Playful teasing, close dancing, intoxicating attention … in the right contexts, flirting is a highly effective relationship initiation tactic. Whether through nonverbal signs (e.g., smiles, eye contact) or well-crafted words, flirting often serves as a casual way — usually with little social risk — to test out another person's feelings: Is she attracted to me? Would he be interested in something romantic? Through a careful dance of mutual flirtation, two people can move a relationship from platonic to romantic.
Theresa E DiDonato Ph.D. is a social psychologist and associate professor at Loyola University Maryland. Her research interests focus on different aspects of romantic relationships, from factors that contribute to romantic attraction (e.g., humor) and relationship satisfaction (e.g., forgiveness) to how the self-concept changes in relationship participation or dissolution.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
But what happens after a relationship is established? Is flirting still important? And how does flirting factor into a healthy ongoing relationship?
The study of flirting has uncovered quite a bit about flirting during courtship, but researchers are only beginning to investigate the goals and outcomes of flirting in established relationships.
For example, during relationship initiation, research has shown that flirting is a highly motivated behavior. In other words, people flirt in order to achieve or accomplish a specific goal. Before a relationship has started, these goals typically include (Henningsen, 2004):
- To engage in sex.
- To build a relationship and increase intimacy.
- To explore someone's potential romantic interest.
- To increase one's own self-esteem.
- To have fun.
- To gain something else from someone.
If these goals are why people flirt outside of a committed relationship, how does flirting work within one? Is flirting a necessity or a luxury for couples? And what does it mean if your partner doesn't flirt with you anymore?
Frisby and Booth-Butterfield (2012) investigated these questions in a study targeting flirtatious communication within married couples. They considered flirtation's goals in initiation, but also wondered if flirting in an ongoing relationship could be used to create a "private world" with a partner or to maintain the relationship (i.e., keep the relationship strong). They further refined their focus by studying two specific types of flirtation — display flirtation (e.g., clear acts of affectionate behavior) and attentiveness flirtation (e.g., giving clear attention to someone). They gathered data from 164 individuals who had been married between a month and 53 years, some of whom had children, but some of whom did not, and asked them to complete a series of questionnaires.
Their findings showed that established couples definitely still flirt with each other, and do so for qualitatively different reasons than dating couples.
For example, the research suggests that married couples use display flirting in order to promote intimacy by creating a "private world" with each other, and that they use it to initiate sex (Frisby & Booth-Butterfield, 2012). Flirting also appears to play a role in relationship functioning through its ability to actively maintain the high quality of a relationship. Couples' reports of romantic commitment, for example, were clearly predicted by how frequently the couples used flirting intentionally to maintain their relationship or to give assurances. Looking specifically at marital satisfaction, the researchers found that flirting as a means of giving assurances or specifically to maintain the relationship also predicted satisfaction.
In sum, flirting may have an important place in the everyday interactions of long-term couples. Flirting is a mechanism by which couples can show their love and remind their partners that they are invested in the relationship. While flirting might be used for fun when people are getting to know each other, in ongoing relationships, it appears to have a more significant purpose. Indeed, flirting may be one way that couples promote their own relationship satisfaction and commitment.
If you've fallen in love with a flirt, the research points to some positive correlates, like commitment and satisfaction; marrying someone who clearly enjoys flirtatious communication could add a lot of reassurance to your partnership. That is, if the flirting is predominantly within — and not outside of — the relationship. Habitual flirting without discrimination, even if it is not acted upon, could add stress to a partnership.
But what if you feel like your partner doesn't flirt with you? The research suggests that flirting could be a sign of underlying relationship dynamics, but it is an incomplete story. Flirting is not the only way that couples can enact the important relationship maintenance behaviors that sustain healthy partnerships. Other behaviors (e.g., showing support and understanding, giving your partner cheerfulness and positivity, etc.) are also instrumental to successful partnerships.
The nice thing about flirting is that it is an explicit behavior, which means that people choose to do it. Given its positive correlates, a potential conclusion from this research is that flirting could be an easy intervention, a productive means through which individuals can attempt to improve their relationship quality. While the magnitude of the effect is not yet known — and indeed, experimental research would be needed to show its causal role — a flirting intervention could be an enjoyable, non-threatening way to foster a healthier relationship.