What to Do When a Flirting Spouse
by Nancy Wasson, Ph.D.
When Alice first met Tim, she found him charming, outgoing, and easy to talk to. She thought he was very funny and witty, always the life of the party with everybody gathered around him. Sure, he flirted a lot, but while he was talking, he would turn to wink at her, take her hand, or put his arm around her as he continued talking.
But sometime in the following two years after their marriage, Alice started feeling differently about Tim’s extraverted side. It appeared to her that he was flirting too much and too obviously while she sat on the sidelines, feeling left out. Usually, Tim didn't even introduce Alice as his wife. If Alice said anything to Tim about her feelings, he told her that she was over reacting. As she became more and more hurt, resentful, and withdrawn, the emotional temperature in the marriage cooled considerably, and the marriage became less satisfying for both of them. Neither one knew what to do to improve the situation.
Flirting on the part of a spouse causes marriage problems for many couples. And it can at times be hard to distinguish between a spouse with an extraverted personality who just naturally likes to kid and joke around versus the partner who is continually “on the make.”
Flirting behavior has differing causes. If you have known your partner for a long time and have never had any reason to believe he or she has cheated on you, then you’re probably married to an extravert who has a flirty personality. This can still be annoying and frustrating, but at least you know what you’re dealing with.
Spouses can also flirt to meet their own emotional needs such as feeling liked, being popular, or being thought of as funny, attractive, entertaining, or sexy. Excessive flirting can be a sign of someone who is trying overly hard to attract and keep attention focused on himself or herself because they are needy emotionally.
Flirting can also be a passive-aggressive way of getting even with a spouse. The partner may have felt rejected sexually and emotionally, so the flirting can be a message to the partner to shape up or risk divorce. It can also be an attempt to get the spouse’s attention, hoping to make her or him jealous and bring about an increase in the marital passion. Either way, it could mean that a troubled marriage is on the horizon.
And, of course, excessive consistent flirting can be a sign of someone with a sexual addiction who is constantly on the prowl looking for his or her next sexual contact and conquest. A spouse in this category needs professional help from an addictions counselor, but the help won’t be effective unless the person is willing to be helped.
Here's What You Can Do About Your Spouse's Flirtatious Ways
One of the steps you can take is to write a letter summarizing your feelings. In the case of Alice and Tim mentioned in the opening paragraphs, Alice could tell Tim how much the fact that he doesn’t introduce her to others as his wife hurts her feelings. She could ask for him to include her in the conversations, to hold her hand, to put his arm around her, or to turn and smile at her occasionally. That way she is telling him some things he could do to lessen her anxiety and distress.
Another thing Alice could do is to become more assertive about speaking up, becoming a part of the conversation when Tim is flirting, and letting people know that she’s Tim’s wife. If Tim says, “This is Alice” when introducing her, Alice could say, “Nice to meet you. I’m Tim’s wife.” Note that I’m not advocating that Alice follow Tim around or try to “catch” him in flirting behavior—that’s a recipe for marriage crisis. But I am suggesting that when she is already present, she can casually drop into conversation that she and Tim are married, such as “It’s fun to have such a witty husband! Tim has always been able to make me laugh.”
Don’t get into an argument about whether you are over-reacting to your spouse’s flirting. Say up front that you realize the two of you just have differing perceptions and you’re not accusing him of doing anything wrong. You just know that if you don’t share your feelings and feel heard you may have resentments and hurt feelings that build up and eventually lead to marital problems. You want to feel that your spouse has really listened to your concerns, that your spouse cares about your feelings, and that your spouse is willing to try some new behaviors that will give you the reassurance you need.
You could also suggest that the two of you see a marriage counselor if the letter writing and talking don’t accomplish what you desire. If your spouse is still convinced that the only thing that needs to change is for you to be more accepting of the flirting behavior, then marriage counseling might help. When suggesting marriage guidance counseling, you might need to focus on wanting to get advice from the marital counselor to help you make the changes you need to. If you focus on wanting to get your spouse to a counselor so he or she will change, your attempts will likely fall flat.
The bottom line is that partners who love each other and are in a healthy marriage will want to listen to their spouse, take their feelings into consideration, and take steps to improve communication and intimacy. Showing consistent disrespect and disregard for a mate’s feelings and perceptions indicates there are serious marriage problems lurking beneath the excessive flirting behavior—and it’s time to seek professional help.
Otherwise, a downward spiral leading to marriage separation and divorce are real possibilities.
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