The Joys and Pains of Flirting

Flirting is a tantalizing shared behavior between two individuals who are attracted to each other. It is the dance of playful actions and words that are used to convey emotional and physical interest and express mutual appreciation and desirability. When flirting occurs between strangers who are already committed to others the thrilling validations may turn sour and cause pain to all involved.

Professor Antonio Damasio, a Neuroscientist at the University of Southern California discovered that “the flirtation operating system appears to kick in without conscious consent. In attraction, we don’t stop and think, we react, operating on a “gut” feeling, with butterflies, giddiness, sweaty palms and flushed faces brought on by the reactivity of the emotional brain. We suspend our intellect at least long enough to propel us to the next step in the mating game-flirtation.”

Professor Damasio explains the purpose of emotions, “Emotions are engaged when the stakes are high in positive or negative direction, primarily involved in survival and sex. Feelings are our automated, non-conscious mechanisms that only later enter our mind flow.”

As with many other traits and behavioral manifestations, flirting comes more naturally to some and may be very slow to be activated in others.

Evolutionary-Development Professor Steven Gangestad of the University of Minnesota explains the purpose of flirting, “Flirting is a negotiation process that takes place after there has been some initial attraction and the flirting enhances the attraction.”

Flirting becomes a sore subject for committed pairs in which one or both mates flirt with others. Witnessing one’s beloved signal interest in another individual, even if the flirter is cognitively unaware of it, is very stressful to the observer. It is hard to comprehend why a partner would engage in this type of behavior, previously reserved solely for the spouse.

When alcohol is consumed it further interferes with the flirting person’s cognitive awareness about his/her conduct and desensitizes him/her from appreciating the impact it has on the primary partner. Later, the intoxication deprives the flirter from recalling the events and becoming accountable for his/her conduct.

The isolation, rejection, self-doubts, hurt and shame the mate may feel in witnessing his/her spouse act so inappropriately are very painful and linger long after the event has passed. The many questions about the mate’s behavior are often unanswered, poorly recalled and unexplainable.

It is important to know that though witnessing a mate flirt with another is traumatizing, the flirter may later claim to having had no interest or attraction to the party involved. This is not a deliberate fabrication but an authentic self-perception and recollection since flirting inhibits one’s cognitive awareness.

Enhance your joys of flirting:

  • Flirt with your spouse. Re-activate your playful, sexy ways to reinforce your mutual attraction and unique bond.
  • Initiate going home when your mate becomes flirtatious with another person.
  • Jointly create solutions for the flirting habit to extinguish the pain and embarrassment of both mates.
  • Demonstrate your spark for each other in public and at home.
















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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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