Marital Challenges: Dealing with Flirts

You’re married and a friend starts hinting that he or she has romantic feelings for you. Despite your alarm, you feel just a teeny bit enticed, and now your mind is spinning with “what if” scenarios. Yikes, does this mean you’re not as committed to your spouse as you thought? No, it means you’re a human being.

All humans have a strong core need to experience intimacy with other humans. There are various degrees of intimacy possible in human relationships, but the two kinds of relationships which satisfy this need best are safe partners (such as best friends and close friends) and intimate partners (spouses) You can maintain multiple safe relationships at the same time without things getting complicated, but you can only have one intimate relationship at a time. Intimate relationships require special handling and the most effort to maintain, but they also have the greatest benefits. (For more about the different types of human relationships, see How Should I Approach Dating?)

Now when you’re teaching people about human psychology, it helps to come up with labels and terms for various concepts. But in real life, you don’t need anyone to explain to you that there are varying degrees of intimacy in relationships and that the relationship with the most potential to satisfy you is the one that is romantic in nature. You understand these things instinctively, and it is because you understand these things that it feels like such a huge deal when someone admits to having romantic feelings towards you. When someone says “I love you”–or when they start behaving in a way that seems to be hinting that they are seriously attracted to you on a romantic level–there is a part of you that will recognize this as a high compliment and a rare opportunity.

In this world, one of the greatest challenges we all face is finding that “special someone” who will want to attempt an intimate relationship with us. Satisfying intimate relationships (which are entirely different than casual sexual flings) are rare, and that makes them extremely valuable. A whole lot of work, compromise, and emotional investment must happen for two partners to feel mutually satisfied in their marriage. Crafting a strong intimate relationship is like trying to construct a delicate sculpture–it requires focus, commitment, and teamwork. When someone says “I love you and I want to be with you for the rest of my life,” it’s like they’re volunteering to take on the challenge of crafting one of those rare and beautiful sculptures with you. Of all the other people that they know, you are the one they want to partner up with. It’s a massive compliment that makes you feel noticed, wanted, and valued–all things which every human longs for. So of course you’re going to give such a proposal more than two seconds of thought. Happily married or not, you will find it very moving when someone else places such a high value on you.

Now for the reaction I just described to occur, you need to feel the other person is being sincere when they express romantic interest in you. You also need to find the other person somewhat likable. If you think the person is creepy or dangerous, then you will have a very different reaction to them hinting that they are seriously attracted to you.

How you personally feel about the whole romance package also affects how you will respond to someone making moves towards you. If you’ve been burned in the past by romantic partners, or if you are dealing with a kind of trauma which results in an intense fear of sexual relations or emotional intimacy, then you will feel very upset and threatened by someone declaring their love for you. As is always the case with humans, these things are complicated.

Two Kinds of Reactions

Now for those of you who are feeling guilty about the fact that part of you feels quite flattered, interested, and excited by the discovery that a friend is romantically interested in you, you need to really think about what I’ve explained about core needs. Humans are complex little things and they have complex and often contradictory reactions to their experiences in life. Any opportunity to have your core needs met is going to attract you to some degree. Is a thirsty man immoral because he feels attracted to a glass of fresh water? Of course not, he’s simply responding to core needs that were wired into him by God. Ah, but here’s where some of you are thinking, “Oh, but I’m married already, therefore I shouldn’t feel any longing for more than what I already have.” Well, have you ever been attracted to your favorite dessert even when you were stuffed from a hearty meal? Have you ever thought it would be nice to win a million dollars even though your finances are in decent shape? Here’s the thing about humans: we don’t feel there is any such thing as having too much affirmation, love, and support in life. It is also impossible to get all of your needs completely met in any human relationship. So as far as your subconscious is concerned, there is always room to stock up on more essential goods, and any new potential supplier should be taken seriously.

Your husband might be the most fantastic man you ever met, but your friend has an enticing element of mystery about him. Until you actually test out a romantic relationship with him, you can’t know what he could offer you, and your subconscious is naturally going to wonder if the friend might be able to supply some of the things that you can’t currently get from your husband. You can’t stop your mind from running this kind of assessment and the fact that your mind does this doesn’t mean you are an immoral worm. Remember that your subconscious cares about getting your needs met, it doesn’t care about morality. If your marriage is currently on shaky ground and your subconscious is feeling frustrated that many of its needs are going unmet, then it will naturally feel all the more enticed by the idea of switching to a new supplier. Again, this is basic needs management, and your subconscious will fly into its strategizing mode before you can stop it.

