To flirt is to show casual, superficial, or apparently superficial interest in someone or something (as in flirting with an idea or a project), but for the purposes of this essay it will be primarily defined as a subset of the above: teasing that is spiked, however subtly, with sexual innuendo, interest, or invitation.
To explore flirting is to explore personal and interpersonal boundaries. Flirting, like any other sexually-flavored undertaking, tends to magnify whatever dynamics are already present, and so it is especially revealing regarding the operational status of the boundaries of those caught up in flirtatious connection. That is, flirting highlights our relationship (or lack of relationship) with our boundaries—if we will take a step back from it to bring it into clearer focus.
In me-centered relationships, flirting is about as commonplace as the rationalizations for it. Those who complain about their partner’s flirtatious behavior with others often have their complaints dismissed as mere possessiveness, oversensitivity, or just plain delusion. “I was just joking around” and “I wasn’t doing anything wrong” are two of many possible rejoinders proclaiming the flirter’s innocence.
Mary: What were you doing with Matt’s wife tonight?
Mary: About what?
Joe: What’s this? An interrogation?
Mary: I saw the way you were looking at her, and her at you.
Joe: Like I said, we were just talking. Anything wrong with that?
Mary: You couldn’t keep your hands off her.
Joe: Jeezuz! I was just being friendly.
Mary: I’d call it more than friendly!
Joe: You’re oversensitive. And definitely insecure!
Mary: You’d like to screw her and just won’t admit it!
Joe: You are imagining things! We were just having a good time….
Mary: You don’t look at me the way you were looking at her.
Joe: What are you, the Eye Police? You know what? There was nothing serious going on! So give me a break!
Other reactions like “You’ve got nothing to worry about” or “Haven’t you got better things to do?” or “Stop blowing things out of proportion!” conveniently turn the focus back on the complaining or concerned other. Deflection, denial, avoidance, and so on—such strategies allow the flirter to bypass taking an inside look at what’s really going on.
The presentation of a clean exterior and an innocent interior is a strategy to keep one’s egocentricity intact. Those who are thicker may claim no fault whatsoever—these are the ones who won’t say that they are sorry—but those who are a bit more clever will trot out statements like “I’m just human” or “Nobody’s perfect” or “I’m doing my best.”
And it can get ugly: Sometimes the one doing the flirting may tell their partner that they’re crazy to think that there’s anything to worry about, and not stop implanting this notion even when the flirting leads to an affair. Partners at this stage (or stuck in a me-centered state) mostly don’t and won’t listen to each other when they get the message that there are things that they ought not to be doing. When sexual possibilities arise, however fleeting or hands-off, the betrayal of one’s partner—whether it’s acted out or not—is common, with integrity either being nonexistent or little more than a distant, impotent echo from our moral outback.
Even when there is no clearly overt flirting, the very fact that its presence (regardless of its level of dormancy) exerts such a strong pull keeps relationships here unstable. Depth and true connection come in far behind the promises and opportunities of being sexually pleasured, however indirectly. Ironically, this is also the relational stage where romanticism (the illusion of true connection and depth) is strongest. Couples at the me-centered stage expect a great relationship without doing anything significant to bring that about. It’s all about satisfying me, taking care of me, feeding me. Monogamy here is not much more than romanticism, security-craving, and sloppy boundaries striking a deal.
Since marriage in general signals a loss of freedom for men at a me-centered stage, flirting for them wields considerable appeal because it seems to expand and open them through widening their field of possibilities; they have simply eroticized their craving not to be confined. And for women here, marriage mostly means an increase in security, with the result that flirting for them is often an attractive option because it seems to increase or reinforce their sense of power, especially through being able to magnetize men’s attention—which helps to strengthen their sense of security. So at this stage flirting for men offers a kind of pseudo-liberation, a break from the hemming-in they ordinarily associate with marriage or committed relationship; and for women it offers a kind of pseudo-empowerment, a furthering of the sense of security that can come from being desired.
In we-centered codependent relationships, flirting is far less of an issue, usually not drawing much energy from either partner, especially the woman. Flirting here doesn’t disappear, it simply goes underground. Nevertheless both partners sense, however subtly, the presence of flirting and what its presence signals. They have a tacit agreement not to directly address it, even as they judge other couples whom they see flirting.
In their minds they are, however, frequently still acting out sexually with others. If they stay together for more than a few years, their libido tends to drop so low that the possibility of flirting loses almost all of its appeal, as do potential affairs; and this creates the illusion of a deeper security and peace with each other than is actually the case. That’s because it’s a false peace, an all-but-dead peace, haunted by cries from deep within. If these cries are not heeded, the body starts to act up, rebel, make a fuss—all kinds of hard-to-explain symptoms show up, conveying the message that something important is not being heard.
Madeleine: Did you see your sister flirting with her boss?
Frank: Yeah, pretty blatant. I wonder what they do when no one else is around?
Madeleine: You have to admit that her boss is good-looking, though….
Frank: What difference does that make?
