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The bones are good ;)...a case for flirting while married

Updated: Jun 17, 2023

Although I may have appeared MIA on A Kink and a Prayer, I assure you I have been writing, and reading, and conversing, and generally doing a lot of pondering and processing. The next few essays that I post here will represent the ideas and musings from these last 7 or 8 weeks. Attractions. Flirting. Fluffing. (Oh, I know you want to hear more about that last one. *winks*)




For me, spring always seems to lead to thoughts about flirting and crushes. As I emerge after a cold, gray winter and watch the buds on the trees begin to bloom, I am reminded that I am not unlike Nature that is bursting with color following a long hibernation. Each spring I feel that I unfurl a little more. I learn a little more about myself and watch these new parts of me blossom.



While I find myself in a vastly different headspace than this time last year ­–– one year ago I was busy obsessing over “Tom” –– I find myself returning once again to many of the same topics. I don’t have any major crushes at the moment, but with Spring humming around me…and with it, the birds and the bees, and all that…I feel a restlessness once again. A need to move. To be moved.




I’m also in a new place with PM this spring. We’ve grown a lot as a couple over the last year. I think we’re understanding one another to a greater degree as whole people, multi-faceted and complex. It takes a great deal of trust to allow another human a view of the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. And an enormous amount of maturity to see and accept those sides of our partner. It's a process.



Our erotic side is part of our essential self, basic and primitive, so much of it wild and unbridled by conscious thought. In short, my erotic self is what it is. There’s not much I can do to change it. It’s formed through a myriad of sources at a young age. I can only seek to understand it better and harness this understanding to foster passion. Because, at almost-43-years-old, married for two decades and mother to three, this is what I know I want, without a doubt: a life lived with passion.



And for me, at this point in my journey, I ask, what’s a passionate life without occasionally feeling the thrill of new attraction, the excitement of connecting with other humans who awaken and electrify parts of myself that my busy, messy life oft demands that I ignore? I’m hoping to do some seriously blatant flirting this spring and summer. I’m admittedly shit at it, but practice makes perfect, right?



Yet I’m also keenly aware that not everyone takes kindly to married folks flirting with persons other than their spouses. I’ve talked about this topic in the past, but I came across an article online the other day from Elle.com entitled, “I Flirt Even Though I’m Married…Is That Wrong?” It’s not the only article out there, by far, that expresses similar opinions (although I should point out that none of these anti-flirting folks have an actual education in psychology or human sexuality.)



Let’s just say I have a small ax to grind. Okay, more like a moderate-sized ax. And I’m using this particular piece on the topic to sharpen and express my thoughts on the issue. PM tells me I’m being overly harsh toward the author. He’s probably right, but keep in mind, it’s the assumptions her piece represents that really irk me, not the individual author herself.



Despite the question posed in the Elle.com article’s title (“I Flirt Even Though I’m Married…Is That Wrong?”), I think the author makes it pretty clear how she feels about flirting as a married person within the first three sentences of her piece. She tells us that she and her husband don’t have any rules about whether it’s okay to flirt with other people, but a beat later she talks about “the rules” getting blurry.



Mmhm. I think you may know where this is going already. And spoiler alert: there’s nothing complex about the issue for this Elle.com writer. (For another, more nuanced approach to the topic of flirting as a married person, see Shana Lebowitz' article, "An American who asked French women about successful marriages learned a surprising tip: Flirt with other people.")



I couldn't find much on the author, but she appears to identify as a woman (presumably cishet) and is married to a man (also cishet, I would assume). We learn little else about her from her essay…except that she has implicitly accepted a shit ton of societal expectations about monogamous relationships. The very way this writer frames the discussion by asking, “What exactly is fair play when someone else initiates the flirting?” tells me that she (and her spouse…?) assumes certain rules exist.



In fact, the way she poses the question implies that the only situation in which it might be acceptable for me to flirt would be if I didn’t initiate the exchange. Now that she’s married, the author tells us, any response to flirtation “carry wisps of betrayal.” Even a “thank you” in response to a compliment about her appearance seems to fit her definition of questionable behavior.




Seriously? So I guess if I’m to behave properly as a married woman, I should just ignore a compliment if offered by a person that may find me attractive. I suppose if I was still 25 years old (I actually have no idea of the author’s age but I’m guessing she’s not much more than 30, if that) and thus feeling the constant burden of being under the male gaze, maybe I could justify being so rude. Even so, a “thank you” hardly feels excessive and flirtatious.



