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Is Flirting Cheating? When It’s Ok And When It’s Not!

attractive man looking at a woman and flirting in conversation at a coffee shop

Is flirting cheating or is it harmless? It’s a question that’s plagued many relationships, with fingers being pointed left and right. Jealousy, insecurity, and downright anger all can rear their ugly heads when it comes to flirting outside of a relationship. And suddenly, even a stable-seeming relationship starts to crumble. 

So should flirting really have this big of an impact on a relationship? Is flirting actually cheating? Let’s break down when it is, when it isn’t, and what to do when flirting starts to affect your relationship.

Is Flirting Cheating? Three Times When It Is

  • You’re getting emotional fulfillment from flirting

When we think about flirting, we think about engaging in a teasing relationship which can hint at sexual connection but never crosses the line into sexual engagement. That being said, flirting can sometimes toe the line between emotional connection and emotional engagement as well, which is when Professor Terri Orbuch, PhD, says flirting can turn into cheating.

“When you begin to go to that person for emotional support and connection, rather than your partner, you have crossed the line from flirting to emotional cheating,” says Orbuch. It’s fine to have a friend you flirt with who you also talk to and confide in, but if they know more about what’s going on in your life than your partner does, you’re emotionally cheating. This problem is particularly exacerbated if you’re also confiding in this person about your relationship issues with your partner.

  • You think about this person when you’re with your partner

If you’re laying in bed at night with your partner and your mind keeps going back to that person at work you keep flirting with, you’re likely emotionally cheating. That person may not physically be between you and your partner, but with them occupying your mind, they are emotionally between the two of you. 

Having feelings of emotional attraction toward another person is very common, particularly when you’ve been in a relationship for a long time. Having those feelings isn’t the problem. The problem is when you allow those feelings to consume, rather than try to come to terms with them and decide what you want to do with them. 

  • You don’t want to tell your partner about the person you’re flirting with

If you’re skipping out on work functions you’re supposed to bring your spouse to just because you don’t want your spouse to meet the new person at work you’re flirting with and maybe crushing on, you’ve crossed a line. You hiding this person from your partner means that, somewhere in you, you feel like you’ve done something wrong and have something to hide. 

We really are our own best gauges to determine if our flirting has become cheating. If you feel nervous about the prospect of your partner meeting the object of your flirty affections, it’s because you know you’ve done something that you don’t think your partner would like.

Is Flirting Cheating? Three Times When It’s Not

  • Your partner knows the person you’re flirting with and that you flirt with them

Many people engage in harmless flirting and many people know that their partners do too. If you’re flirting with someone long term, like someone you see at an office every day, open the conversation up to your partner about how they feel about it. A knee-jerk reaction to flirting might be to hide it from a partner, but that sets a bad precedent. 

Flirting happens, and if you’re in a long-term relationship, you need three consenting adults to make it happen: you, the person you’re flirting with, and your partner. In order to get that consent, your partner needs to be able to know that it’s occurring. They can’t consent if you keep them in the dark.

  • The connection between you and the person you’re flirting with isn’t deep

Getting emotional fulfillment from flirting is cheating, but engaging in some teasing and light conversations isn’t. Passing comments (as long as all parties are comfortable with them) is harmless and so is just enjoying having someone around to joke and laugh with. The issue lies in when those conversations get heavier and more emotional, and you start to open a door for a deeper connection.

Having a friend to have deep conversations with is fine, but it’s best, then, not to be flirting with that person because that person can very quickly appear to take on the role of a partner, which your partner is most likely not going to be thrilled with. Keep it light to keep it from becoming cheating.

  • The object of your flirtations knows there are boundaries

If you’re flirting with someone, just like your partner knows that you’re flirting, the person you’re flirting with needs to know you have a partner. If not, they may think you’re leaving a door open to one day become more emotional or even physical with them. Be certain that who you are flirting with knows that there are boundaries that cannot be crossed.

If they are not aware of the boundaries and try to cross them one day, that’s on you and not on them, because they can’t be expected to know something you decided not to tell them. By hiding these boundaries, you’ll end up alienating both your partner and your flirter. 

What to Do When You Think You Emotionally Cheated

According to psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., the first step is admitting to yourself that you are emotionally cheating, but the second step is analyzing why. Imagine if the flirtation continued and imagine if no boundaries were in place. What would happen? Would you want what would happen to happen? Is it even possible to pursue a relationship with this person, and would it be worth it to sacrifice your current relationship to try?

Once you’ve figured out where your head is at, address it with your partner, and talk about why it happened and what you can do together to prevent it from happening in the future. Listen to what your partner has to say as well about their own feelings on the subject, and take it to heart to make changes to your own behavior in the future.

What to Do When You Think Your Partner Emotionally Cheated

It’s difficult to know when a partner is emotionally cheating and the ways in which you may be able to “uncover” if they are would be breaches in trust and privacy. The first step when you think your partner has emotionally cheated should never be “snooping around,” according to relationship counselor Denise Knowles

“If you are snooping I would think ‘hang on is there something else going on?’ A lack of communication? Are you spending time apart? What can’t you talk to your partner about that is leading you to look at their phone?” she says.

If you feel that your partner may be emotionally cheating, don’t confront them with accusations, but instead with curiosity. Flirting can become cheating without someone really being fully aware of it and they may never have intended for their actions to harm you.

The best thing to do is to start a dialogue based on curiosity and openness, allowing them to tell you what’s been going on without fear of immediate anger. Listen without interruption and then be open about your own feelings on the issue. With communication and honesty, you as a couple can discuss and define your understanding of the question is flirting cheating or not? 

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