Is Flirting Cheating?

is flirting cheating original design
Oren Aks/Thrillist
Oren Aks/Thrillist

I'm a flirt without even trying to be, 98% of the time. I'm also in a committed relationship, and look at my flirtations as harmless methods of self-expression.

But while I self-identify as a flirt, when a person I'm dating flirts with someone other than me, I freak out. It's partially due to my own insecurities, and partly due to the fact that I'm not Miss Cleo. I know my flirtations on a random night out with the girls are totally silly and innocuous. But who can say with 100% accuracy that the same goes for the flirtations of my S.O.?

Even if you trust your partner completely, you can't be inside their head. This can stir up any number of unpleasant feelings. So while my gut reaction is to say no, flirting isn't cheating, when the roles are reversed things get a lot more complicated. To untangle things and settle the score once and for all, I reached out to some friends and professionals.

Is flirting cheating? Here's what I found out.

It all depends on your intent

How innocent flirting is hinges on your objectives. "If the intent is to do it for fun, it's lighthearted, and makes you smile, then it's cool," says Amy Levine, sex coach and founder of Ignite Your Pleasure. "Particularly if you're in a public setting and out with friends, and the person you're flirting with knows you're in a relationship."

BUT, she continues, if "you have the thought or intent of taking it to the next level, you're treading on betrayal if you're not in an open relationship."

The key here is honesty. Start with yourself: are you flirting with someone and thinking at all about doing anything more with them other than standing in this exact spot? If so, you're being disloyal. Then, the person you're flirting with: have you told them yet that you're in a relationship? If not, you're being sketchy.

Flirting can be a gateway drug to infidelity

"Flirting isn't technically cheating," says one friend of mine who's suffered through multiple cheating boyfriends. "But every time I was cheated on, it stemmed from 'harmless flirting.'"

Another friend offered this: "Flirting is human nature. It's instinctive for us to want to be liked -- to have others feel attracted to us. Heck, half the time I'm flirting, I'm not even into the guy. I'm just sort of playing a game of seeing how effective I can be at making someone find me charming. It's only when the act of flirting transforms into, well, a real act, that we start to have an issue."

It's a slippery slope, is it not? One person's mild flirtation could easily be another person's definition of infidelity. After all, when we're single, flirting is the first step toward hooking up.

Flirting can be harmless and even healthy

If your intent is pure and you're just looking to have some wholesome, benign fun while ordering a drink at the bar or hanging out at a friend's party, flirting is OK to do. Lorrae Bradbury, sex expert and founder of the sex-positive site Slutty Girl Problems, tells us that flirting can even be healthy.

"Flirting often gives us a boost of self-confidence, and reminds us that we are a catch," Bradbury says. "When someone shows a flirtatious interest in us, and we're feeling sexual chemistry with someone else, it reminds us that we're still attractive, interesting, and wanted. That feeling of being wanted and desired often boosts your libido and excitement, even with a long-term partner."

For some couples, flirting can help you appreciate what you have. Chatting it up with some dude at the bar and comparing him to your far-superior boyfriend might send you running home, happy you're settled down with a guy who is so amazing.

Clear boundaries make all the difference

Flirting is clearly occupying some gray area on the cheating/not-cheating scale. And a lot of that variance depends on the relationship of the couple.

"I think flirting would only be cheating if you and your partner have specifically talked about it, and agreed that flirting is crossing a boundary to you," Bradbury says. If you want to set parameters, you have to be willing to discuss them openly. These dynamics will work for some, but not for others.

"I'd never want to date anyone if it meant that I had to make myself unappealing to the rest of the world," a friend told me.

Being with someone you really dig should never bring you down. It doesn't necessarily mean you should go out and shamelessly flirt with every attractive stranger you come in contact with, but rather that you should be able to be your charming, bubbly, amazing self without worrying about your S.O. getting angry with you.

Still, BAE comes before randoms. So as long as your boyfriend or girlfriend isn't being controlling or manipulative, please try to hear any concerns they might have about your flirtatious ways. Then, figure out a comfortable solution that doesn't compromise either of your happiness.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Gigi is Thrillist's Sex and Dating staff writer. She freaks out when her boyfriend flirts, but is a flirt herself, so life is a mess. Follow her lovable crazy on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram: @GigiEngle.