A little further in we start to get into the writer’s head and her underlying assumptions. She tells us that she thought she had gotten over the need “to solicit attention or validation from other men.” This suggests that she accepts a basic assumption of compulsory monogamy ­–– that we should be completely fulfilled in all ways by our relationship with our partner.



I’ve talked about this topic before in my series on ethical non-monogamy. Even if we leave sex out of the discussion, if I assume that my partner will fulfill all my needs –– intimacy, friendship, emotional support, personal and erotic validation –– I’m setting my partner up for failure and myself for disappointment. I’ve come to accept the contradiction that is a passionate marriage –– that to stay happily together with PM for a long time…perhaps even a life-time…we need to nurture separateness.



Indeed, separateness doesn’t seem to be on her radar as she imagines the most harmful scenario to be when she keeps these kinds of encounters secret from her spouse. She seems to spare little concern for erotic separateness and the need for some privacy and boundaries within a relationship. I desperately want to share with her my firm belief that as fire needs air, passion needs distance.




She also says nothing of erotic musings that flirtations might possibly engender, and I can only guess that erotic fantasies about men other than her husband would also be off-limits. When the newness of a relationship fades and routine sets in, when sex is no longer a manifestation of passion but has become just another aspect of relationship maintenance, perhaps she’ll find her way to my blog? *smirks and shrugs* But I digress.



She describes feeling relief in revealing to her husband recent attempts by others to flirt with her, implying she’s participated in some manner of betrayal. *eye roll* Even this confession of what I guess she perceives as a straying erotic psyche(?), she still seems to feel that the flirtations represented something untoward to which she can’t fully own up, since she tells us she put an innocent “spin” on the incidents when she recounted them to her spouse.



I’ve been there. I’ve felt this guilt. Felt the need to fess up. But I've found it helpful to remember that just because I feel guilt, doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong, that I've done something wrong. (Nor is it always healthy and productive to tell my partner everything. But I'll share more on PM and my boundaries around sharing/over-sharing another time.)



Humans are complex and messy. We may feel a whole host of things (including guilt) that often reflect our own issues rather than reality. These feelings are hard enough to navigate for ourselves, never mind, when they potentially intersect with our relationship to another complex, messy human.



Knowing that PM notices others and is noticed in return can serve to turn my head back toward my spouse. Yet I also feel strongly that he and I should maintain some privacy and boundaries in our marriage. After all, everyone is different, and we all vary in our tolerance for seeing our spouses’ erotic selves light up for someone else.



I’m reminded of a conversation with a friend a few months ago when, in lamenting the unrealistic expectations of long-term monogamy, she pointed out that not everyone has the self-confidence to know about their partner’s other attractions. Whatever her husband might do with regards to other women (actions that she left undefined), she didn’t want to know about it. Fair enough.



On a more abstract level, I think my friend's statement represents an acknowledgment of the complexities of marriage and the difficulties inherent in being both together and separate, which differ in some degree for every couple. I have no doubt the author of this Elle.com piece would benefit from a lesson in such complexities. But, in any case, let’s dispense with the guilt, shall we?

One has only to read my piece “What’s so dirty about a little flirty?” to know that the writer of this article and I do not see eye to eye on this topic. In fact, I think I can confidently say that everything I’ve expressed in my blog, all that I’ve learned over the long years PM and I have been together, seems to represent a polar opposite approach to marriage. I want to be generous with the author, but by and large her piece clearly rubbed me the wrong way.




The writer talks about having “maturity” and “good boundaries” as if they’re essential parts of some treatment plan to get over the urge to flirt. (Don’t even get me started on her use of addiction-related language… “junkie,” “trigger,” etc.) In this way, she unambiguously communicates that those who engage in flirtations outside their marriages lack both these things. She takes no time to consider other reasons why humans might flirt and whether her assumptions might be flawed about what makes relationships and marriages healthy and sustainable in the long-term.




I did not get the sense that she’s considered the possibility that her ideals might be the product of harmful compulsive monogamous assumptions propagated by our traditionally patriarchal culture. Nor does she pause to think that maybe flirting can function as a way to breathe passion into a marriage. Again, humans, marriage, passion, intimacy… it’s all friggin’ complex.



