It’s not *necessarily* crossing a line.
BY LESLIE QUANDER WOOLDRIDGESVETIKDGETTY IMAGES
You’re sitting at a bar when you spot a hottie standing next to you. (This is like old times, okay?) They smile. You give a smooth compliment; they say you seem smart. You both laugh, trade a few more flattering lines, and eventually say goodbye. Then you go home to your partner.
Did you cheat by flirting with them? The answer may surprise you.
If your instinct is to say no, there’s no way a friendly conversation equals cheating, it’s understandable. For some people, a light conversation with someone they find attractive isn’t worthy of a second thought—flirting is fun in the moment, and nothing more. But things can get complicated if your partner disagrees.
Is flirting cheating?
The answer is…drumroll, please…not necessarily!
For starters, flirting doesn’t inherently indicate a desire to hook up with someone. In fact, it technically means behaving like you’re sexually attracted to someone, but doing it playfully rather than with serious intention. But most importantly, it’s impossible to declare whether flirting equals cheating because the answer is different for every couple.
“Cheating is really about breaking agreements,” says Mike Kosim, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Western Minneapolis. “Those agreements can cover anything.”
When it comes to cheating, many of us know the black-and-white view, defined in part by Merriam-Webster as “to be sexually unfaithful.” Some people include emotional or online affairs under the umbrella of cheating, while some may even think daydreaming about someone else, or following an ex on social media, falls into this category.
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Definitions aside, there’s no official rule book that confirms whether flirting is indeed cheating; it’s up to you and your partner to decide. That’s, in part, because what’s playful and nonthreatening for one person—say, complimenting a person’s appearance or moving closer during a conversation—may be problematic or suspicious for another.
So how can couples lay ground rules around flirting?
If you and your partner don’t have a clear understanding of what cheating means to each of you, you could be in troubled waters when it comes to flirting, even if you were just doing it playfully (i.e., you didn’t actually want to hook up with that hottie at the bar—you were just having some fun). So it’s helpful to talk to your partner about what cheating means for you both—like you’d talk about preferences for communication or whatever—to establish an understanding. Forgoing this important conversation could mean a greater risk of conflict down the line, Kosim warns.
When you have that talk, go into it with the mindset of two teammates working to solve a problem together. “Your conversation may not work very well if your mindset starts with ‘you’re being over-reactive’ or ‘you’re being over-emotional,’” Kosim says.
You may find it natural to have this discussion when you establish exclusivity. At that point, it could go something like this, he says:
You: Hey, I really like you and want to make this just us.
Them: You mean being exclusive?
You: Yeah. For me, that means getting off dating sites. Telling people that I’ve dated that we’re together, if they text me. And just not looking. What do you think?
Them: Yeah! I like that.
MIODRAG IGNJATOVICGETTY IMAGES
Of course, if you’ve already had “the talk,” but still want to confirm what cheating means in your relationship—for instance, does it include texting exes, flirty exchanges on TikTok, or talking to strangers at the bar?—you can discuss it in a similarly calm setting.
Here’s another example:
You: Can we talk about what it means for us to be exclusive? For me that means we [fill in the blank], and we don’t [fill in the blank]. What about you?”
Clarity is key, whether you view flirting as a healthy activity or a potentially harmful one. “The process of being clear lets you understand both what you’re discussing with your partner more and the process that they use to be in a relationship,” Kosim notes. Being clear also is a relationship-building activity, he adds. Think of it like the early days, when you wanted to know everything about each other. While you may find some differences, you may find yourselves on the same metaphorical page.
That said, understand that not having this conversation doesn’t mean you can chat up every cutie you see without potential consequences. “[T]his isn’t a pass for people to act disrespectfully in their relationship and pretend nothing happened,” Kosim notes. “If [you or] your partner isn’t owning their behavior, there are real problems in your relationship and you may need help to solve it.”
What if my partner’s flirting crosses a line?
You might be cool with your partner playfully flirting with strangers, but—assuming you’re not in an open relationship—you might feel differently if your partner’s acting like they genuinely want to hook up with the person.
If you suspect your partner’s flirting comes with serious intentions of betrayal, this can relate to trust issues and is worthy of attention. “Confronting your partner about the flirting, and telling them calmly how it makes you feel, is the order of the day,” Kosim says. If you can present your objections to their behavior calmly, you’ll get several wins: You can advocate for yourself, maximize the chance your partner will hear your point of view, and learn if your partner is willing to validate your feelings and change their behavior.
In the end, you both can decide if your values line up, and if the relationship makes sense. So if you and your partner can create a shared agreement around flirting, and respect each other’s boundaries—however wide or narrow they may be—that’s great. But if you end up at an impasse, be honest about that. And be honest about what you’re willing to lose.
Leslie Quander Wooldridge is a writer, editor, speaker, and coach whose articles have reached tens of millions of readers; find her at lesliequander.com.