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Fancying and Flirting with Other People

Tags: Relationship psychology, psychologist, Dr Janet Reibstein, psychology, fancying. flirting, faith, betrayal, relationship, help, couple support
Categories: Affairs and Jealousy

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

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.


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  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    Flirting any way is cheating if your with someone!!!

    Sun 9, Nov 2014 at 6:19am
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    Consider the four f's of instinctive survival. Fight, Flight, Feed and F...finding a mate. They are all controlled from basic emotional instincts. So consider this. You are presented with four delicious meals, which one do you fancy? This demonstrates a selective control. You can also say, "they all look delicious, but I choose not to fancy any and go without."
    So there. Put this into a member of the opposite sex scenario and you can realise that fancying someone can actually be a rational choice rather than responding to basic instincts without consideration of the possible repercussions.

    Mon 5, Sep 2011 at 12:52pm
  • User-anonymous cazandco Flag

    I only have to look at someone or say hello to someone of the opposite sex and I am accused of flirting. If I do flirt it is not a conscious decision I have made to do so.
    I enjoy the company of the opposite sex. I was the only girl amongst 3 brothers and find it easier to relate to men, especially as my relationship with my mother was difficult.
    It annoys me that I get accused of this when I have remained faithful throughout my relationship, yet my husband has not!

    Sun 14, Aug 2011 at 1:24pm
  • User-anonymous jonolo Flag

    I strongly feel that sexually powerful flirting, even a long-held, erotically-charged gaze to someone attractive is a betrayal to your partner. It is not a physical but a mental and emotional betrayal. Thoughts are powerful just as acts are, therefore thinking of something that in act would be a real betrayal is a form of betrayal and should not be justified but addressed - either leave your partner, or sort your relationship out.
    Flirting in this way is different to what people sometimes call flirting, which is being playful and sociable with the opposite sex BUT with clear lines drawn in those invisible spaces that keep people in their safe zones. Erotic flirting is like actual sex because those lines have been crossed.

    Tue 16, Mar 2010 at 7:48pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    we can not live without love. flirting helps us to find a lover. so do you want to stop flirting?

    Fri 13, Mar 2009 at 10:28am
  • Cc admin Flag

    Thank you for your interest in this article. Janet Reibstein is unable to respond to any individual comments. However, she will be writing further articles for
    Professor Reibstein's articles are written in response to the most common relationship issues and, given that there are a number of posts in the Talk it Out forum regarding flirting, affairs and jealousy, it is expected that she will be writing further articles on this topic.
    Maybe you could consider visiting the Talk It Out forum and starting up a new discussion with others.

    Mon 5, Jan 2009 at 1:47pm
  • User-anonymous Anonymous Flag

    I would like to chat with you more on this particular topic. Many thanks

    Tue 16, Dec 2008 at 10:29am