A 60-year-old public relations executive from Los Angeles is seeking solace from the "dark moods" of her out-of-work husband in a new client who radiates light and optimism. "I haven't had a crush like this since I was 17," she confesses. "Last week we went to an opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We stood together eating delicious hors d'oeuvres, surrounded by beautiful paintings. I felt like I was the prettiest and the wittiest woman in the world.
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"My husband is in the construction business, and he has been unemployed for two years," she continues. "We used to go to fine restaurants and openings. Now he rarely wants to leave the house. I am not abandoning him, believe me, but I can't abandon my own needs either. So far my flirtation is innocent, but I admit I have sexual fantasies about this man. He has awakened something in me that has been asleep, and I realize I may be headed for trouble."
This PR exec says she is "enamored, but not discombobulated." You enter the danger zone in a flirty friendship when sporadic thoughts of this man (or woman) become an aching obsession, when a few hours without an email set off a panic attack. This is an affair, even if there's no sex.
Therapist Robin McMahon of London suggests using this tug of the heart to examine what is missing at home and try to fix it. "I can't really justify a flirty friendship as something that always fortifies a long relationship," says McMahon, "except insofar as it brings to the surface some of the issues that need to be worked through by both partners. These issues may be: Where does the flirtation end? Do I satisfy you in the bedroom? Does the flirtation build your esteem and make you want me more, or does it take precedence over me? Do we still love each other? Is there damage between us that needs repair? These questions might then provide a framework so that deeper issues in the relationship can be explored directly and honestly."
Men and women approach flirty friendships from different angles, of course. Most women strike up a friendship with a man because he stimulates her emotions, which are a female's biggest erogenous zone. Guys — well, the stereotype seems to be true: They become friends with women who stimulate a response below the belt, a fact corroborated by research on cross-sex friendships.
I'm talking to a 50-year-old woman who has a "mad crush" on the divorced father of one of her daughter's friends. Their lengthy and unspoken attraction led to a spicy encounter at a small dinner party at her home an encounter she admits was "sorta bad." The woman had excused herself from the table to fetch a bottle of wine from the cellar. On her way, the bathroom door opened, and out walked the divorcé. He followed her down to the basement and closed the door.
"We kissed for one minute, a hard and wonderful kiss," she recalls in a wheezy whisper. "He picked me up off the floor and hugged me so hard my back cracked. Then he straightened his tie, winked at me, and left me at the wine rack. I was so flustered that when I got back, I forgot to serve the salad."
Two years later, that naughty moment remains a seductive memory the woman knows must play out only in her imagination. She doesn't want to jeopardize a 28-year marriage she considers "solid and satisfying."
But hey, a girl can have her dreams.
"I totally avoid him now," she says. "If he asked me out for coffee, I'm afraid I would go and then what? Best to leave him in my fantasies. But I'll always have that stolen kiss. It's like I have a gold coin in my back pocket."
Iris Krasnow's new book, The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes to Stay Married, explores flirty friendships and other common relationship challenges. She is a journalism professor at American University.