When Flirting Becomes Dangerous

Just when you thought the scandal from the affair between General David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell couldn’t get more complicated, word has come out about another internal investigation over inappropriate behavior – this time between General John Allen and Jill Kelley. While we really don’t know the facts, apparently these two shared emails that have been described as more than just flirtatious.

So what’s going on here? When four married adults – two of whom are the highest-ranking military personnel – give the appearance of having been involved in extra-marital personal relationships, we wonder how these kinds of liaisons start. If they began as lighthearted banter, why do some cross the line? What can we learn about flirting, why we do it and what effect it can have?

A recent Wall Street Journal story looked at the new rules of flirting. In it, they note that researchers define flirting as “ambiguous behavior with potential sexual or romantic overtones that is goal-oriented.” We can send subtle yet inviting messages verbally, through a smile, a touch or even electronic media.  Given these general descriptions, experts have identified several different reasons for flirting.

We flirt with our significant other to keep the romance alive. This kind of playfulness can be beneficial and lead to more intimacy. It helps to re-create that flush of excitement we felt when the relationship was new.

We flirt when we’re on the prowl. We may be looking for a mate and want to try out the relationship by teasing as a means of evaluating a partner. But both parties may not see things the same way. Studies have shown that men tend to overestimate a woman’s level of interest and her behavior as more sexual than she intended.

We flirt because it’s fun. It can be entertaining to take on a new role and try out behavior that’s a little provocative. The back and forth repartee can feel like a game to both participants.

We flirt to increase our confidence. It may feel good to be desired by a new person or in a new way. Even without acting on it, the thought that someone finds us alluring can lead to a rise in self-esteem.

We flirt to get something in return. We may try to control a situation by playing up to someone whom we think can benefit us in some way. This may backfire if the person realizes the manipulative nature of our actions.

Be honest with yourself about why you are choosing to engage in this potentially risky behavior. And recognize that others may interpret it from their own, different perspective. If you think your flirting is just part of a harmless tete-a-tete, consider that it may evolve into a more dangerous activity. Are you willing to accept those consequences?



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