Does he flirt too much?

My new boyfriend and his female friends make me uncomfortable with some of their playful talk

Published March 1, 2013 4:00PM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

My most recent ex-boyfriend, after our breakup, told me that I was one of the "few" people he knew who never flirted — and he said he appreciated that, because he never had to worry or feel jealous. More recently, a close male friend made a similar point, saying that not flirting and not having any romantic or sexual undertones in my relationships with male friends was characteristic of me but not necessarily of other women he knew.

I'm not sure why I'm like this, and I don't know whether it's a product of my disposition or of poor socialization (really). I guess my take on flirting is, why do it if you don't mean it? I've had a few male friends confess that they were attracted to me, and that was awkward enough — I think if I'd ever flirted with them, even in a non-serious, friendly context, they would've been more likely to believe that the feeling was mutual (as it was, they seemed like they were rightly anticipating a "thanks, but no thanks"). When guys flirt with me, all I can usually manage is to laugh it off uncomfortably, and the guys I've dated have generally been like me, addressing men and women in the same straightforward and friendly-but-totally-unflirtatious way.

I just started dating a super-friendly, gregarious guy. I love those things about him, and I completely trust him. But when I've hung out with him and some of his female friends, there's been a lot of flirtation and jokey innuendo between them, and I've felt uncomfortable — even though the conversation gave me no reason to worry (and was carried on right in front of me), and even though I got the sense that anyone else (one of those "normal" people who isn't weirded out by casual flirting!) wouldn't have been bothered.

I'm partly looking for advice, and partly just looking for elucidation on an element of social life that I've somehow managed never to engage in. When is between-friends flirting worth getting upset over? I sort of understand how people could think that social flirting is innocent, but even if it's technically innocent, isn't it still ambiguous sometimes, in that there's a suggestion of underlying attraction? How should I respond to flirtatious exchanges between my boyfriend and other women in a group? (Am I supposed to join in, somehow??) I'm scared of reacting with jealousy to something that's completely on the up-and-up, but my lifelong unwillingness to flirt has left me with no idea of where the "line" is. Any insights would be greatly appreciated!

Social Prude

Dear Social Prude,

Hey! You're no social prude! These people are doing stuff that makes you profoundly uncomfortable. Still, you've got to come up with a way of responding to it that doesn't make everybody want to go home and pray.

In an ideal world you would have a social vocabulary of gestures and gibes rooted in boundless self-confidence and a sparkling sense of humor. That would allow you to easily warn off these women with a friendly, "Keep your mitts off him, he's mine," or something to that effect. In this ideal world everyone is witty, confident and knows everyone else's sense of humor and boundaries. In this ideal world you know that he's yours but you also don't mind admitting that the flirting awakens your normal protectiveness and possessiveness. In this ideal world you take the initiative and risk shocking the group with a dare. You say something like, OK, just tell me: Who here has slept with whom? Come on! It's nothing to be ashamed of!

And just see what happens. Make it a game. Push the limits. Playfully, but push them. In this ideal world of mine that I just made up which probably never exists except in fiction and movies, you would be letting these folks know that you're not an idiot, that you know he's attractive and that anything is possible, and that you're open about the possibility but not fond of it. You're letting everyone know that you know you don't own him but he has a girlfriend who has her eyes open and that girlfriend is you.

The purpose of this is also to learn. You might make a few mistakes. You might come off as jealous or bitchy. But you might come off as somebody with a sense of humor who just wants to state the obvious. You could even say to those assembled, Look, I know nothing would ever happen between any of you, but if it's about to, would one of you just call me so I can come after him with a rolling pin?

OK, right. I know. It's easier said than done. But try to conjure up that kind of playful, confident but honest persona. Hypnotize yourself into being relaxed, aware and willing to push the boundaries; maybe you can have some fun. Anything is better than silently simmering. Give it a try. Just be open about the fact that you like this guy and don't want to have to throw his clothes out the window.

By Cary Tennis

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