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From across the bar, you spot your husband laughing — at another woman's joke. You experience a ping of jealously, but then let it slide. After all, he's just flirting, not cheating — or is he? The question of whether flirting equals infidelity is an age-old one with different answers depending on who you ask. So to get to the bottom, we asked experts whether it's anything to worry about.
"Flirting can feel like cheating because they both evoke similar emotions," says Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D., licensed clinical social worker and owner of Wasatch Family Therapy. "It's common for spouses to feel worried or jealous when their spouse's attention is focused on another person, especially when it hints at sexual attraction. Whenever our primary love relationships are threatened it usually triggers anxiety and fear of loss."
But almost across the board, all the experts we spoke to, including Hanks, agreed innocent flirting — the kind meant merely for amusement — isn't an act of infidelity. "In fact, if done properly, flirting can be a healthy ingredient to fan the flames of sexual desire within your relationship," says Jane Greer, Ph.D., relationship expert and author of What About Me? How to Stop Selfishness From Ruining your Relationship.
So when, if ever, does flirting cross the line to infidelity? "If the flirtation targets one specific person only, it may be seen as real romantic interest, and that could be understood to be a threat to the primary relationship," says Ursula Ofman, New York City-based sex therapist. Adds Hanks, "If the flirting can be defined as a 'romantic relationship' or a 'sexual relationship' it could be considered infidelity. Or, if the flirting consists of sexual conversations or sexual touch it is infidelity."
If you think your spouse's flirting has gone too far, it's OK to mention it to your partner in a non-accusatory way. "Bring it up when you are not acutely upset, and when the two of you have privacy and time to talk," Ofman suggests. "Don't assume your partner means to hurt you and address the topic from that perspective. Know what specific behavior change you want to ask for, and be realistic in that."
Alternatively, you could ask your partner to amp up his or her flirting with you. "The best thing to do is, rather than trying to get them to stop flirting with others, ask him or her to flirt with you at least as much — if not more — than other people," says Greer. "Make sure you're getting enough of the action with them."