My husband and I have been together for five years and have a great marriage that includes a very satisfying and active sex life. I’ve never cheated on him, and to my knowledge he’s always been faithful to me. But I have always been a natural flirt. It’s almost instinctive. The words come out of my mouth before I even realize what they are sometimes, and I’ll touch someone’s arm or shoulder before I even realize I’ve done it.
Part of it is that I’m a social butterfly, and my ease in relating to others has won me a lot of friends over the years. But the flirting gets me into trouble sometimes, and I’m not sure what to do about it. Don’t get me wrong: I flirt with my husband more than anyone. But I also flirt with other men (and even women sometimes) in front of him, and while he never said much about it in our first couple of years together, he tends to point it out a lot now, and has admitted it bothers him.
I want to respect my husband’s feelings, and I really don’t mean to hurt him. At the same time, by stifling what comes naturally to me, even when the flirting is innocuous, I feel like I am stifling an essential part of my personality. What can I do to reconcile this? —Flirting with Disaster
Dear Flirting with Disaster,
So your flirtatious behavior is hurtful to your partner, you know it, and you’re doing it anyway. What is the possible “disaster” you allude to? Is it breaking up with your husband or something else?
You say the flirting is innocuous, but I’m not so sure it is if it gets you into trouble with your husband. Accurate or not, from your words it sounds a bit like you’re looking for trouble.
Flirting comes naturally for you, and you feel you would be “stifling an essential part” of your personality if you didn’t flirt. Is it possible that using the label “natural flirt” to describe yourself—which sounds like talking up an enviable talent or skill—is a way for you to downplay the behavior and its potential ramifications? Being good at something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing to do.
You say you are a social butterfly and thus have a lot of friends. That is a good thing. How would you describe the “butterfly” part of yourself? Where does it come from? Do social butterflies always flirt? What would you lose if you didn’t flirt the way you do? Would people still like you and want to be around you?
You say the words sometimes come out of your mouth before you know you’re saying them. That can certainly lead to disaster. It might be worthwhile, in social situations, to train yourself to pause and think before you speak. I’d venture to say social success goes beyond the simple measures of how effortlessly you banter or many people you attract. Considering the implications of your words and behaviors before they become actions is an essential part of effective communication.
I don’t know much about you from your letter, but I have worked with people in therapy for whom flirting was a way of feeling close, reassured, important, and loved by others. It’s possible to have many friends and be lonely in certain ways. If I were your therapist, I would explore this possibility with you to see whether there might be some loneliness—perhaps emotional or existential rather than physical in nature—under the surface of your behavior.
You write that your husband has admitted your flirting bothers him. You also write that you flirt with others in front of him, which doesn’t sound innocuous.
I’m not your therapist, of course, so I urge you to work with a therapist near you who can help you get to the root of all this. It may also be worthwhile to see a marriage counselor with your husband, as couples counseling can help you both open up safely and understand each other better. Sometimes, the most important part of communication is simply feeling heard, and therapy creates an impartial space for that to happen.
You write that your husband has admitted your flirting bothers him. You also write that you flirt with others in front of him, which doesn’t sound innocuous. He may feel belittled. Many people wouldn’t like being in that position. Perhaps your aim is to tease him? If it is, does he know that? Does it matter?
What does his anger mean to you? Does it make you mad at him? Do you resent him or feel he’s overreacting? Do you listen, acknowledge his feelings, and pledge to honor them? Where do things go off track?
I guess I’m concerned that flirting with others is already causing problems in your marriage, and those problems may grow. It’s easier to work on problems before they get too big, or entrenched, in a relationship. Relationship problems tend to worsen if they are not addressed. Where might that lead in your case?
Do I sound a little extreme? Maybe. But something in what you’re not saying makes me hear an alarm bell going off between the lines.
Thank you for writing bravely and honestly about this issue and how you’re contributing to it. I hope you find a solution, perhaps with the help of counseling, so that you and your husband can enjoy many mutually happy years together.