If you want to get a glimpse of your moral character, you have to look at your soul’s response to your subconscious’ musing. Perhaps you find your soul thinking “Stop it! I’m a married and I’m not a cheater! No way am I going to consider the possibility of having an affair!” This kind of reaction tells you that you care quite a bit about doing the right thing. But while you can be a very moral person, you still have needs, and your needs are what your subconscious is focused on.

Chasing Forbidden Fruit

Now that I’ve explained why it’s quite natural to feel complimented and enticed by someone announcing they are seriously attracted to you, and now that you understand that your subconscious and soul will respond to this individually, and likely have very different opinions on how you ought to proceed, let’s talk about what’s going on with your flirt. This person knows you’re married, which is supposed to mean you’re off limits to him (or her) as a romantic partner. And yet they are pursuing you anyway. Why would they do this?

There are several possible motivations for chasing forbidden fruit, and they all begin with a sense of dissatisfaction within your friend. So before you come down hard on this person and accuse them of being a sleaze, some compassion needs to be factored in. Let’s start by taking an honest look at your evidence for concluding that they like you. Is this a case of you reading volumes into what could also be interpreted as normal, non-flirtatious behavior? Or are you dealing with clear, undeniable proof that this person wants you to understand their sexual attraction to you?

There’s always the possibility that your mind is just inventing something that it wants to see. I know that’s not a pleasant idea, but it needs to be considered all the same, and it’s my job as a counselor to help you consider all angles. Just as a stressed out mind can easily start seeing “evidence” that you’re being followed, whispered about, or stared at everywhere you go, it can also start imagining that people are making advances to you that they’re really not making. In cases like this, there is always a logical reason for your mind inventing these scenarios, and those reasons can be sorted out. It doesn’t make you a bad person, but when we are imagining things that aren’t really there, it does indicate that you could use some better stress management tools.

Now let’s assume you’re not imagining it and that this person has communicated their feelings in a very clear way. What was the context of their admission? Was this a one off when someone had had too much to drink and since then they are pretending like nothing happened? We should always factor in an extra measure of grace in these scenarios. When humans get overly stimulated or stressed, they are prone to saying a lot of things that they later regret. We all have an ideal self that we’d like to be, and just as we want people to be gracious to us when we have an off day, we want to be gracious to them when they make a mistake. So if your alarm is based on something that happened once in a moment when your friend was not in his normal, rational state of mind, then it’s best to be gracious and write it off as him having an embarrassing blip.

But now let’s suppose these first two scenarios don’t apply to your situation. Let’s assume you’re dealing with someone who seems determined to pursue you even though they know you’re already taken. What’s going on here? Well, first it’s clear that your friend is not a happy person at the moment. Chasing after someone who is already married is unwise for many reasons, and when humans doggedly pursue goals that are very likely to end in misery, it’s because they are trying to manage a bigger crisis.

I’m now going to explain seven common reasons that people choose unavailable romantic partners instead of focusing on those who are currently single.

#1. Trying to Fix A Past Mistake

First, there’s the scenario in which you are “the one that got away.” In this scenario, you and the flirt have a previous relationship history and he feels that he missed or ruined his chance at marrying you back then. Now he regrets it and is telling himself that all of his current discontent with his own life will be magically solved if he can just get another chance with you. Of course he’s wrong, because the problems he’s trying to solve have nothing to do with you, and everything to do with his own beliefs and past experiences.

I should also mention that this can be the case when you don’t have a history with the flirt, but to him, you seem like a near clone of the woman he regrets losing. In these cases, you are a symbol of someone else to him–someone who he has strong feelings about yet there is some reason why he feels blocked from pursuing the original person (perhaps she is dead or living on the other side of the world).

#2. Seeking Power Through Difficult Conquests

In this second scenario, your flirt is intentionally deceiving you about his interest in you. While he puts on a very convincing act of believing you are “the one,” all he really wants to do is get you to reciprocate. As soon as you do, he’ll lose all interest in you.

