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Marriage Counseling: What to Do When a Spouse Flirts Too Much

When Alicia first met Tim, she found him outgoing, charming, and easy to talk to. She thought he was very witty and funny, always the life of the party with everyone gathered around him. Yes, he flirted a lot, but while he was talking, he'd turn to wink at her, take her hand, or put his arm around her shoulder as he continued talking.

But sometime in the two years following their marriage, Alicia started feeling differently about Tim's extraverted side. It seemed to her that he was flirting too much and too blatantly while she sat on the sidelines, feeling left out. Most of the time, Tim didn't even introduce Alicia as his wife. If Alicia said anything to Tim about her feelngs, he told her that she was over-reacting. As she became increasingly more hurt, resentful, and withdrawn, the emotional climate in the marrige cooled considerably, and the marriage became less satisfying for both of them. Neither one knew what to do.

Flirting on the part of a spouse causes marriage problems for numerous couples. And it can at times be difficult to distinguish between a spouse with an extraverted personality who just naturally likes to joke and kid around versus the partner who is continually "on the make."

Flirting behavior has varying causes. If you have known your partner for a long time and have never had any reason to believe he or she has cheated on you, then you are probably married to an extravert who has a flirty personality. This can still be annoying and frustrating, but at least you basically know what you're dealing with.

Spouses can also engage in flirting to meet their own emotional needs such as feeling liked, being popular, or being thought of as funny, entertaining, attractive, or sexy. Excessive flirting can be a sign of someone who is trying too hard to attract and keep attention focused on himself or herself because they are needy emotionally.

Flirting can also be a passive-aggressive way of getting even with a partner. The spouse may have felt rejected sexually and emotionally, so the flirting can be a message to the partner to shape up or risk losing the marriage. It can also be an attempt to get the spouse's attention, hoping to make him or her jealous and bring about an increase in the marital passion.

And, of course, consistent excessive flirting can be a sign of someone with a sexual addiction who is constantly on the prowl looking for his or her next sexual contact and conquest. A spouse in this category needs professional help from an addictions counselor, but the help won't be effective unless the person wants to be helped.

So what can you do about your spouse's flirtatious ways? one of the steps you can take is to write a letter outlining your feelings. In the case of Alicia and Tim mentioned in the opening paragraphs, Alicia could tell Tim how much the fact that he doesn't introduce her to others as his wife hurts her feelings. She could ask for him to include her in the conversations, to put his arm around her, to hold her hand, or to turn and smile at her occasionally. That way she is telling him some things he could do to lessen her anxiety and distress.

Another thing Alicia could do is to become more assertive about speaking up, becoming a part of the conversation when Tim is flirting, and letting people know that she's Tim's wife. If Tim says, "This is Alicia" when introducing her, Alicia could say, "Nice to meet you. I'm Tim's wife." Note that I'm not advocating that Alicia follow Tim around or try to "catch" him in flirting behavior-that's a recipe for disaster. But I am suggesting that when she is already present, she can casually drop into conversation that she and Tim are married, such as "It's fun to have such a witty husband! Tim has always been able to make me laugh."

Don't get into an argument about whether you are over-reacting to your spouse's flirting. Say upfront that you realize the two of you have differing perceptions and you're not accusing him of doing anything wrong. You just know that if you don't share your feelings and feel heard you may have resentments and hurt feelings that build up and eventually harm the marriage. You want to feel that your spouse has really listened to your concerns, that your spouse cares about your feelings, and that your spouse is willing to try some new behaviors that will provide you the reassurance you need.

You could also suggest that the two of you see a marriage counselor if the letter writing and talking don't accomplish what you want. If your spouse is still convinced that the only thing that needs to change is for you to be more accepting of the flirting behavior, then marriage counseling could help. When suggesting counseling, you might need to focus on wanting to get advice from the counselor to help you make the changes you need to. If you focus on wanting to get your spouse to a counselor so he or she will change, your attempts will probably fall flat.

The bottom line is that spouses who love each other and are in a healthy marriage will want to listen to their partner, take their feelings into consideration, and take steps to improve communication and intimacy. Showing consistent disrespect and disregard for a partner's feelings and perceptions indicates there are serious marriage problems lurking beneath the excessive flirting behavior-and it's time to seek professional help.

Nancy J. Wasson, Ph.D., is co-author of the book Keep Your Marriage: What to Do When Your Spouse Says "I don't love you anymore!" This is available at http://www.KeepYourMarriage.com, where you can also sign up for the free weekly Keep Your Marriage Internet Magazine to get ideas and support for improving your marriage.

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