Can you remember what it was like to flirt with your spouse before you were together? The fun and excitement of figuring out you were into each other… don’t you wish you could bring that spice into your relationship now that you’ve been together for years? Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to look at today!
What is Flirting?
Here’s a simple definition: flirting is any behavior with has the potential to be seen as sexual[i]. Actually I think that’s just a sexualized definition of flirting. I think flirting can be suggestive of romance without needing to lead to sex. I say that for the benefit of Christian singles and married folk alike.
Flirting is often more nonverbal than verbal: smiles, touch, eye contact and so on. It is often playful and ambiguous: you may not be quite sure if you’re being flirted with or not and that’s all part of the fun.
And let me just say, that while I don’t want to take flirting away from singles who are looking for a marriage partner, in this episode we are talking about a couple who are flirting between themselves.
Now it’s hard to imagine that researchers could investigate something like flirting without sucking all the fun out of it but one researcher noted that flirting is often used to achieve one of six main goals[ii]:
- Sex motivation: flirting to initiate sex
- Relational motivation: flirting to increase intimacy in an existing relationship
- Exploring motivation: testing a potential marriage partner’s interest in a relationship (this one is definitely for the singles rather than the married couples!)
- Fun motivation: flirting simply to have fun
- Esteem motivation: flirting to increase your own self esteem
- Instrumental motivation: flirting to gain some form of reward from the other person.
Other than the exploring option, I think we can look at all of the others and say that flirtation in marriage can and should be a normal part of our interactions. It may look different than the flirting that happens outside of marriage, but between a husband and wife it can really just be a normal part of marital interaction and can really be used to reinforce the sense of togetherness in the marriage[iii].
One researcher actually noted that long-term marriages use a particular style of flirting called authentic flirting. It has one of those holographic stickers on the side. No, just kidding. No, this study in 2017[iv] suggests that authentic flirting is not aimed at having fun or experimenting or trying to get something from your spouse: it is simply an expression of love.
Here’s a quote: “Authentic flirting is defined as an affectionate, creative, or playful action for connecting emotionally and sexually with another person. The motive is to see and be seen lovingly by a partner through expressing spontaneously a combination of curiosity, play, humor, or flirting gestures for increased emotional intimacy.”
So let me just say on that point: just because your wife flirted with you doesn’t mean you need to expect anything in bed. If flirting in your books only exists as a signal that you are going to have sex tonight, you are actually missing out on a lot of other fun flirting. It is truly a very diverse and flavorful way of expressing love. Don’t make your wife afraid to flirt.
Flirting and Marriage
On that note, sometimes there are barriers to flirting in marriage.
Barriers to Flirting in Marriage
One of those barriers could be just what we mentioned: your spouse may want some flirting just to be for the joy of it. But you sexualize it every time. Leave some room for your spouse to be utterly exhausted and still feeling like throwing some flirt your way without creating expectations that he or she is going to be too tired to meet.
Another challenge that can come up is if the passionate love in our marriage declines over time. It is normal to experience a more stable, companionate love after the first 18 months of marriage but this doesn’t mean you have to lose the fire. We looked at this in an episode on how to date your spouse again.
And then the other barrier is the simple fact that life happens: children, increased work pressures and so on. That can make it hard to have energy for flirting or to feel unburdened enough to do so.
Marital Benefits of Flirting
While some of these things can get in the way, I want to encourage you today to think about the upside.
A study in 2007[v] found that flirting in married couples could serve as a helpful relationship maintenance strategy. You can use flirting to:
- Reaffirm your love and attraction to your spouse
- Increase intimacy between the two of you
- Just have fun together
- Show positivity
- Manage and reduce conflict
Flirting in married couples also serves a purpose not seen in flirting outside of marriage: the desire to create a “private world” between you and your spouse. This is done by using words or actions which you would only use with your spouse. So it can take on this really neat exclusive aspect: like an inside joke.
Flirting was therefore linked to higher marital satisfaction, for both men and women[vi]. However, the outcomes of flirting do vary depending on the motivation behind it, and we’ll get to that below.
Bringing Flirting Back
I hope us talking about this subject has created a little excitement for you! To help our faithful supporters out we have created another superb discussion guide around bringing flirting back into your marriage. You can work on it alone and surprise your spouse. Or go through it together. If you’d like to get this bonus guide, all you need to do is become a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Ways of Flirting When Married
Ok, so how does flirting look when you’ve been married ten years and you’ve barely got time to speak to each other, let alone get your flirt on?