Honestly, I did not find inspiration in her use of the words, “Presence. Awareness. Flexibility,” to describe the things that sustain her own marriage. These relationship qualities don’t sound to me like a recipe for a happy, long-term marriage (at least, not without adding some spice...). *eyebrows waggle*



Don’t get me wrong. Her perspective on her relationship is sweet. It sounds very loving. But I also know -- now that I’m over 20 years into my own marriage -- that these three things are not at the top of my list of things that I aspire to nurture in my marriage. PM and I have this intimacy. It’s been born in fire…through chasing graduate degrees, and raising children, and making career choices. Through triumphs and tragedies and all the in-betweens. But these beautiful relationship qualities aren’t the things that are going to keep me wanting to jump PM’s bones for the next decade and more. Intimacy isn’t the only thing we need to nurture.



But at the same time, I could relate to where the author of this article is coming from. I got the impression that perhaps they haven’t been a couple long, or maybe it’s just that the marriage is still new. I couldn’t find any information online about the author, so I can’t say one way or the other, but it sounds to me like she’s still in the early stages of building a life with her husband.



When we first unite with another human being in this way, we’re still trying to figure out how to best bring together two people who had been previously living separate, disparate lives from one another. Just the physical act of merging all our belongings together into one space when we first move in and share an actual, physical living space can be challenging enough.



But the emotional and psychological process of merging as a married couple is even more complicated and fraught with potential for disaster. Even in the best-case scenario, the process of adding and taking away as we decide how to cram all those parts of ourselves and our lives as single persons under the same metaphorical roof as our spouse is intense. Exciting, yes, but painful and uncomfortable at times, too. And what more, as a couple we have to try and figure out how to merge all that separate stuff into one stable unit. This is the process of becoming a couple: making something more together, something where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.



I wonder how the author’s perspective might change after she and her husband have gone through the process of building a strong foundation of love and intimacy. Maybe after a decade of sharing a life together with her husband. I would be curious to know what she might feel her marriage needs to thrive after they’ve had children together. What might need to be torn down and rebuilt as “Presence” becomes Boredom, “Awareness” breeds Aggravation, and “Flexibility” solidifies into Routine.



In his book Seasons of a Man’s Life, Daniel J. Levinson describes human development metaphorically as a series of attempts to build and rebuild. This process of building proceeds until we are met at some point by a collapse of the original structure or by a need to tear it down to address problems or changes in the way we think, and then we attempt to rebuild in a different way. As we age and mature and gain more and different experiences, we are ever re-designing and re-engineering the way that we approach different aspects of our lives.



When One was born, PM and I had made decisions about how we would parent. But no one method of parenting is perfect, and we inevitably encountered issues and problems we never expected to face. Maybe because of flaws in the method or maybe just because one-size doesn’t fit all, but over time we had to adjust how we were going to deal this new little person.



In some cases, we had to start over, try a whole new model, because the assumptions we started with didn’t work for this particular child or because it wasn’t working with the values we were choosing in other parts of our life. And it’s still happening all the time, and separately for each of the three unique humans we created together.




We build. Tear down. Rebuild. Pick up the pieces when they collapse. Re-access and rebuild again. And with love and hard work, and a little luck, we’ll come out with children who are well-adjusted, good people by the time they reach adulthood and leave our charge.



PM and I started our marriage with certain assumptions and built up our life together following a certain pattern. We had strong ideas about what marriage would look like (and my ideas were often at odds with PM’s), what having kids would look like, what our sex life would be like. In the end, what we had after 20 some years of building and rebuilding wasn’t working for us anymore. We had lost something. Our erotic spark was faltering.



When we first fall in love, building greater intimacy with our partner is the driving human need we seek to fulfill. It makes for stability, safety, feelings of grounded-ness. But PM and I found that as we neglected our other essential human need –– that impulse for adventure, mystery, risk, unpredictability –– we had merged our lives so thoroughly that we could no longer clearly see the persons with whom we had fell in love. Slowly we lost the passion, lust, and desire we had once felt for one another.



It is very possible that what PM and I are building together now won’t work anymore at some point in the future. In fact, it probably won’t. But I also know that we’ve learned over the years that putting all our eggs into the basket labeled Intimacy and Closeness did NOT produce a passionate marriage with a rocking sex life. So, we’ll adapt when the time comes. We’ll try to approach our problems with curiosity and open-mindedness. We’ll make changes based on what we’ve learned together.



