Is it ever okay to flirt while in a relationship?

Photography by Jess Brohier
Words by Evangeline Polymeneas

A couples therapist weighs in.

Flirting is an international language. Whether it’s the bat of your eyelashes, a quick up-and-down glance, or holding eye contact for just that bit longer than usual, there are plenty of ways to communicate your sexual desire to another person.

In recent years, conversations on the perimeters of monogamy have crept into everyday life, as more and more people start to question its inherent value. This has led to closer examination of whether flirting is crossing the boundaries of respectful relationships, or whether it’s totally fine.

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If you’re in a monogamous relationship, flirting tends to be largely private and directed towards your significant other. But is there an argument for practising your flirting techniques on others, or flirting simply for a bit of fun? To get a better idea, I spoke to couples therapist, Mukti Jarvis, on whether it’s okay to flirt with other people while you’re in a relationship.

“It’s risky territory,” Mukti says. “Your partner might see something in your flirty behaviour that you’re not necessarily conscious of, or they might enjoy seeing you flirting with someone else, or it might [make them feel] insecure in the relationship. You might be acting out some unmet need for attention, sexual connection or significance.

“Go there if you like, just know that flirting is kind of cheating if you’re stretching the boundaries of intimacy beyond you and your partner’s description of monogamy,” she says.

So, is it actually flirting? 

There are subtle nuances that turn friendly behaviour into flirting, so Mukti suggests having open conversations with your partner until you have a clear understanding between the two of you, on what feels okay and what doesn’t, so you can respect and take care of your relationship.  

To do this, it’s important to understand the meaning of monogamy and flirting. “Monogamy is really the keeping of your intimate sexual and romantic attention and energy for just the person that you’re in a relationship with,” Mukti explains.  

“[Flirting] is a behaviour where you’re teasing or challenging, in a way that is slightly more intimate than what is aligned with the current level of the relationship. Flirting is essentially inviting the other person to come closer to you emotionally, physically, or sexually. It’s designed consciously or unconsciously to create sexual interest and tension.”

She explains that flirting is designed to create sexual interest and tension, and therefore has the potential to be read as an invitation, whether intended or not. “Clearly then, it can quite easily be upsetting for your partner if you’re flirting with someone else,” Mukti says. “Just how much flirtatious energy you expend and where the line is, has to be something you and your partner are both comfortable with.”

Setting your boundaries

If either partner is uncomfortable with the other’s flirtatious behaviour, it can drive up the insecurity felt within the relationship, leading to attachment anxiety. “Anxiety and insecurity increase the likelihood of reactivity towards each other, basically, because the bond [between you two] feels challenged.” 

 In order to establish the boundaries of your own relationship, communication is key. If your feelings are hurt by your partner’s flirtatious actions, it’s important to express your feelings in a blame-free environment then be prepared to listen openly in return. “When you’re fully heard, it’ll be your turn to hear why the other one was flirting. Dig deep, focus on understanding them – they’re not a ‘bad person’.

“Ultimately, I recommend that you address it without making anybody feel wrong for their feelings or actions, and focus on understanding each other fully. Then look to establish clarity between the two of you, for what works for the both of you.”

Flirting together 

If you feel like getting your flirt on, Mukti recommends flirting with your partner instead. “It becomes just part of the 24/7 foreplay between the two of you,” she says. “It feeds the visceral sense of connection and attraction between you. Flirting with your person supports the sexual tension between the two of you, which then can translate into your sexual activities together.”

Overall Mukti does conclude that it’s not healthy to flirt with others if you, or the other party, is in a relationship. “If you disagree with that, then I invite you to have a look inwards,” she says. “What are you trying to get from flirting?” She suggests discussing those desires and needs with your partner instead.  

Mukti also notes that flirting might not necessarily be an active attempt at sparking sexual tension, but could instead be a way of seeking validation as desirable, attractive and sexy, without wanting things to go any further. As with many behaviours in romantic relationships, it’s important to work out the ‘why’ behind our actions. 

According to Mukti, it all turns on respect. “Suggesting or expressing a level of available sexual or emotional intimacy toward someone who isn’t our person, in a way that isn’t respecting the primary relationships, is cheating in anyone’s book.” 

For another take on flirting, head here.

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