Everyone has different boundaries in a relationship. For some people, even following an ex on social media is considered out-of-bounds, while others don’t mind that their partner still has drinks with someone they used to date. But one area that’s a bit of a grey one is flirting. Flirting can look a lot of different ways for different people—and one person’s “innocent” is another person’s “inappropriate.”
I remember being totally gobsmacked when another woman sat in my boyfriend’s lap, kissed him on the cheek, and proceeded to tickle him right in front of me. I wish I could say that I said something witty or did something bold and brave, but I was just sort of...frozen. I can't help but call to mind the photo (above) of Nora Ephron and then-husband Carl Bernstein in 1977, where she's clearly caught in a similar moment of frozen humiliation as another woman sits on Bernstein's lap. So, what do you do when someone flirts with your partner right in front of you?
The truth is, mine was an extreme example—and a particularly hurtful one. There’s a lot of flirting that falls more in the ambiguous zone—so ambiguous that you don’t even know if you should do something or not. “I think that there should be somewhat broad leeway for flirting,” relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, tells Brides. With some flirting, it might be easier to just let it go—but there are times where you might need to say something, either to your partner or to the person doing the flirting. Here’s what to keep in mind.
Meet the Expert
Aimee Hartstein, LCSW is a psychotherapist with advanced training in the areas of relationships, marriage counseling, infidelity, and divorce.
If It’s Mild, Let It Be
If it’s someone that has no impact in your life—someone who you’re just interacting with fleetingly—and the flirting is mild, then the best option might be to let it go. “The fact that it’s in front of you should suggest that there’s not necessarily suspect motives involved with the activity!” Hartstein says. “If it’s mild, fun flirting I would leave it alone and even use it as a nice indicator that your partner is appealing to other people besides you! When we see others desire our partner it often makes them a bit more attractive.”
Remember, that for some people, teasing, flattering, or even being "touchy-feely" is just a way of life. As long as it doesn't feel inappropriate—and your partner isn’t acting in a way that’s hurtful—you can let it go.
If It’s Overt or Repetitive, That’s a Larger Problem
But there are times when flirting can be a problem, and if the person flirting with your partner is someone you see a lot, that’s going to make things difficult. Ideally, your partner will say something—either by making a point that they're in a relationship or addressing it directly. “That said, if it’s really over the top and is making you or your partner uncomfortable, I think the best tactic is for your partner to just nip it in the bud,” Hartstein says. “Don’t flirt back. Either walk away, change the subject, pull you into the conversation or mention you.”
In a perfect world, your partner will do this automatically. But you may need to tell them that the flirting bothers you, that it feels inappropriate, and ask them to put a stop to it the next time you see this person.
Confronting the Person
Should you say something to the person? Maybe, in extreme cases. “It would have to be really bad for you to actually confront the person although sometimes that might be necessary,” Hartstein says. Normally injecting yourself into the conversation is enough—introducing yourself or reminding the person that you’re the other half. But if it’s someone close to you or it continues to be a problem, it might be worth pulling that person aside. If you believe that it’s innocent, tell them that—explain that you're sure that they don’t mean any harm, but that it’s making you uncomfortable. If you don’t think it’s innocent you may want to ask why they’re doing it.
Look at the Big Picture
Most of this is based on a scenario where someone else is driving the flirting—but you need to be honest with yourself about your partner’s role in it. It’s not their fault if someone flirts with them, but if your partner encourages or welcomes it and is consistently flirting with other people, you have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. That sounds like a fundamental relationship problem, something much larger, that you need to deal with. If you find yourself in this position with your partner again and again, you may want to ask yourself why.
Watching someone else flirt with your partner might not feel great, but often it will just be harmless—you can’t control the way other people interact, their sense of humor, or their communication style. But if this person is a regular part of your life—or you feel like your partner is encouraging it—it might be a bigger problem. Talk to your partner about nipping it in the bud and, if you have to, intervene with the person directly. It’s all about how it affects your relationship in the bigger picture. You’ll know if it’s a real problem.