Often in these cases, you actually having sex with the flirt is the trophy he wants–the thing that makes him feel that he has truly succeeded in getting you to go against your own moral code. (I’m using male-female analogies here in which the male is the flirt, but these same principles are true in any gender pairing.)

In this second scenario, the flirt is usually trying to give himself a sense of power and significance by proving he can successfully lure any target towards him. When this is the motivation, the harder you resist his advances, the greater satisfaction he will feel from “conquering” you. Acting all put out and morally affronted by his advances will actually attract this kind of flirt towards you and makes him all the more determined to take you down.

People with reputations for being very moral are prime targets for this kind of power-hungry flirt. Because people often associate morals with God, flirts who have a personal beef with God can also be trying to symbolically stick it to Him by getting you to violate one of God’s most well-known moral codes: the old “don’t cheat on your spouse” rule. When personal anger towards God is also in the mix, the flirt’s pursuit of you can be all the more determined.

#3. No Respect for Marriage

While you feel that your marital status is highly significant, there are many other people in this world who simply don’t share your respect for the institution of marriage. When kids are raised by parents who never got married, or by people who personally had a very low opinion of marriage, it’s easy for those kids to grow into adults who simply don’t see marriage as anything special. In these cases, people can feel that anyone is fair game to pursue, so they don’t see it as a raging moral offense when they pursue you. To them, you are no different than a single woman who they might try to hit on in a restaurant. They’re simply signalling you that they’re interested and waiting for you to signal back. Folks in this camp will respond to your rejection the same as they would to the rejection of a single–their response won’t be altered by your marital status, although they might scoff if you try to use that as an excuse for why you’re not interested.

#4. Needing to Feel Valued

Unlike the flirts who are desperate to gain a greater sense of power, this fourth group has problems with low self-esteem. What they want from you is evidence that you find them sexually attractive. In their minds, they have linked their ability to physically attract others to all kinds of concepts which really have nothing to do with physical attraction. Because they are reading so much into your response to them, they are likely to act very upset by your rejection.

This group is so focused on their own internal need for affirmation that they can’t take a reference to morals seriously. To them, trying to say you’re not interested because you’re married is just an excuse: what you really mean is that you think they are inferior human beings. This group is very emotionally fragile as they are usually dealing with a very negative view of themselves which is causing them constant pain. They usually don’t have the resources to accept rejection graciously, and could easily become aggressive if they are rejected face to face without any third party witnesses around.

#5. Needing a Distraction

This fifth group is trying to use you as a distraction from their own general misery. If their knowledge of you is only superficial, then you’re dealing with a case of symbolism in which something about you–often a physical trait or style of communication–is strongly attracting them. The possible symbolic associations here are endless, so I won’t try to list them all out. The point is that to this kind of flirt, you like an oasis in a desert. When they are with you, they experience temporary relief from the negative place their mind is usually in, so they naturally want to be around you as much as possible.

#6. Sticking It to Your Spouse

This group is going after you with malicious intentions. What they really want is to knife your spouse, and you are simply a means to that end. Their attraction to you is just an act, but often a very convincing one. In fictional movies and books, the classic example here would be some jilted lover from your spouse’s past, but in real life, there are many more examples. The flirt can be another man who is jealous of your husband’s success, his happiness, his career, his morality, or anything else. The flirt can also be someone who has always felt one down to your husband and is now trying to cripple your man to compensate for his own bitterness at always feeling like the loser.

#7. Safety

This seventh group is pretty harmless, and their interest in you is usually expressed in very subtle ways that they don’t really want you to pick up on. For these individuals, the thought of real intimacy is terrifying, so they are subconsciously rerouting all of their romantic interest towards targets that they know they can’t have. In these cases, the admiration felt for you is often close to the kind felt for movie stars and other celebrities. These flirts are more like your adoring fans, and they wouldn’t want to cause you any real trouble. They feel safe fantasizing about you because they trust you not to allow anything real to happen. Because this group is genuinely afraid of getting involved in a real relationship, they’d actually panic if you reciprocated their feelings.