Over two decades and three children in, if I had to sum up in three words what my marriage to PM thrives on, my choices would be: Separateness. Respect. Playfulness. (I can’t help but notice that my three words are almost the opposite of the Elle.com author’s choices. Almost. But not quite.)



PM and I had worked hard in the first two decades of our lives together to bridge our separateness, to take our individual selves and bring them together to build something new. I’m reminded of the song “The Bones” by Maren Morris, which strikes a chord in me every time I hear it. Maren croons in the song’s chorus:


When the bones are good, the rest don't matter Yeah, the paint could peel, the glass could shatter Let it break, 'cause you and I remain the same When there ain't a crack in the foundation Baby, I know any storm we're facing Will blow right over while we stay put The house don't fall when the bones are good



PM and I put our full attention into building the strong bones of our relationship for many years. I think that the closeness that we cultivated over that time allows for a lot of flexibility. A lot of changes can and have been made over the years without effecting the essential integrity of the relationship. In this way, “the rest don’t matter.”

Because life is stormy, as singer/songwriter Maren reminds us. It gets messy. Things get rattled. Other things don’t age well. And add to this, the fact that PM and I had to make additions to the house we built together, altering the original floor plan as we brought children into our lives together. As we build and make changes as we go and grow, some parts don’t fit perfectly together and don’t work smoothly. Some parts get more abuse than others and wear out more quickly.



Choices we made to overcome one set of problems, some of the values that were so important in the early stages of our relationship, begin to create their own set of problems. The house we’ve built, regardless of the attention we put into it in the early stages, can leak. And it can get shabby AF. The decorating choices that seemed so right and relevant at the time can now seem dated and depressing. Maybe the open-floor concept that felt so good at the beginning, at a time when we wanted to share everything and prioritize intimacy, gives way to a need for adding a few interior walls here and there that help define spaces and allow some modicum of privacy for its residents.



Many of these issues that PM and I have dealt with naturally occur with the passage of time as a couple. We’ve had to reexamine our relationship and ask when we’ve been at our best together, when we’ve both been most happy and excited to be married to one another. It’s not that we were always fundamentally wrong in the choices that we made when something collapsed or we felt a need for change, it's just that we’re human and so we’re always building and rebuilding.




Putting aside the fact that I found the perspective in the flirting article grating in its disregard for (or ignorance of?) issues faced by couples in long-term relationships, I honestly felt a little sad for the author. It doesn’t sound to me like she comes from a conservative religious upbringing, but the constraints and unrealistic expectations she has put on herself (and presumably her spouse, although I wonder whether he feels the same guilt about flirtations), in the name of some imagined benefit for her relationship, reek of the assumptions and marital norms pushed within the conservative Christian circles where PM and I came of age. It smacks of the rules dictated to young girls in the Purity movement within conservative Christian circles. When girls/women must act in a certain way toward boys/men, otherwise they’re tempting them, sending implicit messages about their desire or availability for sex. Flirting should be reserved for husbands and wives. Men will naturally make poor decisions and initiate flirting with women other than their partners, but we vulva-owners need to tow a hard line. We are the keepers of chastity before marriage and then of fidelity after marriage. *rolls eyes*



The author of the flirting article also seems to assume that women only seek men’s attention to find potential sexual partners. If flirtation only serves to find us new sexual (or relationship) opportunities, then she’s right in asking herself why she would need this type of attention. But this assumption also sounds sinisterly familiar to me. Compulsory monogamy and religious groups alike have put unbearably heavy expectations on human beings in terms of how they should behave and relate to other humans, in particular when it comes to sexuality.



What I wish I could ask the author of this Elle.com piece is this: What if soliciting sex isn’t the only purpose of flirting? (This seems to me a vastly oversimplified way of looking at this a social dynamic.) Or better yet, what if flirting with others could mean hotter sex with your spouse?




Ultimately, all I truly know is this: that the only thing to which PM and I are really committed is the process of building and rebuilding together.


Until next time, stay kinky 😉



Sources:

Aldana, Eve. “I Flirt Even Though I’m Married…Is That Wrong?” Published on Elle.com, January 20, 2016.


Lebowitz, Shana. "An American who asked French women about successful marriages learned a surprising tip: Flirt with other people." Published on Yahoo Sports, February 14, 2018.

Levinson, Daniel, with Charlotte N. Darrow, Edward B. Klein, Maria H. Levinson, and Braxton McKee. The Seasons of a Man’s Life. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.

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