What Is the Difference Between Flirting, Cheating, and an Affair?

Updated on April 27, 2018
Kaitlyn Lo profile image

Kaitlyn has a background in psychology and writes articles that teach you how to lean on your body, mind, heart, and on those around you.

The definition of flirting is often very broad and can be subjective. Because flirting lies in such a gray area and has very fluid boundaries, it can cause a significant strain on a relationship when a couple is not on the same page regarding the definition and implications of flirting.

While flirting does not necessarily mean that you or your partner is cheating, it can become a gateway to more serious actions. So a couple should come to a mutual understanding of flirting: whether it's ever harmless, when it starts to cross the line, and what behaviors are completely unacceptable.

Here’s a comparison of flirting vs. cheating vs. a full-blown affair to help you get started on defining your boundaries.

By Juan Pablo Arenas. CC0 Creative Commons.
By Juan Pablo Arenas. CC0 Creative Commons. | Source

What is Considered Flirting?

Flirting can mean many behaviors including but not limited to buying someone a drink, giving compliments, non-sexual hugging, and playful banter between platonic friends. Flirting is only “harmless” when you’re comfortable telling each other about it without feeling shame, anxiety, or fear. The minute you realize that you feel uncomfortable or even slightly guilty about telling each other about your harmless flirting, it’s a big red flag that something more serious is going on.

A healthy relationship is all about mutual respect, and flirting causes strain in a relationship usually because partners underestimate the stress caused by feelings of jealousy or insecurities triggered by their behavior. So if you choose to commit to each other, you need to agree on appropriate behavior towards people outside of your relationship.

Poll: Flirting and You

Have you or would you flirt with someone who is not your romantic partner?

See results
By freestocks.org. CC0 Creative Commons.
By freestocks.org. CC0 Creative Commons. | Source

When Flirting Starts to Cross the Line

You can be reasonably sure that flirting becomes something more serious when you are so emotionally invested in flirting with others that you prioritize it over working on your relationship. Sending suggestive messages or e-mails, making arrangements to meet up, and making secretive phone calls are all considered crossing the line into inappropriate behavior. Here are a few other major red flags to tell you when you’re treading into dangerous territory.

1. Rationalizing

Do you feel the need to justify your relationship with someone you’ve been hanging out with? “They’re just a friend” is not a statement you need to say when you’re having an innocent conversation with someone. Even if it may seem like your friendship with someone is platonic, if you’re feeling twinges of guilt and find yourself rationalizing your behavior with that person, there’s a high chance that your “friendship” isn’t as “friendly” as you think.

2. Your Partner Doesn’t Approve

Another major red flag is when your spouse, girlfriend, or boyfriend, has told you that they don’t like the way you behave around someone or that they disapprove of you having an overly friendly relationship with someone. That usually means that your interaction with that person isn’t as appropriate as you thought it was, and is coming between you and your partner. It doesn’t matter whether you think your partner’s concerns are justified or not. The point is that they don’t like it, so their observations and concerns should be respected.

3. If Your Friends Bring It Up

When you’re personally involved in something, it’s easy to lose perspective of what’s going on. This is when third-party opinions come in handy. So, if your friends or family start reminding you that you’re committed to someone else or to be more careful about how you’re interacting with someone outside of your current romantic relationship, you can be sure that they see red flags even if you can’t.

4. If You Have Inappropriate Intentions

If your partner is putting you down or making you feel bad and, instead of working harder on your relationship, you’re flirting with other people who will make you feel good about yourself or so you can get the attention you’re not getting from your partner, you’re entering very dangerous ground in terms of staying loyal to your current relationship. You may not be doing it consciously, but try to understand why you’re flirting with other people. Even if you’re flirting to make your partner pay more attention to you, that is manipulative and toxic behavior.

By freestocks.org. CC0 Creative Commons.
By freestocks.org. CC0 Creative Commons. | Source

How Do You Define Cheating?