How to Respond

As you can see, there is a wide range of motivations that can drive flirting behavior. What your flirt’s real motivations are will determine how he will react to you trying to drive him off. When you’re not sure what’s going on in someone else’s head, and when you run the risk of certain kinds of flirts really flipping out on you if you try to confront them, what you need is a good general strategy that you can use for all of these groups. So is there one? Yes, and it’s avoidance.

Once you figure out that someone is making inappropriate advances towards you, your best strategy is to start putting major distance between you and that person. If this is a friend of the family, relative, or coworker who you have to keep interfacing with, it would be wise of you to stop sharing anything more than superficial information with them. In your mind, they need to be labeled as unsafe. As I explain in my book on relationships, you should be very cautious about how much access you give to these people. Deception is a critical tool in managing unsafe relationships. Giving stonewalling answers like “I’m fine” and “Everything’s great” and turning down every invitation with “Sorry, I’m booked” are effective ways to maintain distance. You should absolutely avoid being alone with your flirt, especially when you don’t know what their intentions really are.

Having the heart-to-heart conversation in which you try to “let them down easy” by telling your flirt that his interest in you is not mutual is generally not a good idea. In some cases, this kind of strategy is quite likely to increase how aggressive your flirt is being towards you. Rather than run the risk of making the situation worse, it’s better to avoid this kind of direct confrontation. Distance is a much safer strategy. Distancing yourself from non-aggressive flirts will discourage them and send them looking for new targets to focus on. Distancing yourself from aggressive flirts will frustrate and bore them. In both cases, the goal is to make the pursuit of you so unsatisfying that the flirt starts looking for a new target. But again, the best way to go about this is by using a non-aggressive, non-confrontational approach.

Now if the flirt is a friend of your husband’s or someone who currently has a standing invitation to frequently visit you at home, there is no way for you to suddenly put distance between yourself and them without your spouse noticing and wondering what’s going on. So what do you do about your spouse in these situations?

Dealing With Your Spouse

In this post, I’m talking about flirting. I am not talking about what to do if you have already cheated on your spouse. These are very different situations that require different handling, so don’t just transfer this advice onto the topic of cheating and think it applies there as well. When I give advice, it is specific to the topic I am dealing with, and there will always be limits to when that advice should be applied.

Any flirt represents a potential threat to your marriage. Ideally, you and your spouse should handle these kinds of threats as a team and secrecy should be avoided. This is because intimate relationships are built on trust. Not all relationships are built on trust. Many are built on convenience, others on circumstances, others on exchanging goods and services. When trust is the foundation of a relationship, keeping certain kinds of secrets can do major damage.

When you start acting all dodgy around your spouse–suddenly coming up with phony reasons why you have to go out whenever his friend comes over and piling up opportunities for your husband to discover that you’ve been lying to him–you are just asking for trouble. Rather than allow the situation to drag on in secret and potentially develop into a real setup for disaster, you should immediately make your spouse aware of the fact that you feel his friend is being rather inappropriate towards you. But before you rush out and do this, keep reading because there are some important cautions here.

First, you should be very specific in these kinds of situations. Don’t just share your personal interpretation. Instead, describe what actually occurred. For example, instead of saying, “Last night Tom made a pass at me,” you should say “Last night when you were in the bathroom, Tom leaned over towards me and whispered that he thought my hair was beautiful. It made me feel uncomfortable. I mean, why didn’t he just say it in a normal voice? Why lean in and whisper? Then he stared at me really intensely and I got the feeling he was about to kiss me.”

Describing the situation gives your spouse the chance to make his own assessments. Merely sharing your personal conclusions sets up your spouse to imagine a scene that is far worse than what actually went on. Escalation and exaggeration need to be avoided, so try to describe the situation calmly and in a straightforward manner.

