Even when we are in a relationship we are never immune from feeling chemistry with someone who isn't our significant other. Flirtation can be harmless. It can also be confusing and potentially damaging, not only to our relationship but also to our mental health. It can be argued that the most confusing flirtation of all is when it occurs with a married person. If you're single or in a relationship, starting a physical or emotional affair with a married person is a genuine minefield.
Should men pursue new platonic relationships with women after tying the knot? Or should they be expected to give up, post wedding?
This is a more complicated question than it appears, because the answer depends on each person involved in the situation: the man, his wife, the woman-friend, her partner and how secure each one is, within themselves and their relationship. Where one person would be fine with their partner having platonic friendships, it would freak another one out. It's something that needs to be negotiated within each couple's relationship: and it could well be the case that one partner feels comfortable and the other not so. Where all parties involved are comfortable, it probably won't be a problem, but as soon as one is, it might.
Finding out what a partner thinks and feels is only the start though; it's discovering why each partner might feel the way they do, the particular history that brought them to that point, that's just as, if not more, important to know. There might be a history of betrayal or broken trust that can continue to colour their relationship, now and into the future, these are things it's good for both partners to be aware of and be able to talk through.
Is it always fraught to start a friendship with a married man in isolation ie without knowing or meeting his wife?
Meeting a wife certainly brings a different perspective to the situation. When a wife is just a shadow in the background it makes it easier for fantasies to grow and sometimes fantasies can take on a life of their own - with devastating real-life consequences. Knowing, or even better, liking, respecting and befriending a wife, can keep people grounded in reality - where real people with real feelings are at stake.
Can a flirty relationship with a married man at work - that never becomes physical - be considered good for both parties? No harm done?
It's perfectly normal to be attracted to other people and harmless flirting can be good for our self-esteem, but to stay harmless it has to be conducted safely within boundaries – and the work environment is one where they can be stretched.
Therapist Shirley Glass found that 46 per cent of unfaithful wives and 62 per cent of unfaithful husbands had an affair with someone they met through work – compared to 22 per cent of wives and 12 per cent of husbands who had an affair with a friend. So it's important to be aware of the potential of the work situation.
Safe flirting passes the "honesty test": would you be able to tell your partner about it, as in “Harry was having a bad day so I told him he looked cute when he was pouting”, and would you feel comfortable with Harry telling his wife this, if he has one? If so, lines haven't been crossed. Where is the line? The line, according to Glass, is found where interactions are accompanied by secrecy, emotional intimacy and sexual chemistry. As soon as we start to feel a bit icky about our behaviour or someone else's, find ourselves justifying it, or being hesitant about how we would describe it to a partner or friend, we are getting closer to it.
What does it say about a person when they fall into a cycle of falling for married men? Is it indicative of a bigger problem? And what can be done to break the cycle?
Some of us are more "wired" to be comfortable with long-term intimate relationships than others. Those of us who are wary of commitment are more likely to find ourselves attracted (usually at a subconscious level) to those who are a "safer" risk. Looking back at our own history of relationships and consciously linking our current patterns with past ones, even back to childhood, is the beginning of breaking them. This is most effectively done with the guidance of skilled relationship therapist. You can find your one through the Australian Association of Relationship Counsellors.
Are emotional affairs with married men just as serious as something that becomes a physical affair?
It depends on the person to whom the harm has been done. I have had clients traumatised from finding their partner has feelings for another woman, even if they haven't acted on them. Their sense of abandonment is profound.
And all affairs – physical or otherwise - risk the primary connection between a couple. The energy that is going into an emotional affair isn't going into a marriage – and that will have other consequences for that relationship. Whenever we are turning to someone else to meet our emotional needs, we are turning away from a partner. Emotional intimacy is what can very quickly turn a platonic relationship into a physical one – affection is a natural extension of affectionate feelings.
If you do find yourself in a friendship with a married man, what are the appropriate boundaries?
A good general guideline is not to discuss, or be on the receiving end of a discussion, about relationship problems or other personal or intimate subjects – they are best shared with someone "safe".
It's also important to be aware that boundaries aren't fixed, they can change depending on our circumstances and circumstances change in a long-term relationship. At the times when we feel secure and committed in our relationship, when there is openness and honesty between us, the boundaries will be clearer and it will be easier to be assertive in our interactions with others.
Complications occur at the times we have mixed feelings about our partner, usually during or following a transition like parenthood or a newly "empty nest", a stressful period or an illness (all times when affairs are more likely to happen). We can unwittingly relax the boundaries, start looking outside the marriage to get our emotional needs met and find ourselves justifying it: “Well I'm not getting this from him/her, so…”
Affairs are more likely to happen when we feel disconnected from a partner – address the disconnection and we can inoculate our relationship. My advice is to have an agreement between you and your partner that if either of you start to feel a bit ambivalent about your relationship or find yourself more open to the advances of another, that rather than acting on these feelings, promise to share them with your partner and work through them together. This is challenging to do, but it can prevent something even more challenging from occurring.
Some people say, "I can't help it, married men/women just fall for me." Is the married party more morally obligated to control their behaviour or should responsibility for not overstepping boundaries be shared?
We are each responsible for our own behaviour and reactions. It's up to us to let other people know what our boundaries are and our ideas about what is or isn't appropriate behaviour when others are interacting with us. They are responsible for their behaviour and we are responsible for our reaction to it. It's our reaction that the other party may well be thinking of when they say “I can't help it, they…”
How does one appropriately untangle themselves from a friendship with a married person that's developing into a relationship, be it physical or emotional?
There are a couple of ways to do it, depending on the relationship and the consequences for trying to change it. The bravest would be to broach the elephant in the room with something along the lines of “this is how it's been, but I'm starting to feel uncomfortable, so I need it to change or stop”.
If it's a boss, use the feedback sandwich: positive, negative, positive: “I really appreciate our professional relationship, so I hope you understand when I say I'd be more comfortable if we didn't share as much, I think you're a great manager and I love working with you.”
Another way is just to change your own behaviour – pull back, act in ways you do feel comfortable and see how the other person responds. If the person in question wants a friendship, he or she will adapt. If they want more, the relationship will fizzle out - and that may just be the safest thing for everyone concerned.
Elly Taylor is a relationship counsellor and author of the book Becoming Us: Loving, Learning and Growing Together.