Okay, so maybe you put one too many Y’s on the end of a “hey” text to an old friend. Or maybe you held your coworker’s shoulder for a second longer than necessary at a work happy hour. You’re already in a relationship, so it’s all just harmless flirting, right? Well, it is… until it isn’t.
Sometimes, flirting that seems innocent at first can become a “slippery slope” and eventually turn into cheating, says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Still, she doesn’t consider flirting a form of cheating “as long as it remains at that level.”
Terri Orbuch, PhD, author of Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship and professor at Oakland University in Michigan, agrees and adds: “Flirting is when you intentionally want to attract the attention of someone, or when you signal an interest in interacting more with someone. These actions don’t necessarily mean you want to have sex or become emotionally close to that person.”
So, you don’t need to worry if you or your S.O. pays extra attention to a friend or signs off the occasional friendly email with XOX. “All these behaviours are friendly behaviours to attract or signal a desire to interact, not have a romantic relationship or sexual relationship,” explains Orbuch. “How these behaviours are interpreted is another thing.” While you think your flirty vibe is just another part of your personality, the person you’re flirting with could see it as a desire for a relationship or a sexual connect. Oops.
This doesn’t mean you can’t chat up the cute bartender when you’re out with friends. Just know that flirting can cross the line into emotional cheating—sometimes, without you even realizing it. Here’s how to tell when:
1. You’re afraid to tell your partner about the person you’re flirting with.
This one might seem obvious because hiding things from your S.O. is never good, but it’s important to ask yourself if you’re keeping a flirty relationship to yourself because it doesn’t matter or because you’re scared of your partner’s reaction. “You’ve probably started to cross the line when you fear telling your significant other,” says Whitbourne. “Because if you have something to hide, then you’ve got something to hide.”
That’s not exactly cheating, but it’s not exactly good either. “When your partner cheats, they betray your trust,” adds Orbuch. So if you start to feel like your flirty behaviour somehow betrays the trust you and your partner have built up over time, you should probably stop.
2. You go to the other person for emotional support and connection.
If you’ve been flirting with a coworker or friend for months but it’s all been surface-level conversations, you’re fine—flirt away. But “when you begin to go to that person for emotional support and connection, rather than your partner, you have crossed the line from flirting to emotional cheating,” says Orbuch.
It’s okay if you don’t go to your partner first—maybe you got bad news at work and just need to vent to whoever’s closest—but they should be one of the people you go to for emotional support on the reg.
3. You tell them things your partner doesn’t even know.
“If you begin to disclose and reveal things about yourself that you’ve never told your partner with that other person, that’s emotional cheating,” says Orbuch. Maybe you feel drawn to the person you’re flirting with because they meet some kind of need your partner doesn’t.
“People get attracted to other people, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or your relationship is terrible,” says Whitbourne. It could just mean you need to ask yourself: “What am I getting from this person that I’m not getting from my own partner—and is it really worth it to pursue this?”
4. You’re constantly flirting.
No shame in your game, but if you’re what Whitbourne calls a “chronic flirt,” you’re probably not ready for the kind of commitment and intimacy that a long-term relationship requires.
“Past behaviour predicts future behaviour,” Whitbourne explains. “So there’s gonna be a lot of heartaches to come.” Sometimes, the best thing you can do is end a relationship before your partner becomes even more invested in it.
5. You have inside jokes with your flirty person.
It might seem like nothing to share an inside joke with an old friend or work colleague, but it’s “really a problem in relationships,” says Whitbourne. Imagine you’re at a social function, and you’ve got all these inside jokes with one person. “That could be very hurtful to your partner,” she explains. “And it’s another sign of flirting moving into a more serious direction because that establishes a circle of intimacy that excludes other people, like your partner.” Yikes.
6. You find yourself thinking about the other person when you’re with your partner.
If your body is with your S.O. but your mind is with someone else, then you’re likely heading into dangerous territory. That said, it’s totally fine to have feelings of attraction toward someone else, so long as you can fight them off. “It’s when you can’t fight them off and they preoccupy you, then you have to decide what to do with that,” says Whitbourne.
Uh oh… I’ve crossed the line. Now what?
Don’t pretend it’s not happening—it is. The first step is admitting that to yourself, and the second is looking inward to figure out why, says Whitbourne. She even recommends trying to imagine what your future could look like if your flirtation actually leads to something more. Chances are it’s not worth sacrificing your actual relationship. Then, depending on your relationship, Whitbourne recommends being honest with to your partner so, together, you can address what you were looking for in that other person and what bigger problems your flirtatious behaviour could be hinting at.
From there, Orbuch recommends setting flirting rules and boundaries that you’re both comfortable with. You may have to change or compromise your behaviour, but, she says, “caring about what makes the other partner upset is important in a relationship.” On the flip side, if the flirting partner dismisses the other’s feelings and doesn’t modify their behaviour, you might want to call it quits. Flirting seems like a small thing, sure, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re not a priority in your own relationship. Let your partner know where you stand and, if need be, walk away.