In addition to describing what actually happened (instead of just sharing your interpretation of what happened), it is vital that you also take this opportunity to emphasize your loyalty to your spouse. In the beginning of this post, I explained that all humans instinctively understand that a sincere expression of romantic attraction is a big deal. Your spouse is a human just like you are, so it is only natural for him to feel threatened by the idea of another man trying to encroach on his territory. Affirming your loyalty to your spouse in a way that is highly complimentary and sincere can be very effective in helping him not get overly agitated. But don’t be fake. Spouses who are put on red alert are extra sensitive to hypocrisy, and if you lay it on too thick, your husband will only get more agitated. Remember that your spouse is in the marriage with you, and he is aware of how happy or strained the two of you are at the moment. So don’t make your marriage out to be some kind of nirvana when it’s currently very stressed. But do emphasize your commitment to your spouse and make it clear that this flirt doesn’t have a chance with you. For example: “You and I have our tough times, but there’s no question that you’re the only man for me. This other guy is an idiot to think I’d ever give him a shot at anything. I mean, what kind of sleaze goes after a married woman? He’s disrespecting me and you with this garbage. I think we should really distance ourselves from him. Why should we keep hanging out with someone who isn’t respecting our relationship?”

Here you are teaming up with your husband, and joining him as a united force against his unwanted intruder. You’re also requesting a plan of action, which is better than leaving it open ended.

Now things get tricky if you’re married to someone who is grappling with some internal wounds which cause him to feel very insecure in his relationship with you, and thus very prone to jealousy. If you are also dealing with an aggressive temperament–whose natural instinct is to confront and dramatically lash out at threats–then you are going to need to really work at convincing your spouse to take a calm, distancing approach (see Freezing vs. Fighting: Two Strategic Responses to Assault).

Insecure spouses need extra assurance that they are still in a secure place with you whenever there is a threat on the horizon. If you know that your spouse is likely to feel extra threatened by the news that another man is making eyes at you, then it would be a wise strategy to work in some extra date nights and ensure that plenty of physical intimacy is happening after you break this news. The goal is to help your spouse deal with this flirt in a smart way: which is to increase distance while not letting the flirt see any signs of distress. Remember that there are many motivations driving flirting, and some of flirts will really increase their efforts if they sense that they are causing any strife between you and your husband. The more calm, unified, and disinterested the two of you come across to the flirt, the faster you’ll discourage him.

When muskoxen feel threatened by a predator, they stand shoulder to shoulder, forming an intimidating line or tight circle that their enemies are very hesitant to attack.

It is by working together as a team that they successfully intimidate threats without having to engage. This is the same way you and your spouse need to deal with flirts: not by charging in individually and trying to engage, but by forming a solid wall of unity that can’t be broken through.

When a lone muskox doesn’t participate in this defense strategy, but separates himself from his partners, he becomes much easier to take down. In the same way, when you go telling your friends, your coworkers, your pastor, your neighbor, and everyone else except your spouse about the guy who is hitting on you, you are making both you and your spouse more vulnerable. When you start lying and then covering your lies with more lies about how the flirt is behaving towards you, or about why you have to suddenly rush out the minute he shows up at your house, or about why you and the flirt were seen having a coffee together, you once again make your marriage easier to harm.

Not every flirting attempt needs to be treated like grave news. Often it’s best to laugh these things off as ridiculous and keep the mood light while still keeping each other informed. But once a flirt becomes persistent or very overt in his advances, then it’s time to be like the muskox: inform your spouse of the potential threat and form a wall. Strengthen your sense of unity by clearing the air of pending tensions, increasing cuddle time, and making sure no one is feeling sexually strung out. Be so clearly into each other and so clearly uninterested in any shenanigans that your flirt will feel discouraged. Then cut down how much time you both spend with that person while simultaneously cutting them off from updates about how you and your spouse are really doing.

Regardless of what someone else’s personal issues are, you need to protect your marriage. But because flirts are acting from a place of pain, it’s best to deal with them non-aggressively when possible. People go through phases in life, and sometimes a good friend drifts off course for a while but will later come back around. Teaming up with your spouse doesn’t mean you start acting obnoxious in public by making out whenever the flirt is around to see it. You can be unified, classy and compassionate all at the same time, and that should be the goal in these situations. By informing your spouse at the first sign of potential trouble, you leave no room for secrets to build up or for third parties to alarm your spouse with their interpretations of what’s happening. Stay informed, stay united, and use distancing tactics to nip these things in the bud before they can develop into a crisis.

This post was written in response to a request.

Looking for advice? You can submit an anonymous request through the Ask a Question page.