Flirting is acting on attraction from a distance and trying to establish some type of connection with someone else. It can be considered emotional and mental cheating.
When you’re attracted to someone, flirting is a way of communicating that interest through subtle (or not-so-subtle) cues. You may tilt your head to one side, slightly change the tone of your voice, or adjust your posture, for example.
Some of these cues may be subconscious, and some may be intentional. So, how do you determine: “Is flirting cheating, or isn’t it?”
While there may be undeniable moments when flirting crosses a line, mutual consent, clarity in your relationship, and underlying intent can all be important factors when deciding if flirting is infidelity.
Relationship rules and consensus
Every relationship is different. What may upset you or your partner, may not be the same that upsets someone else.
Openly talking about your and your partner’s expectations and your willingness to honor those is a healthy way of getting on the same page and establishing if flirting is cheating or if it gets too close to it for comfort.
“For some, flirting is infidelity. For others, [cheating is] exclusively sexual acts. For others still, [infidelity is] any emotional closeness that should be reserved for a primary partner or significant other,” says Jeanae Hopgood, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. “Ultimately, couples need to discuss the rules and boundaries for their specific relationship to avoid crossing lines.”
When does flirting cross the line? 5 scenarios
Hopgood explains infidelity is extremely subjective, and each couple must define those behaviors that won’t be tolerated.
In general, cheating is acting behind your partner’s back or against their expectations or mutual promises.
In many cases, flirting is cheating when your partner doesn’t approve or your actions can go against the relationship or your partner.
If you’re in a committed romantic relationship, you can choose love. Opting to avoid doing the things you know will hurt your partner is a way of doing this.
1. Flirting with physical contact
For many people, physical contact beyond the social customs of handshakes and hugs is a breach of relationship trust.
Even casual touching, like an arm brush, or lingering contact, may be crossing a line if it’s conveying sexual interest.
Touch can be a powerful tool in flirting. Research from 2020 found the impact of caressing touch was significantly more influential when it was paired with attractive faces.
2. Hiding or lying about flirting
Secrecy is a warning sign of infidelity, says Christine Kotlarski, a licensed clinical social worker from Fort Myers, Florida.
If you’re hiding your phone, for example, because you’re worried your partner would be upset by messages or pictures you’ve exchanged with someone else, chances are they would be upset.
Turning off notifications, deleting messages, and hiding chat apps may all indicate secrecy.
Similarly, meeting with someone privately and not telling your partner can also be a warning sign that flirting is nearing cheating.
3. Flirting to establish intimacy
Intimacy is often a prized component of a relationship. This doesn’t only refer to physical intimacy but also emotional and spiritual intimacy.
Sharing deeply private details about yourself can create a sense of intimacy with someone on a level where your partner no longer feels special or is missing out on this important connection.
4. Putting your partner second to the person you’re flirting with
Korlarski points out that another place where flirting may become cheating is when you neglect your partner’s needs in favor of the person you’re flirting with.
Skipping movie night with your partner, for example, because you want to stay longer at the office to chat with that cute co-worker, could be crossing a line.
Not being attentive and loving to your partner when you’re in front of the person you’re flirting with may also be a sign you may be nearing the cheating line.
5. Complimenting and trying to elicit feelings
Congratulating someone on an achievement isn’t quite the same as complimenting their physical appearance, mannerisms, or qualities that make them attractive.
Acknowledging someone else’s attractiveness even once can make many partners uncomfortable. If you’re doing this to lead someone on or trying for them to develop romantic or sexual feelings for you, you may be getting into cheating waters.
Is there such a thing as innocent flirting?
Hopgood and Kotlarski both agree that yes, flirting can be innocent. You may not even realize you’re giving off flirtatious cues. Ultimately, it’s the intent behind flirting that determines if it’s cheating.
“We all know someone who is friendly, easily talks to anyone, and has a way of leaving an interaction with the other person feeling extra good about themselves — this is an example of innocent flirtation,” Kotlarski indicates. “It is really about the intent behind the interaction.”
Six different motivations for the Flirting behavior:
• Sex: trying to get in bed
• Fun: treating it like a sport
• Exploring: trying to see what it would be like to be in a relationship
• Relational: trying to increase the intimacy of a relationship
• Esteem: increasing one’s own self esteem
• Instrumental: trying to get something from the other person