Is Flirting Cheating?

How to Talk With Your Partner About Flirtatious Interactions

Couple flirting on train

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If you've been in a relationship for any amount of time you've probably had to have the age-old conversation about flirting with your partner. This can include you and your partner breaking down what each of you defines as flirting and what degree of interaction each of you is OK with.

This is something that relationship therapist Anita Chlipala, LMFT, and founder of Relationship Reality 312, has had to work through with many clients. She explains that it all comes down to couples identifying "emotional or sexual intimacy that violates trust (as opposed to a behavior that you just don’t like)."

Below, Chlipala explains how she advises couples to talk about setting up clear boundaries in their relationship.

Types of Cheating

Chlipala says that four kinds of cheating are common in relationships.

  • Micro-cheating: Chlipala says that this is a term she's seen pop up in recent years, and it refers to the small behaviors that can leave a person vulnerable to cheating. For example, little flirtations can lead to one partner sharing more and more with a person outside of the relationship until they cultivate an emotional relationship. Chlipala believes that it is helpful to shed light on the smaller problematic behaviors in different relationships.
  • Emotional cheating: In a study that interviewed 1,379 people, researchers found that emotional infidelity is "a more vague and complex concept than sexual infidelity." They also found that men and women had very different ideas of what constituted emotional cheating. Chlipala characterizes emotional cheating as being characterized by emotional intimacy and sexual chemistry that has not been acted upon but the extent of which may be kept secret.
  • Physical cheating: This is when one partner has sexual interactions with another person but has no emotional or personal relationship with them.
  • Physical-emotional cheating: This involves one partner having a relationship with another person that is both sexual and emotionally intimate. This type of relationship is also kept secret from the other partner.

How Men and Women View Flirting

While this may not sound like it would be a particularly polarizing issue for men and women, it can cause significant problems in relationships. One reason for this could be the fact that men and women feel differently about emotional and physical infidelity.

One study found that men feel guiltier after sexual infidelity and women feel guiltier after emotional infidelity. That said, both men and women said that they would have a more difficult time forgiving their partner for sexual infidelity.

While men may not feel as guilty about emotional infidelity, they do tend to have a broader definition of what constitutes flirting.

In an often-referenced lab experiment from 1982, researchers interviewed 144 undergraduate students over 36 different sessions. They found that men were much more likely than women to perceive interactions as sexual. It also suggests that men are much more likely to perceive friendliness in females as seduction or sexual interest.

This shows how important it is for couples to talk about their boundaries, as one partner might not even realize that what they're doing is being perceived as flirting.

How to Talk to Your Partner About Flirting

While it can be difficult to talk to your partner about flirting, it may be the best way to avoid arguments and maintain a healthy relationship. Chlipala outlined some things to address in the conversation. If you're not discussing an active problem, then stick to identifying concerns and discussing non-negotiables.

Understand Their Logic

More than understanding your partner's choices, Chlipala urges couples to try to understand why their partner wants to flirt, even if you disagree with their reasoning. "People are more likely to dig in their heels and refuse to compromise if they feel misunderstood by their partner," says Chlipala. Also, ask if there's some need that they're trying to satisfy that's being met by the flirtatious behaviors.

Identify Concerns

Identify the specific reasons why flirting bothers you. Chlipala encourages her patients who feel like their partners are flirting to ask themselves these questions:

  • Does it make me anxious because I think my partner will actually cheat, or is it a respect issue?
  • Does it simply annoy me because it’s not something that I would ever do?

After identifying these issues, you can describe to your partner how it makes you feel and why. This will help both of you better understand what solutions are available.

Discuss Non-negotiables

Chlipala encourages her patients to be specific about their non-negotiables. Instead of telling your partner to stop flirting altogether, you can let them know that you feel most uncomfortable when they playfully touch a mutual friend or try to impress that one co-worker with their best jokes time and time again.

What to Do If You and Your Partner Disagree About Flirting

Since studies have shown that men and women have such different ideas of what constitutes flirting, it's understandable if your definition differs from the definition held by your partner. This doesn't mean that couples can't overcome this issue.

Anita Chlipala, LMFT

You both may never agree on shared definitions of flirting or cheating. What’s important is how you two communicate about the issue and what you’re both willing to do to keep it manageable so that it doesn’t consume your relationship.

— Anita Chlipala, LMFT

Setting up non-negotiables, as mentioned above, is one way to make sure that both you and your partner are comfortable. It's also important to consider if you or your partner is anxiously attached, which can lead to that partner being hyperfocused on their partner's behaviors and making meaningless accusations. If this is a possibility, you can seek help in learning to acknowledge and address these behaviors with a mental health professional.

What's most important is that couples who disagree about their definitions of flirting don't resort to contempt, criticism, and constant nagging. This can lead to one person flirting in secret, which makes them more likely to resort to cheating.

A Word From Verywell

While seemingly harmful at first, flirting with others outside of your relationship can be tricky territory. When in doubt, consider cultural and religious factors with your partner(s) and communicate with one another clearly and courageously on the behaviors that are more or less acceptable in your relationship. Define what constitutes flirting, set boundaries in relation to it, and seek support from a couples counselor or mental health professional if and as needed to help repair any ruptures.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Guitar, A. E., Geher, G., & Kruger, D. J. (2017). Defining and distinguishing sexual and emotional infidelityCurrent Psychology36, 434–446.

  2. Fisher, M., Voracek, M. P., & Rekkas, V. (2008). Sex differences in feelings of guilt arising from infidelityEvolutionary Psychology6(3).

  3. Abbey, A. (198 C.E.). Sex differences in attributions for friendly behavior: Do males misperceive females’ friendliness? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology42(5), 830–838.

  4. Henningsen, D. D. (2004). Flirting with meaning: An examination of miscommunication in flirting interactionsSex Roles50, 481–489.

By Brittany Loggins
Brittany is a health and lifestyle writer and former staffer at TODAY on NBC and CBS News. She's also contributed to dozens of magazines.