According to psychologist Michael Brickey, author of Defying Aging and many other relationship experts, playful bantering or gentle flirting with someone outside of your marriage is harmless if proper boundaries remain intact. Those boundaries differ with each relationship, of course. What would be considered a violation in one marriage might be perfectly acceptable for another couple. Difference of opinions even occur within a marriage.
For example, I know a woman who recently asked her husband to either give her his Facebook password or close out his account after she found an email that he had sent to a former classmate that she found to be rather suggestive. He disagreed and thought it was perfectly appropriate.
Social media sites and online interaction are pushing this issue to dinner tables across the country — much more so than in the past. Katherine Hertlein, a licensed marriage and family therapist interviewed by Discovery News, explains, “You don’t actually recognize that you’re growing closer to someone on the Internet because it just looks like you’re having a conversation, and that’s why I think it could be really seductive in some ways.”
Hertlein believes that cyber cheating is especially appealing to women because they can get their emotional needs met behind a computer in the comfort of their home. However, many polls indicate that seemingly harmless online friendships often develop into intense emotional and physical affairs that can devastate marriages. Recent research has indicated that online cheating usually leads to physical encounters.
So, when does flirting cross that invincible line from innocent bantering to dangerous dialogue? After researching the topic and talking to a few family therapists, I pulled together the following 9 red flags.
1. When it’s secretive.
If you are deleting your emails — either to her or from her — that’s a red flag. Because by deleting them, you are guessing that your spouse would be upset if she read them, and that you are covering up something. Moreover, ask yourself this question: “How would I feel if I knew my wife (or husband) was corresponding to an attractive man in the way I talk to X?” If you feel an uncomfortable knot in your stomach upon answering that question, there you go.
2. If it has a sexual agenda.
This isn’t always obvious, of course. But if you notice that your correspondence with this person feeds your sexual fantasies (because an affair is often about sexual fantasy), then you are probably in dangerous waters. If the communications consist of subtle sexual overtones, watch out. If it feels like foreplay in anyway, that’s not good.
3. If you’re spending a considerable amount of time talking to him (her).
According to marriage therapist Allyson P., a person needs to consider not only the content of the messages sent back and forth but also the amount of them. For example, if you are emailing a “friend” 15 times a day, that’s a tad extreme, even if the content is about SpongeBob Squarepants. A friend of mine confessed to me that she would spent two hours every night on Facebook chatting with an online buddy until she realized that was more time than she was spending with her husband.
4. If you are rationalizing.
“He is just a friend,” is a statement that you don’t say to yourself when you’re involved in innocent communication. Do you feel the need to justify a very safe friendship? No. It’s obvious to you and to your mate that the companionship is completely appropriate. However, you may very well be investing in an unsafe friendship if you are constantly wrestling with guilt or feel the need to rationalize.
5. If it’s meeting your personal needs.
If you are getting your intimacy needs met in an online relationship or with a co-worker with whom you playfully banter, you might stop to ask yourself why. Be especially careful if you’re sharing intimate sentiments with that person that you don’t share with your husband, or if you feel like your online companion understands you in a way that your spouse doesn’t. Be on guard if you are getting fed in any way by him or her that you don’t at home.
Better to address the holes in your life and fill them in safe ways, even if you can’t within your marriage. Keep in mind, a good sex life isn’t just about chemistry.
6. If you talk about your marriage or your spouse.
It’s disrespectful to share intimate details about your marriage or your spouse, and especially in a discourteous manner or with a flip attitude. Imagine that your wife was overhearing your entire conversation. Would you still say it?
7. If your spouse doesn’t like it.
You have just won a red flag if a husband or wife has expressed disapproval of your communications with X, because it usually means that either the content of the correspondence or the amount of it is off balance—that the interaction isn’t totally appropriate, or the time spent talking (online or offline) with the person is distracting from family life.
8. If your friend voices concern.
Pay attention if a good friend asks you why you are talking about this person so much, or if she says something like, “Wake up. You are married. He is married. You need to focus on what you have and stop obsessing about what you don’t.” Friends, sisters, and mothers can often identify the red flags before a person is willing to recognize them herself.
9. If your intentions are wrong.
Let’s say your wife is constantly knocking you down, nagging at you, telling you to lose 20 pounds because she didn’t intend to marry a beached whale. The natural, or at least easy, thing to do is to find an attractive woman who will feed your ego and tell you that you’re sexy, funny, smart, and so on. Some folks may unconsciously seek out an admirer to get their spouse to take notice of them. It can be effective! But it’s also manipulative. There are healthier ways to increase your self-esteem and regain the power that you have lost in your own home.