Research published in Sex Roles sheds some light on flirting as it applies to both men and women. According to the research, men flirt for six main reasons: to get sex, to explore what it would be like to be in a relationship, to strengthen a relationship, to try to get something, to increase self-esteem, and, well, to have fun. What a buffet of options.
As the motivations for flirting are so diverse, however, therapists and psychologists recommend that the behavior be understood both by men and their partners within a broader psychological and social context. Though it might feel odd for a husband to tell his partner a story that begins, “So I was flirting with the bartender…,” there’s some virtue in truth and some intimacy to be derived from an honest discussion of emotional needs.
“Some couples have great communication skills and trust in which they use flirtation as a way to maintain self-identity and mystery in their relationships,” explains family therapist Cassandra Len. “A man can deeply love and care for his partner, but he or she is secure to them. In a flirtatious interaction, there is a level of unknown that creates excitement, and an ego boost.”
Men are no different from women in their need to feel desired or their ability to leave it at that, relationship coach Carlos Xuma adds. But he takes this a step further, suggesting that it’s not just healthy, but perhaps vital for a man. “The more his partner feels insecure and fights this natural need, the more a man will feel constrained in the relationship,” he says. “One of the most misunderstood factors of a man’s sense of virility and masculinity is the ability to feel marketable.”
Of course, not every couple agrees on this and neither does every expert. “I may be taking a controversial stance here, but happily married men don’t flirt,” says marriage and family therapist Meredith Silverman. According to Silverman, flirtation is a symptom of being dissatisfied with some aspect of the relationship. “Whatever he’s getting from flirting, he needs to speak with his wife about wanting to feel more of that with her,” she warns.
Despite their rhetoric, it’s quite possible that what separates Silverman and Xuma is actually a fundamental disagreement about the concept of flirtation, which is subjective and confounded by general idiocy. Studies show that most men overestimate how attracted women are to them. On the other side, women sometimes struggle to diagnose the nature of male attention.
“I’ve found that sometimes women perceive happily married men as flirting with them when they are not flirting with them at all,” says relationship coach Christine Baumgartner.
The one thing all the experts seem to agree on is that flirting can lead to emotionally dishonest behaviors that can jeopardize the foundations of committed relationships. Len calls that process the “ineffective pursuer-distancer cycle.” In relationships, parties need a certain amount of space to feel safe and stable. But if one person pursues over another, that person may have to slightly distance themselves and end up doing this through flirtation with others. The risk is that this behavior can progress up to and past the point of no return.
Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to understand one’s own flirting habits. If you’re continuing to be flirtatious with your partner and not flirting with others to the extent that it provokes their insecurities or upsets them, as well as being honest with everyone involved (including yourself), then you flirt for the same reasons your spouse probably does. Because you can.
“In fact, it’s a sign of a healthy relationship if a man feels the confidence and restraint to do so,” Xuma says.