Flirting is commonplace. Some people proudly proclaim themselves shameless flirts. They flirt with everyone; nothing personal. Flirting is most often described as “harmless fun”. Where seen as negative, it’s often framed in terms of leading people on unfairly, of overpromising, and embarrassing the flirted-with by misleading them into expecting more. Sometimes, it’s actively promoted as a positive and life-affirming skill that everyone should cultivate.
Flirting is also a dragnet for limerents. [Fair warning: this post is likely to be a bit humourless].
Now, like most people, I do like a good flirt. It does feel good to flatter yourself, and someone else, with a bit of a sparkle and some cheeky banter. As the School of Life video suggests, many people (*raises hand*) do like it when the person they are talking with communicates, in a slantwise way, that they would quite like to have sex with you if circumstances were different and they weren’t already committed. But, one of the most important lessons I have learned in life is not to assume that my experience as a middle-class, middle-aged man is representative of the experiences of all people and should therefore be adopted as a general policy. For example, one of the reasons that I would enjoy a flirty woman letting me know they would like to have sex with me, is that it happens very rarely. The novelty of the experience is part of the charm. If, in contrast, I had to live with a basic background level of continual reminders that other people wanted to have sex with me, the charm may tarnish somewhat. Also, you know, context is quite important.
From the perspective of a limerent, flirting isn’t harmless fun. “Intent isn’t magic” is a phrase that is bandied around a lot at the moment, and this is a good example of its aptness. A non-limerent may think that meaningless flirting is wonderful life-affirming stuff – just a little innocent buzz to help them on their way – but to a nucleating limerent it’s a sign of reciprocation. And that means, it could be a prelude to a period of intense and life-negating obsession. The flirt may not have intended for the flirtee to interpret the flirting as an actual move, but it turns out that people aren’t psychic. If you come on to someone in what you think is a sophisticated and nuanced way, carefully balancing hints of your attraction against clear statements as to how attached you are to your SO, you may be intending to say “I am a good flirt. I like you, I think you’re attractive, and I want you to know that, but I don’t intend to have sex with you for complicated reasons unrelated to your inherent attractiveness.” It’s not really their fault if they instead hear “I want you, but my SO is a barrier.” The whole premise of “good flirting” is that you can accurately predict the mental state of someone that you presumably don’t know very well (we rarely flirt with old friends). I’m sure that will end brilliantly.
As I said at the outset: a bit humourless. I admit I am conflicted about this one myself. In an ideal world, everyone should be wonderfully enlightened and emotionally resilient and take flirting in a positive and light-hearted way. People shouldn’t worry that smiling at someone they like might inadvertently set them off into a painful limerent spiral. But the dismissive claim that flirting is harmless really pisses me off. What people mean when they say that is “I want to do it, so I want to think it’s harmless”. It isn’t, always. Sometimes it’s playing with fire, and that’s because it’s playing with other people’s feelings.
And while we’re attacking flirting, let’s not forget the unsophisticated flirts. God knows, they are the majority. Flirting here is not meant as a beneficent gesture of admiration, it’s a play. It’s a way of gauging interest, while having plausible deniability that anything more was intended. And some people (perhaps, especially, non-limerents) have learned that it is an effective dragnet for catching limerents. Send out signals of interest and reciprocation, and sometimes you can snare a nucleating limerent. The real sociopaths have also learned that once they’ve charmed a limerent, their new piece of ass seems to have an inordinate attachment to them, and can be readily manipulated by a bit of uncertainty – such as flirting with other people in front of them. Power trip.
Flirting can be good, can be carefully and safely executed, and can be a positive experience for both parties. But it requires both parties to be playing nicely, and to be robust enough to weather the potential emotional consequences of things going a bit wrong. So, is there a way of spotting “good flirting” as a recipient, and spotting safe people to flirt with? Well, from the perspective of a limerent, it’s incredibly risky to flirt with someone that you’ve felt the glimmer for, unless you are willing to either get-it-on with the potential LO (and are therefore flirting with meaning), or deal with the consequences of a slide down the slippery slope into reverie. Similarly, if someone starts flirting with you – and you are likely to have to interact with that person in the future – be attentive to the little hints as to the kind of flirt they are. Do they flirt with everyone? If so, they are either a bit socially heedless, or actively seeking narcissistic supply.
Either way, be aware that this is not someone whose reciprocation is a sign that they have particularly connected with you, for your particular merits. Also, this is someone that is likely to play havoc with your limerent uncertainty, as they merrily sparkle at all-comers, even in your company.
Alternatively, is this somebody that is normally a fairly undemonstrative person, who happens to light up when talking with you, and is showing signs of anxiety and/or arousal? (These could be: fidgeting with hair or jewelry, alternating between prolonged eye contact and looking anywhere but at you, laughing nervously, voice shaking, etc.) If so, you may be flirting with a limerent. Tread carefully.
Like anything, ultimately it’s a cost-benefit decision that depends on context and mood. Deciding whether or not to flirt is best done from a position of self-awareness about your own emotional landscape, coupled with the certainty that you cannot predict how the other person will react and that it’s foolish to blame them for not reading your mind and guessing your intent.
So. Flirting. It’s complicated for limerents.