Joy Overbeck
Journalist and Author

“Flirting: Cheating Without Really Cheating?” From Health Magazine, September, 2000

Sonia and her girlfriends are at a party with some real estate clients -- a group of wealthy doctors from the Midwest who get together every year for a reunion in the glamorous ski town where she lives. She’s dressed up for the occasion at this two-million-dollar condo on the slopes and is enjoying the attention from smart, successful men. There’s a kind of sparky high she feels from all the fast-moving banter and laughter that she can’t really get at home with her husband of 17 years.

“It’s just a fun kind of playing,” she says. “Oh, you still have it with your husband, but it’s on a different level.” The difference is that you’ll never discover your mate for the first time again; flirting lets Sonia re-experience that first bright flush of getting-to-know-you.

But isn’t it terrible for a woman in a solid, committed marriage to turn to other men to get something she can’t get from her husband? Not necessarily, say some experts. “I think most of us enjoy getting novel attention,” marriage and family therapist Ted Gilleland points out. “There’s nothing wrong with that little charge you get from trading quips with a stranger.” Gilleland says flirting is usually just a way of reaching out to somebody else in friendliness and warmth, not a romance in the making. “If you’re paying attention to your relationship, flirting can just be a fun and harmless thing you do.” In fact, expecting to get everything you need from one person is unrealistic, he notes.

Women like Sonia have found that such harmless dalliances enrich their lives without harming their marriages. With two daughters in middle school and a value system that puts her family first, Sonia thinks the freedom she finds in her social flirting may actually enhance her marriage.

“I’m just happier,” she says. “At home I cook, I clean, I do a lot of stuff that would be pretty tedious if I didn’t get to go out and have this kind of fun. I might get resentful or feel trapped. This gives me a release I can’t get in anything else.”

So is there any harm at all in chatting up strangers or flirting at the water cooler?

You need to examine your motivation. Gilleland cautions that some people flirt in an insincere way that’s deliberately seductive. He likens it to catch-and-release fishing -- hooking someone just to see if you can.

This coquettish aggression can be symptomatic of a serious problem in your relationship. When that’s the case, the pursuit is being used as a diversion and a distraction, says Gilleland, something like taking an aspirin when you have a brain tumor. It may get rid of the pain for a while, but in the long run you have to look at the real problem.

One crucial question the flirter should ask herself is if she’s really happily committed to her marriage. If your answer is yes, you’re probably safe, according to Gilleland.

But a connection with someone else can throw a troubled relationship into heavy seas, no matter how sexually innocent the new bonding may be. For over seven years, Donna, a filmmaker, had an intense mentor and soulmate connection with a famous, award-winning British director. She found it helped her work: “I think flirting is an amazingly useful tool in a creative relationship because it develops a certain unspoken sexual tension between you that can be creatively stimulating.”

Her fondness and admiration for this man had an enormous influence on her filmmaking. No hanky-panky, though; she had a live-in love and her mentor was long-married. “There was never an indiscretion,” she smiles, “Except once at a film festival tribute to him. On the limo drive back to the hotel, he put his hand on my leg and gazed deeply into my eyes.”

But their closeness wreaked havoc with Donna’s live-in mate. Doug was madly jealous of their creative combustion and often tried to sabotage it. Therapist Gilleland says this is typical of an extrovert/​introvert pairing. “He can be a very controlling, even angry person who’s not very inviting himself, yet he’s upset when the woman seeks friendliness elsewhere.”

For Donna, the situation threw Doug’s negativity and selfishness into sharp relief, and she realized it was a mistake for her to be with him. Now she knows their breakup was the best thing that could have happened.

On the other hand, if your partner is supportive of your happiness and secure in himself, he probably won’t have a problem with your gallivanting every now and then. And you both can benefit. Pam’s husband of 10 years likes the spice her after-hours activity brings to their marriage. Most Tuesday nights she goes down to a local salsa club and dances with perfect strangers. For her, mixing it up with her partners simply adds to the main attraction – the dancing itself.

And her marriage is getting livelier as a result. “Jeff likes that I’ve been happier, that I dress sexier, and it’s had us flirting together a little more than usual,” Pam says. She’s not trying to recapture something that her marriage has lost. “That kind of excitement isn’t something you can expect your husband to provide,” she says, “and I really don’t expect it.”

At the clubs, Pam socializes in a sexy-yet-innocent spirit that awakens her inner teenager. “You get to relive all that high school flirting and romance without the anxiety attached to it,” she says. “Who knew that I could get that back again? Not that I even really wanted it, but now it’s happened it’s kind of fun.”

Susan L. Blumberg, co-author of Fighting for Your Marriage, approves. “You shouldn’t have to lose out on things because you’re married,” she says. “and you don’t have to do everything with your partner.” Even though Latin dancing can be very sexual and exciting, Blumberg thinks it doesn’t have to cross the line where it would be threatening to a marriage.

Shocked friends ask why Pam doesn’t go dancing with her husband, but she’s puzzled by their consternation. Pam knows she’s got her life partner; she’s just looking for a dance partner. And her husband knows it – he’s not the least bit jealous, she reports.
For Jane, separating the dance from the romance is easy. An art gallery manager, Jane hones her flirting talents in the neighborhood bars she frequents with her husband. They’re often on opposite sides of the room, each flirting up a storm. A striking blonde with a sly wit, her blue eyes and quick laugh are always in the service of whatever possibilities for casual banter come her way.

The ego buzz she gets never imperils her happy marriage because of the subtle understanding between flirter and flirtee. “It’s always done in the spirit of fun,” she says. “It makes you feel good about yourself, but it never needs to go any further. After all, I love my husband; I’m not trying to escape into another life. It’s just fun for 20 minutes to have somebody new think you’re cute.”

The antics of these two become so abandoned that they even flirt with each other. He sends her little suggestive notes on the bar napkins, and she keeps them all. But it’s when they get home that the real sizzle starts. “He feels a little pumped up, and that’s great,” she says, grinning.

Howard Markman, director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at Denver University and Blumberg’s co-author, stresses that this is the best kind of flirting. “When the husband and wife are both aware of it and enjoying the attention, it can definitely add to their relationship,” says Markman. “They’re just having fun together, and we know from research that happy couples are truly fun-loving.”

He’s not surprised it adds spark to their sex life, too. “It can enhance sensuality to see your mate is attractive to other people, as long as nobody’s acting on it.”

But Jane is well aware of the dark side of flirting, as well. “If you’re out there looking, that’s when the sexual innuendoes become serious and not fun, and that’s when you can really hurt somebody. If you love your mate, you'll never let it get to that point.” Jane thinks the line is crossed when something is said or done that you wouldn’t want your husband to know about.

That line is different for each couple. Ted Gilleland points out that some people allow more latitude about what’s okay in the marriage, and others are very conservative. “When those questions start coming up, you need to be sure enough in your commitment to know you don’t want to cross the line,” he says. “Flirting isn’t a 100% safe thing; there’s always a risk involved.” But toying with something that could be dangerous and trying to keep it under control is part of the excitement, isn’t it?

Back at the ski condo, Sonia glances at her watch. It’s nearly one in the morning. Looking around, she sees that some of the women are starting to laugh a bit too loudly. The meaningful looks and embraces, she knows, will soon become a general drifting toward the hot tub on the deck. Time to go. Like Cinderella, she says hasty goodbyes and flees out the door. She’s had her fun.

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