I’ve worked with a mentee of mine for about a year who, while immensely bright, struggles with some sexual compulsivity issues. (Yes, this mentee is also in therapy; I’m not overstepping my role.) “Kelly” read this old post of mine about flirtation, and brought the subject up with me last week. Kelly asked: “How do I go about unlearning flirting? It’s like second nature to me, and it gets me in so much trouble.” I gave Kelly some tips, and thought I’d roll them into a post.
First off, I realize that when I talk about “unlearning flirting” it raises an obvious question: why would someone want to unlearn such a pleasurable and innocent pastime? For most people, flirting (once they figure out what it is) is exciting and pleasant; it offers an opportunity for thrilling little boosts to one’s self-esteem without great risk. It makes a lot of people feel just a bit more alive. Then again, the same might be said for alcohol. Some of my friends can take one or two drinks and stop; my experience over many years was that I couldn’t. I tried for years to drink in moderation, and failed spectacularly — all of my growth in the past decade or so has come since I became completely sober. No half measures for me in this area of my life. Kelly is someone also struggling with chemical dependency, but the primary addiction seems, to my experienced layperson’s eye, to be sexual compulsiveness. It is something with which I am all too familiar from my own life — and it is something which led me to conclude that at least for me (I speak for no one but a select group of my fellow addicts), flirtation was unhealthy and destructive.
I’ve written before about flirting, but never in detail about how I “unlearned it.” It was more difficult to do than quitting drinking, but for my recovery, just as essential. And the first step, of course, was acknowledging that flirting (or as I called it in Twelve Step programs, “intriguing” – used as a gerund) was making my life unmanageable. I was good at it, if by good we mean able to elicit positive responses from the folks with whom I flirted. I wasn’t always looking for sex itself (though I rarely turned that down); rather, I was looking for validation. The addict in me cared far more about ego gratification than about orgasm; knowing that I had aroused interest or desire was usually sufficient to satisfy me. At times, sex itself became a rather tedious, obligatory postlude to what had really mattered, which was getting the reassurance that someone wanted to sleep with me, or was at least interested in me on a physical/romantic level. It took me a while to realize that this was what I was doing; it was much more flattering to think of myself as a hyper-libidinous (if decidedly nerdy) Don Juan figure than to acknowledge the truth that I was just pathetically insecure, trading on chemical attraction and all of its attendant rituals to get the attention I craved.
I made an inventory of what I did when I flirted. I’d been practicing flirting since eighth grade, and over many years I’d developed a “bag of tricks” that tended to serve me well. (Parenthetically, these tricks were hopelessly ineffective in certain other countries. Traveling through Italy one summer when I was twenty, I gave up early on — whatever “game” I had had been developed with North Americans very much in mind!) Flirting was about words, of course, but also glances and the gentle but insistent erosion of normative physical boundaries. I realized I changed my voice, very slightly, and tended to hold a gaze just a second or two longer than the American standard. I leaned in towards people, affecting shyness or boldness based on what my intuitition told me would work. And I remembered the cardinal rule that my uncle Wolfgang had taught me when I was about ten: “Hugo, if you want to be popular, remember to be interested in what other people tell you. Even if they bore you, remember a few things that they say and ask them questions about what interests them. They will be fascinated that you find them fascinating.” I’ve never forgotten that last line, and it was the foundation stone on which all the little tricks were built.
It’s normally a good thing to find other people interesting. My problem, of course, was that I didn’t generally find other people interesting — I was just very good at pretending that I did. While I feigned fascination and curiosity, I was “scanning for trailheads” — ways to take the conversation in a more intimate direction without appearing too aggressive, rude, or scary. (This is why I always had trouble with women raised outside this culture, and why I “did well” with those accustomed to the American style of instant confessional intimacy with near strangers!) I had spent years and years taking acting classes (from age seven to age eighteen), and those gave me tips about how to summon up the outer appearance of passion and make it convincing. And it worked, and it worked all too well, and the whole thing nearly killed me. My insecurity drove me to flirt and to seduce and to act out, and my conscience, which was fully aware of my dishonesty and my fraudulence, drove me to drink and use drugs to soothe my sense of horror at my own manipulative, narcissistic, self-centeredness.
Of course, I couldn’t unlearn flirting by becoming distant and cold and stand-offiish; rudeness was not the goal or even an appropriate means to an end. Rather, I noted how I talked to my cousins and my sisters. I come from an affectionate family (surprisingly non-WASPy in that regard), and my relatives had long modeled safe, non-sexualized interactions. (I realize that not everyone grows up in that sort of environment; some families are not safe.) I noted the ways in which I could express concern and interest without that deadly accompanying frisson of sexualized curiosity. With other women I interacted with, I took one step back physically; I made myself hyper-conscious of boundaries around things like gaze and space and touch, all the while trying to turn what had once been the outer appearance of interest into the genuine article. (I wrote about one technique I used in this post.)
I realized that one “trick” that had always worked for me had been to be constantly in motion; caffeinated and bouncy as I normally was, I had this way of always adjusting (semi-unconsciously) the space between myself and the person with whom I was flirting. I played that famous game of “go away closer” pretty well! Flirtation, after all, needs a foundation of authenticity to work; I am authentically a hyper person and so I used that hyperness to good effect. One trick was to appear to grow slowly and steadlily calmer and more centered as I interacted with someone; the goal was to convey the message “I’m normally so easily distracted, but I find you so intensely fascinating that I’m quieting down everything else to focus on just you.” (That was a winner.) So as part of unlearning flirting, I did my best to remove the artifice from that; if I was feeling bouncy, I’d stay bouncy; if I was feeling solemn, I’d stay solemn. I’d offer my attention, but wouldn’t feign that kind of gently delighted wonder that had been one of my aces.
But changing how I moved and how I respected physical boundaries was alll secondary to the real trick of unlearning flirting, which was to become genuinely rather than spuriously interested in the people I talked to. I’m an ENFP, after all; I find other human beings genuinely fascinating. But that authentic fascination can only flourish if I quiet my own imperious needs for a while, long enough for me to stop worrying what the other person thinks of me and to start focusing on how I can genuinely be of service in this particular interaction. It took a lot of time to learn how to do that, and I can’t say that I don’t have tiny little relapses of self-absorption from time to time! Yet, with focus and intentionality and with trial and error, I’ve unlearned a lot of old behavior. Today, I can say that I am as committed to being safe as I was once committed to seducing. I can’t think of many things of which I am prouder, and the rewards I have in my life today (my marriage, my daughter, my friends, my sense of well-being, my sobriety) could not have come if I had not made these changes.
For those who can flirt safely, without hurting or misleading or betraying, I say more to power to the lot of you. But to folks like me, like Kelly, and like so many of my fellow addicts touched by our peculiar fire, there is no safe flirting. Without withdrawing into curmudgeonliness, we’ve got to find a way to relate to people that is honest, that is respectful of boundaries, and that puts their needs at least on an equal footing with our own.