If you saw my husband calling out my name while holding up a piece of string cheese, and raising his eyebrows when I made eye contact, you might assume that he was just generously offering me a high-protein snack. You almost certainly would not construe it as open flirtation. That’s because you’re not me.
You see, when my husband and I were engaged, we went on a picnic, and in the silliness of young love, I peeled a strip from a piece of string cheese and offered, “Let’s race to the middle,” hanging one end out of my mouth. He put the other end in his mouth and just as we reached the middle, he vigorously bellowed, “OW!” pulling away from me, “YOU BIT ME.” I was rattled by his reaction. He pulled his lower lip down so I could see the blood oozing from soft tissue where I had indeed ripped out a small chunk in my over-zealousness to reach the middle first. “You’re so competitive!” he complained. I felt terrible. My intention was to meet up for a mozzarella kiss, but turning it into a race had destroyed the moment. That incident became part of our private language, so now if he offers a piece with raised eyebrows, I know he’s playfully alluding to this scene and inviting me for a “do over.” The flirtation is a small way of connecting—while trying to get me to kiss him.
People generally associate flirting with the first stages of a potential romantic relationship. It’s true that the ambiguous language, with non-verbals like smiles, touch and eye contact, can be used as a low-risk way to test interest in a love match. Flirtatious behaviors are generally playful and motivated by interest to pursue a romantic connection. Given that the sexual system is a common feature of romantic relationships, flirtation is often motivated by an interest in sex, particularly for males (unsurprisingly).
What if I told you that flirting might be even more important for a long-term relationship?
While many people think of flirting as an early stage relationship tool, it can be a useful maintenance strategy in marriage. It can shape a marital relationship toward increased happiness and commitment.
Here’s how flirting can maintain a marriage:
- It introduces positivity into the marital environment. This is important since many problems develop over time from “negative affect reciprocity,” meaning that eventually the negative emotional exchanges flood the marriage, so spouses are viewed through persistent negative filters.
- It creates a “private world.” In other words, if the innuendos are only understood by you and the other, it makes it special.
- It can reassure a partner that you still want him/her, or it can be a way to gain reassurance that you are wanted, reaffirming the marital relationship.
- It’s a way to reinforce commitment.
- It introduces playful fun.
- It invites physical connection.
- It invites sexual interaction.
- It reassures partners of ongoing desire and attraction, which increases confidence.
- It can help manage conflict.
- It adds interest to the relationship. It’s a way of stepping out of the box and inviting novelty.
- In general, all the above elements make the marriage feel SAFE, which sets up an environment where more risky playfulness can flourish.
Flirt Early and Often
The best time to be intentional about flirting is EARLY in the marriage, BEFORE DISTRESS has set in. One thing I’ve noticed about couples in therapy is that the playfulness is gone. Very little playful banter or flirting, if any, is happening. Sadly, playfulness and flirting, while less risky during relationship development, somehow become riskier in long-term relationships. Reaching out playfully in a shared context only to get rejected, is painful. When the marriage doesn’t feel safe to take risks, people essentially stop flirting. It doesn’t feel good to be playful and risky if the relationship is uncertain. I completely understand why this happens, because if my husband and I have had a negative exchange, the last thing I’m going to do is flirt with him.
For couples in distressed marriages, I’m going to propose that flirting can be approached from varying degrees of risk, and you can choose a less risky way to flirt as a start to try to reverse the downward trajectory of negativity.
Simple ways to flirt:
- Wink from across the room.
- Allude to an inside joke.
- Smile at your partner.
- Touch your partner while you are talking.
- Make eye contact.
- Share something that makes you laugh.
- Compliment your partner specifically about how he/she looks.
- Take a risk to invite a sexual encounter in a playful way. If I can be stereotypical, this is especially geared toward females, because we are socialized that males should be the sexual pursuers; that’s probably why the innuendos come from them more often. A wife’s inviting sexuality in a playful way can be a powerful affirmation for many husbands.
- Bring home your partner’s favorite snack or drink.
- Text flirtatious messages. Don’t skimp on emojis or the various dazzling effects. My husband likes to use the fireworks, heart and confetti effects on a regular basis, and it’s adorable.
- Think initials carved into a tree as a love declaration. I mention this because for my entire marriage, my husband has found various clever ways of presenting me with “SS + LS,” surrounded by a heart. He has printed them as a watermark on paper, written them on the bathroom mirror with my lipstick and shower door with soap, written on my car windows with window paint, stamped it in the snow, mowed it in the grass, traced it in the sand, squirted it on a sandwich with mustard, written it in whipping cream on dessert, traced it in almond butter, written it in a text message, wallpapered it on my iPhone, chalked it in the driveway, etc. He started before we were married and has never stopped. At least once a month I will find it somewhere. Small gesture with huge reaffirming impact.
- Have a secret non-verbal code. Right after we got married, my husband sat me down and said, “When I squeeze your hand in this pattern, it means ‘I love you,’ so if we are around a bunch of people, I can say it in a way only you will know.” He still uses that pattern frequently if we are in public.
- Whatever you do, don’t stop. This might be the most important. When flirtation stops, many couples end up in a game of chicken to see who will make the first move at reaffirming desire and love for the other.
My husband walked into our bedroom last week and noticed the clothes I had dumped on our bed. He saw his opportunity, “Honey, if I fold these clothes, will it turn you on?” Used to his ongoing innuendos, I matched his tone, “I don’t know. I guess you’re going to have to fold them to find out,” keeping it ambiguous.
If I’ve learned anything after three decades of marriage, it’s to fight flirting with flirting.
The “How” and “Why” of Flirtatious Communication Between Marital Partners (2012) by Frisby, B. N. & Boothe-Butterfield, M. in Communication Quarterly, 60(4), 465-480. DOI:10.1080/01463373.2012.704568
“Without Flirting, it Wouldn’t be a Marriage”: Flirtatious Communication Between Relational Partners (2009) by Frisby, B. N. in Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 10(1), 55-60. DOI: 10.1080/17459430902839066
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