Madeleine: Well, I can’t totally blame her for what she was doing.
Frank: You mean she couldn’t help it?
Madeleine: Sort of… He does have a way that’s pretty magnetic….
Frank: I get the feeling you wouldn’t mind flirting with him.
Madeleine: Not really. It just wouldn’t be me.
Frank: I’m not so sure… I wonder if I should talk to my sister?
Madeleine: Oh, we’re probably blowing it out of proportion….
In dodging flirting, and therefore also the possibility of betrayal that may arise through flirting, we-centered codependent couples avoid having to look closely at it and its roots, thereby betraying themselves, staying away from exterior threats (flirtatious behavior) as well as interior threats (the calling for more depth and the risks which make that possible). Stuck in-between, the couple slowly stagnates, attempting to homestead in a relational flatland.
In we-centered co-independent relationships, flirting is less submerged. It sometimes may even be taken by both partners as a demonstration of “respecting” each other’s autonomy. However, if flirting is threatening to one member of the couple, the other usually listens and changes his or her behavior. Flirting here is mostly seen for what it is, including its underlying motivation and agendas, but nevertheless remains significantly rooted.
Jason: You’ve got a lot of energy with what’s-his-face, don’t you?
Carolyn: I do like talking with him.
Jason: Come on! You know what I mean.
Carolyn: No more energy than you had with what’s-her-face last week.
Jason: I do enjoy talking with her! She has a lot to offer.
Carolyn: That’s an interesting way of putting it!
Jason: Now, now, let’s not get possessive.
Carolyn: I don’t really care if you’re attracted to her. Just keep a healthy distance, okay?
Carolyn: I see nothing wrong with flirting, but sometimes it makes me really uncomfortable to see you doing it. You carry it pretty far. But I guess that’s just my issue I have to work through….
In being-centered relationships, flirting and the need to flirt simply disappear, except with one’s partner, where it takes shape mostly as a loving playfulness infused with some degree of sexual energy. And why does flirting with those other than our partner disappear at this stage? Because our urge for it (other than toward our partner) has no energy behind it. This is not repression. There is no desire to seek—or to titillate ourselves with the possibility of—sexual engagement with anyone other than our partner. Whatever might distract us from our intimacy with our partner simply carries no appeal for us.
At this stage we have not condemned flirting, nor ostracized it, nor sentenced it to some internal dungeon, but have simply outgrown it. If we do anything that resembles flirting, it is only with each other. Just as we may lose the taste for a certain food, we have lost the taste for flirting but, unlike those in we-centered bonds, have not lost or diluted our deep passion for each other.
In fact, by not having—and not needing—any distractions from our connectedness with each other, we find an ever-deepening passion for each other, which grows in parallel with the deep intimacy we so knowingly and gratefully share. Our attention for each other does not wander, nor is it forced; it is utterly natural. We have not so much chosen such relationship as reached a point where there is really nothing else for us to do in the realm of relationship.
If we are in a committed intimate relationship, flirting with anyone other than our partner is just the eroticizing of unresolved woundedness or insufficiently met needs (such as wanting to be wanted). It is at best morally adolescent. Even if we actually are not advertising our sexual availability through our flirtatiousness, we are nonetheless titillating ourselves, amping up our arousal levels, without really taking a telling look at our apparent need to do so. (The craving to get turned on is mostly a confession of being turned off. We’d do much better to explore that turned-off-ness, rather than camouflage it with our efforts to get turned on.)
Flirting with anyone other than our partner is both eroticism on the make and a betrayal of our partner. It doesn’t matter how subtle or removed it is, or whether or not our partner even notices or apparently approves—it is still a betrayal, an irresponsible wandering of attention, a making of sexual charge with another more important than our bond with our partner. Not to thus wander is not repression but rather a life-giving choice, an act of integrity, a no that makes possible a deeper yes, a turning away that deepens our turning toward what matters most of all.
And if we were to strip flirting of its erotic components, what do we have left, besides playfulness and proximity? A riveting, eye-to-eye attentiveness from another. Energized focus from another. We then are the center of another’s attention. If we have any charge, positive or negative, with being the center of others’ attention—a souvenir (or hangover) from childhood—then we are going to be drawn to situations in which we are, or can be, the center of others’ attention; and as adults we are likely going to eroticize such a charge, just because it makes the whole thing a lot more appealing, while conveniently obscuring the underlying dynamics and the fact that even when we’re given such attention, it’s never really enough for our unhealed woundedness.
The cessation of flirting with anyone other than our partner does not, however, necessarily mean the cessation of playfulness and teasing. Teasing, in fact, is an important ingredient in the relational mix, allowing much to be shared that otherwise would be left unshared, only superficially shared, or shared with considerable difficulty.
Such flirting is the true face of playful desire, already happy, already loose, juicy and relaxed, turned on but not turned tight, beaming bright, inviting us to dance with our partner until we are both being danced, spun, undone, left radically alive in awakened intimacy’s crucible, freed through the depth and intensity of our commitment to going all the way together.