Fancying and Flirting with Other People
Unsurprisingly, many couples argue about flirting and fancying others. You don’t start affairs without fancying. It’s an article of faith that partners should command each other’s sexual attention. But how far that ‘attention’ extends is not well defined; it's not always clear what constitutes an “affair”. When does fancying someone else, giving off sexual signals in a relationship even without physical contact, constitute danger and/or betrayal?
But clamping down unnecessarily courts a different sort of disaster. I once was on a forum with a clergyman, who gamely confessed that women assumed that because he was a married vicar, that that meant he wasn’t sexually alive. When he flirted they were shocked. Plaintively, he cried, “I may be a married vicar, but I still have eyes, and I’m not dead from the neck down! I’d never have an affair but these are two different things!” It’s my reading – of both research and clinical data — that what seems at stake around flirting are two things: whether you are “enough” to keep your partner and insecurity about the relationship’s future.
We’re deluged with sensuality in our culture, reminding us that most are still alive from the neck down and most have eyes to see others - who are also sexual. So that’s part of normal interactions. And if we like the person we’re talking to, and he or she also pleases our senses, that inescapably confirms our own sensuality. If we try to ignore this (the vicar would argue we can’t), it might mean we also ignore our basic sensuality. That affects our partnerships. In Esther Perel’s recent book, Mating in Captivity, she cites research showing that over time most couples get into a sexual rut, and argues that couples can redress this partly by making their sex lives conscious and deliberate. One way, she recommends, is to observe each others’ sensual effects on others: to give permission to flirt. As you do, you become aware of your own power to attract as well as your partner’s. It does mean we need to be alert to boundaries though. But what are acceptable ones?
Boundaries make people secure. By establishing them, you make things explicit, agreeing what makes you secure, and why. Talking about boundaries clarifies why you’re scared, what sets it off, and why. You reassure each other, redefining activities that might have set off feelings of insecurity in the past but don’t have to now. For instance, if your ex-boyfriend’s flirting led to infidelity, you are likely to feel threatened when your partner flirts. But if you are reassured of his fidelity to you and that he still finds you attractive you may find over time that “flirting” needn’t mean “affair.” By being open you also undermine the damaging role secrecy plays in flirting. Talking intimately about sensuality can also invite sensuality into the relationship. Talking to establish boundaries can reassure both of you that there’s nothing concealed, or to conceal.
Flirting is undeniably dangerous: it can be heady and therefore lead to a wish for more. The implication of shared sexual desire for another does challenge a committed partnership and so as it grows there is usually a wish for concealment. But if you conceal or exclude your partner from your activities with others you might fancy, two things happen: firstly you are signaling something suspicious is occurring and secondly you are defining your flirting as unacceptable to the partnership. When Perel suggests openly flirting she’s pointing to a couple talking honestly with each other, finding a way to bring into the relationship excitement that occurs outside it. That can’t happen with secrecy. That’s why talking and reaching common understandings is central to establishing boundaries.
Central is the “meanings” of flirting or fancying. If the meaning you give to your partner’s attraction to someone else is that they are less attracted to you — you’ll feel threatened. If the meaning you give to flirting is betrayal, trust in your partner and your future together will be undermined. But if, as the vicar suggests, fancying others means you’re sensually alive whilst still a faithful partner, you can feed sensual life back into your relationship.
Janet Reibstein is a psychologist and Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Exeter, and she has a private practice in London. Janet’s books include: The Best Kept Secret (2007, Bloomsbury); The Family Through Divorce (with Roger Bamber; 1997, Thorsons); Love Life (1997, Fourth Estate); Sexual Arrangements: Marriage and Affairs (1992, Heinemann). Her award-winning five-part documentary series, Love Life (broadcast in March 1997 on Channel 4) was based on her clinical work and research and earlier this year BBC Radio 4 broadcast Together Against the Odds a series of interviews highlighting factors involved in resilience and relationship success.