As mentioned above, flirting in married couples is often aimed at creating a joint private world. Flirting using language or actions you only use with each other, or flirting in a way that draws on your shared history together can achieve this, leading to a stronger bond and better marital satisfaction[vii]. So just be thinking about how you can develop those areas in your marriage.
Flirting in marriage should also try to be a natural part of the daily routines of the family, and integrated with the rest of your daily interactions[viii]. So instead of setting aside specific times for flirting and romance it should be a natural part of your interactions together, and fit around other responsibilities.
This is especially true if there are lots of demands on your time, due to kids, work etc. It really probably will do better as something spontaneous — that surprise element is always fun. Send a text message if you think of it at work. Whatever it takes.
Similarly, a study in 2017[ix] writes that marital flirting doesn’t have to be planned out or carefully planned, and should instead be “spontaneous and playful”, taking advantage of any time you have together. Flirting in this sense can become automatic, like a habit, and therefore doesn’t require any extra time or effort- it just happens.
Remember that flirting in married couples looks different and has different outcomes depending on the motivation behind it. It’s not going to look the same as when you guys were dating.
For example, research in 2012[x] found that flirting driven by esteem motivation (flirting to increase your own self esteem) is negatively correlated with relationship satisfaction. Flirting as a way to manage conflict was also negatively correlated with marital quality, so trying to flirt your way out of arguments can be a fail.
I would qualify that by saying that there are times that you can effectively defuse conflict through the use of humor — as long as you’re only defusing and not constantly deflecting. You still need to solve the issue — but humor along the way can make it easier.
One of the studies we looked at thought that two good ways of flirting as married couples were display flirting and attentive flirting. Who knew, these are on top of the six kinds we mentioned earlier!
This means overt displays of affection or sexual interest, such as:
- Direct sexual comments and compliments
- Boasting/showing off
- Acting, dressing or talking in a seductive or romantic way
- Big romantic gestures to impress and seduce
Display flirting is often based on sex motivation, or the desire to have fun and create a shared world. This kind of flirting creates greater feelings of romantic love. It also (hopefully) increases sexual satisfaction, leading to higher marital satisfaction.
This is flirting which is focused on the spouse, rather than yourself. Such as:
- Romantic touch
- Acts of service/gestures of “chivalry” or attentiveness to spouse’s needs
This style of flirting is driven by motivation for intimacy, fun and desire to strengthen the relationship, but could also be driven by instrumental motivation: desire for the spouse to do you favors in return. If done with a good motivation to reaffirm your love/attraction for your spouse this style of flirting increases marital satisfaction and also strengthens commitment.
Researchers also noted that women are much more likely to use this attentive style of flirting than men. They also note that women and men often have similar standards in what they want from marriage, but men more often report having hose needs met than women do.
So husbands should aim to get better at this to help meet their wives emotional needs. Guys: you probably have the display flirting down pat…work on the attentive flirting.
[i] Brandi N. Frisby and Melanie Booth-Butterfield, ‘The “How” and “Why” of Flirtatious Communication Between Marital Partners’, Communication Quarterly, 60.4 (2012), 465–80 <https://doi.org/10.1080/01463373.2012.704568>.
[ii] David Dryden Henningsen, ‘Flirting with Meaning: An Examination of Miscommunication in Flirting Interactions’, Sex Roles, 50.7–8 (2004), 481–89 <https://doi.org/10.1023/B:SERS.0000023068.49352.4b>.
[iii] Frisby and Booth-Butterfield.
[iv] Tarin Olson, ‘An Exploration of Authentic Flirting Within Romantic Marriage – ProQuest’ <https://search.proquest.com/openview/5ef2e4b9d8644b4733428ef0a54dd84a/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y> [accessed 7 March 2018].
[v] Brandi N. Frisby, ‘“Without Flirting It Wouldn’t Be a Marriage” : The Relationship between Flirting, Relational Maintenance and Marital Satisfaction’, Virtual Press, 2007 <http://cardinalscholar.bsu.edu/handle/handle/188385> [accessed 7 March 2018].
[vii] Frisby and Booth-Butterfield.
[viii] Frisby and Booth-Butterfield.
[x] Frisby and Booth-Butterfield.