour of committed together-foreverness.

However people might also agree that flirting doesn't always need to lead to that. Flirting can be 'harmless'. Flirting can be 'innocent'.

Such flirting might occur between random strangers on a bus. It might be between a bank manager and loan applicant. This is the kind of flirting you do when you want something, and that something isn't sex. It's flattery, it's suggestion, it's charm and charisma. This might be the kind of flirting Dr Catherine Hakim from the London School of Economics was talking about in her book Honey Money in which she encouraged women tap into their "erotic capital". 

Would such flirting be detrimental to your relationship? Does such behaviour undermine the personal, private, romantic love you have for your partner? Could it be interpreted as infidelity?

There's also the kind of flirting that may be done unconsciously. I was always accused of flirting with men when I twirled my hair around my finger. Not true - I'd say - I'm just enjoying the sensation of clean, silky hair twisting around my fingers. Or I'm stressed, or thinking. Friends will know how curly my head gets when I've been mulling.

Yet behavioural psychologists might look at your body language and say, "flirt", even if you're not meaning to be. Things like where your feet are placed, or whether you're fidgeting, or if you're talking quickly may all be interpreted as examples of flirtatious behaviour. Are they? Are the primal urges of our subconscious really so damn obvious and unavoidable?

I don't think so. I think that the key definitional aspect here is intent. It's the why, not so much the what. I think that flirting is a problem for a relationship if someone is doing it to actually get laid, presuming that your relationship is sexually monogamous. Similarly, I think flirting is a problem if you're doing it to feel validated. This is a problem in the same way flirting-for-sex is; you should be getting sex, and validation, within your relationship. Not beyond it. You should be with someone you find fulfilling. You shouldn't feel the need to flirt.

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Not everyone will agree with me. Some people love watching their lover flirt with someone else, so long as they're sure where the love lies at the end of the day. Other people argue flirting is necessary to professional or personal development. As social creatures, we're geared towards flirtation - we want to be loved by everyone, and making everyone feel we love them is a good first step towards satisfying this urge.

Ultimately, whether flirting is or is not a problem for a couple comes down to the definition a couple has cultivated together. Flirting is not a sign of unfaithfulness, ipso facto. It's what's done with it, and why, that counts.

Don't you agree?

- Sydney Morning Herald

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