Flirt at your own risk. Research reveals that being flirted with can threaten your relationship.

Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. Ph.D.
Being the object of someone else's affection can threaten your own relationship.Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

You love your partner. You would never dream of cheating on them. While you may not be looking for another partner, others may be looking for you.

That’s especially true online.

If you spend any time on the internet, especially on social media, you have likely received some type of unsolicited attention. It could be a random comment, a like on a post from 2 years ago, or even a direct message. These interactions are often innocent, but on occasion, the messages can become flirty and even suggestive.

You may chat with this other person, oblivious to their intentions. More often you’ll realize what they’re doing and dutifully ignore or rebuke their advances, while reminding them that you’re in a happy relationship.

Harmless, right? Maybe not.

Chatting like this by itself likely isn’t cheating. Even when it’s unsolicited, simply being flirted with (i.e., the object of someone else’s interest) online may have consequences for your real-life relationship.

Dr. Gurit Birnbaum of Reichman University’s Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology examined the impact of unsolicited online flirting in two studies published in Personal Relationships. In the first study, participants had the opportunity to chat online with another participant of the opposite gender who was very attractive (based on a picture the participant saw). In reality, the attractive participant was part of the experiment (i.e., a confederate) who gave scripted lines based on which condition the participant was randomly assigned to.

For half of the participants the confederate was very flirty (e.g., complimenting them “You are beautiful both inside and out!”, and suggesting they should hang out “We should go there together!”). The other half of participants simply chatted without any flirtation.

Study 1 - What They Found

The results showed that participants in the flirty condition recognized that the other participant (i.e., confederate) was flirting with them. Here’s where it gets interesting: after being flirted with, when participants answers questions like “To what extent do you think that your current romantic partner is attractive?” they perceived their own partner as less attractive. Not only that, they had less positive feelings (e.g., thinking their partner was charming, fabulous, etc.) toward their current partner.

In other words, simply receiving unsolicited flirtation seems to undermine how they view their own partner. But that wasn’t all.

In the second study, a new set of participants were randomly assigned to the same two conditions (a flirtatious chat vs. a non-flirty chat). This time the researcher wanted to see how unsolicited flirtation impacted sexual fantasies (e.g., “think of a sexual fantasy that involved the current partner, adding that the fantasy might involve other people as well or the current partner only”) and how they felt about it (e.g., “I feel a great deal of sexual desire for people other than my current partner who appeared in my fantasy”).

Study 2 - What They Found

The results indicated that once again, participants realized when the other participant was flirting with them. And, as before, there were consequences.

This time, those who experienced flirting reported being more attracted to the confederate. In addition, they reported more desire for alternative partners in their fantasy, along with less desire for their current partner. Independent coders who reviewed the written fantasies also found that participants in the flirtation condition expressed more sexual desire for alternate partners, and less for their own partner. Additional analyses in Study 2 showed that much of the increased desire for alternate partners was due to finding the attractive confederate more appealing. In sum, when you get flirted with, you find others more attractive, and your own partner less so.

Take Home…

So, what’s going on? In our everyday life we are able to avoid interactions with other potential partners that allow us to reduce temptation. In these studies, the flirtation was unsolicited, but the temptation is nearly unavoidable (i.e., you can’t unsee what the other person says).

Despite trying to ignore or devalue alternatives, when someone actively courts us, it can make us think differently. This newfound attention can increase our perception of our own attractiveness and make us more aware of other potential romantic partners, both of which can undermine how we view our current relationship.

Because any flirtation like this (solicited or not) impacts your relationship, it seems reasonable to consider limiting contexts that make flirtation more likely, but especially online. Your real-life relationship may depend on it.


Birnbaum, G. E. (2022). Temptation at your door: Receiving mate poaching attempts and perceived Partners' desirability. Personal Relationships.

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Dr. Gary W Lewandowski Jr is the author of Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship…and How to See Past Them. His TED talk and relationship articles have been enjoyed by over 6 million people.

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