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,” says relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW. 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.
Meet the Expert
Aimee Hartstein, LCSW, is a psychotherapist with advanced training in the areas of relationships, marriage counseling, infidelity, and divorce.
Chances are your suspicions brought you to this article, so we've laid out the nine most common signs to look for and expert advice on what to do if someone is flirting with your partner below.
Signs Someone Is Flirting With Your Partner
1. Late Night Texts and Calls
Unless your partner is in a profession that requires them to be on-call for various emergencies, late night texting and calls—especially with the same person—can be a little suspect. Chances are you already have a good feel for you partner's typical communication cadence. If certain dialogue is disrupting this rhythm and causing you to raise an eyebrow, you're probably on to something. After-hours discussions and frequent conversations are usually the more obvious red flags.
2. Your Partner Acts Nonchalant About Their Friendship
Being stuck in the weeds can often make a person blind to the big picture. The same can be true for your partner who may not be able to recognize blatant flirtation for what it is because they're too close to the situation. It often takes an objective eye to spot what's really taking place. If your partner isn't actually aloof, however, but instead choosing to downplay things to keep the peace you may need to have a discussion. There could be more to the part they're playing than meets the eye.
3. Wearing Revealing Clothing Near Your Partner
Style is one of our favorite forms of self expression and everyone has their own approach. If someone's take on fashion generally errs on the more seductive, it's probably no cause for concern. However, if a person's usually buttoned-up look happens to take a far more wanton appearance when in the company of your partner, you may have a flirtatious situation on your hands.
4. They Try to Make Your Partner Jealous
Weaponizing jealousy is one of the oldest tactics in the book. It's a form of emotional manipulation to coerce someone into taking action. In this case, priming your partner to feel jealous could be a ploy to get them to succumb to any feelings of attraction they may have for this person.
5. Being Touchy-Feely With Your Partner
Some people are natural touchers, huggers, and knee-slappers. We all know and love them for it. If someone is only being touchy-feely with your partner, however, and remaining relatively distant and hands-free with everyone else, it could be cause for concern. As with many of these signs, the devil is in the detail and the detail is whether your partner is being exclusively singled out.
6. They Drop Everything For Your Partner
It's very rare that we go out of our way to do something for someone that we don't like. So if someone is consistently dropping everything and going above and beyond to tend your partner, it's a pretty clear sign that they're into them. In more harmless cases, they could be attempting to be useful but on the more dangerous end of the spectrum they could be trying to take your place as the go-to in times of need. If your partner takes the bait and finds themselves reaching out to this person instead of you, it can be a form of emotional infidelity.
7. They Compliment Your Partner (A Lot)
There's a fine line between authentic flattery and compliments that just make us cringe. As your partner's biggest fan, you already know all of their shining strengths and heartwarming weaknesses. So if someone is laying it on a little too thick, it's easy to call them out on their BS.
8. They Act Negatively Toward You
So, you get the feeling that this person genuinely dislikes you. Whether their negative feelings towards you are overt or more subtle, the situation is nevertheless a bit discomforting. While you should never overthink someone's reasons for disliking you (we've already accepted that we can't please everyone), if there's no other reason for the tension between you—other than the one life-size reason standing next you—it could be a sign that they see you as an obstacle or envy your position.
9. You Have a Gut Feeling
If your intuition is telling you that something is amiss, lean into it and follow where it's guiding you. It could be your ego clouding your better judgement, but there's no way to know for sure unless you delve deeper. In a healthy relationship, you would want to explore your gut feeling further by taking the next step to have an open conversation with your partner about how you're feeling and your level of discomfort.
What to Do About It
You've witnessed the surefire signs, heeded the red flags, and concluded that someone is flirting with your partner. What now? The most difficult part is figuring out what to do with this information and finding a way to lean into a proactive reaction rather than escalating to a full-blown overreaction.
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.