Cheating is generally defined by any behavior where you are emotionally and/or physically disloyal to your current committed relationship. Being attracted to other people doesn’t necessarily mean that you're cheating, but when you act on your attraction, either by flirting with the intention to get closer to that person or pursuing them by any other form of communication—that is cheating.

If you’re in a monogamous relationship, sex with another person outside of the relationship is always cheating, even if there’s no emotional attachment to that person. There is no grey area in regards to whether sex is cheating, unlike flirting, though both can be equally destructive to a relationship.

Did You Know?

Research has shown that online cheating very often leads to physical meetups and can be particularly attractive because cheaters can more likely have their emotional needs met from the comfort of their own home.

Poll: Being Suspicious

Have you ever suspected your partner of cheating?

See results
By Josh Willink. CC0 Creative Commons.
By Josh Willink. CC0 Creative Commons. | Source

When Does Cheating Become an Affair?

Cheating becomes a full-blown affair when there are repeated instances of cheating that almost always include sexual activity and emotional attachment to the other person. Seeking sexual or emotional satisfaction outside of the relationship on a regular basis is always an affair. A person can have an affair with more than one person at a time as long as the above points are met.

A Mutual Understanding Is Crucial

Flirting, cheating, and affairs are defined differently from person to person. Relationship history and individual values will also influence how we define these concepts. So remember to sit down with your partner to discuss and define exactly what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior towards others outside of the relationship.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 KV Lo


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    • dashingscorpio profile image


      2 years ago from Chicago

      What is the Difference Between Flirting, Cheating, and an Affair?

      It's all in the eyes of the beholder!

      Some people love to flirt and see nothing wrong with it. However not many people would want to see their mate or spouse flirting. Therefore even those who think flirting is "innocent" tend to do it behind their partner's back or when they're not likely to be "caught".

      For some people having a mate "like photos" on someone's Facebook page is enough to start trouble. Flirting is playing with fire. Lets face it (the relationship you're presently in) probably began with a certain amount of (flirting) and sexual innuendo!

      Flirting is essentially a way to "test the waters" to find out if someone finds you attractive. If the answer is no you can always fall back on the idea that you were "just playing". However if they flirt back the dance begins. Repeatedly flirting with the same person can create a union.

      Ironically most people STOP flirting with their {mate/spouse} over time!

      My theory about those who flirt with others while being in a relationship or marriage is {they need to feed their ego} from time to time.

      People need to confirm if they were ever "back on the market" they could still (attract) others to them if they wanted to.

      Deep down no one really wants to feel "lucky" to have their mate. They want and need to know if they ever split they could replace him/her.

      No one wants to live in a world where the only person who finds them attractive or sexy is the person they're with!

      Cheating is also a grey area in that it's in the eye of the beholder.

      One person might say it's cheating if they caught their mate "sexting" or sending naughty photos to a person living thousands of miles away whom they've never met! Cheating doesn't have to be physical contact.

      There have people who have talked about "emotional cheating".

      Cheating usually contains two components: Secrecy & Deception.

      I once heard Dr. Phil say: "If you are doing or saying something that you would not if your mate were sitting right next to you it's cheating."

      An affair in my opinion is cheating with an emotional investment in the person you're cheating with. In theory one could have sex with several prostitutes or meet someone in a bar and have a one-night stand which would be considered cheating. However an affair is an on-going relationship with a specific person. Some cheaters have been known to leave their mate or spouse to be with the "other woman/man" in an affair.

      People in affairs often believe they have (fallen in love).

      The "obstacle" of not being able to be together intensifies their feelings. They also believe no one can "understand" which helps them foster an "us against the world" mentality. As much as society pretends to detest cheating some of the most "romantic love stories" begin with someone who is married or in a committed relationship and falls in love with someone else. It's a "I met (the right woman/man) at the wrong time." story that pulls at our heartstrings. Their mate/spouse is always portrayed as being cold, uncaring, neglectful, inconsiderate, unromantic, but has something which the unhappy person needs and it makes them feel "trapped". The "other man/woman" comes along and puts a smile on their face and in their heart. He/she becomes their "escape" from a dreadful reality. An affair is born!


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