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Is Flirting Cheating?

When people flirt, are they cheating?

This question has risen to cultural consciousness with the recent admission of celebrity rockstar Adam Levine, who confessed that he “crossed the line” by communicating with “anyone other than my wife in any kind of flirtatious manner” (TMZ, 2022). Did he actually cross a line?

Which behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable when it comes to interactions with non-partners?

Behaviors Range From Benign to Unfaithful

Romantic partners have an extensive range of possible behaviors that they could engage in with people other than their partners (i.e., non-partners).

In fact, we could plot all of these possible ways of interacting on a spectrum from utterly benign, to ambiguous, to clearly cheating. A friendly hello is different from a flirty hello; a flirty hello is different from intimate text messages; all of these are different from sex. Culturally, we might share some common notions of which behaviors fall on the far ends of the benign-to-cheating spectrum. It’s the middle that can be tricky. Where, exactly, is the line between harmless flirtation and infidelity?

Research suggests some shared ideas about what is cheating (Kruger et al., 2013). For instance, people nearly universally agree that, for monogamous couples, sexual intercourse or oral sex with a non-partner is cheating. Most people also agree that engaging in erotic activities with someone other than your partner, even without engaging in sex (e.g., showering together, or watching pornography) is cheating.

Other research also supports the notion that intense kissing, sexually touching, engaging in sexually explicit texting/Webcamming, or setting up an online dating profile, is behavior that is unfaithful (Thompson & O’Sullivan, 2016a).

Some Behaviors Judged as Cheating by Some, as Acceptable by Others

About 50 percent of individuals surveyed in Kruger and colleagues (2013) study, which included an ethnically diverse sample of about 450 undergrads, thought that spending lots of time with a non-partner constituted cheating; further, approximately 50 percent also thought that forming a strong emotional bond was cheating, and this was especially true for women respondents (Kruger et al., 2013). Do these constitute cheating in your view?

Along similar lines, going out to dinner or attending a formal event with a non-partner are behaviors that people judge differently (Kruger et al., 2013).

One study found that these behaviors had an average “unfaithful” score of about 3, on a scale of 1 to 7 (Thompson & O’Sullivan, 2016a). Maybe this isn’t a clear “1” or a clear “7” because so much nuance differentiates when these activities would or would not be cheating.

For instance, does the romantic partner know about it? What are the partner’s motivations? What is the partner’s history and current relationship with the non-partner? How committed is the partner to their own relationship?

Flirtatious Messages: The Case of Adam Levine

As for Adam Levine’s behavior, he allegedly engaged in some suggestive, flirtatious messages with an Instagram model, Sumner Stroh. According to Thompson and O’Sullivan’s (2016a) study, sending such messages is, on average, seen as unfaithful (a score of 5.39 on a scale of 1 to 7, standard deviation = 1.68).

This nearly two-point average variability of around 5.39 suggests that some people see it as highly unfaithful, and other people, less so, but, on average, it’s not considered acceptable.

Do you judge suggestive messages as infidelity? Interestingly, people are more likely to suggest behavior is cheating when they themselves are higher in attachment anxiety.

Conversely, people are more likely to judge a behavior as benign when they themselves are higher in attachment avoidance (Kruger et al., 2013).

In other words, if we are threatened by the possibility of our partner leaving us, we might interpret ambiguous behaviors as betrayals. On the other hand, if we prioritize independence and withhold our vulnerabilities, we might be less inclined to see any given activity as cheating.

If you’re wondering, some behaviors put forth for the participants were widely judged as benign. Among these were liking someone on social media, having a crush on a celebrity, telling a non-partner a dirty joke, and calling a non-partner when you’re upset about work (Kruger et al., 2013; Thompson & O’Sullivan, 2016a).

In addition, studying late with someone, watching pornography alone, or checking out a waiter or waitress are generally not viewed as unfaithful acts.

Whether Someone Crosses the Line: The Partner’s Judgment

We might have opinions about Adam Levine’s alleged behaviors, but in the space between “not cheating” and “cheating,” the partners involved are often in the best position to evaluate what does, and does not, constitute infidelity. They’re the ones who have access to the well-being of their current relationship and have expectations for each others’ conduct.

What we expect of our partner, however, might differ from what we allow ourselves to do (Thompson & O’Sullivan, 2016b). For example, when it comes to emotional connections with non-partners and online messaging with non-partners, people often give themselves more leeway than they give their partners.

In other words, it’s OK if I do it, but if you do? That’s infidelity. Hypocrisy can run high in judgments of acceptable or unacceptable behavior.

In all cases, we need to remember that relationships are interdependent contexts. One person’s behaviors, thoughts, and emotions impact the other person and vice versa.

Accordingly, how we interact with non-partners can have an influence on relationship health. If a partner perceives a betrayal (whether actual or not), it can shift the relationship and require work from both partners to restore trust.

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