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How and Why You Unconsciously Play the Flirting Game

Are you letting your unconscious need for external validation ruin your female friendships? Image: Flickr/JoeSzilagy
Are you letting your unconscious need for external validation ruin your female friendships? Image: Flickr/JoeSzilagy

Are you a woman who has trouble keeping female friends? Maybe it’s because you’re letting your unconscious play the game of seduction.

It’s time to be honest with yourself: have any of the following phrases ever come out of your mouth? “I can’t be friends with other women because they get too jealous and competitive,” or, “I know my friend had a crush on him, but he and I started platonic and now it accidentally turned into more – it’s not my fault he didn’t like her,” or, “I can’t help it if guys are always asking for my number.”

In your conscious mind, you want to be friends with other women. But unconsciously there’s more going on, and these influences below the surface of your understanding can create competition and jealousy where there could be trust and friendship.

The ability to attract people is one of humans’ first instincts. Researchers in infant development show that from the moment you’re born, you learn non-verbal interaction skills in order to get your needs met. Through eyes and smiles, the first person you seduce/engage is your mother or other caregiver, who then provides food and nurturing. Before we can speak or understand language, we rely completely on mastering these behavioral cues, body sensations and voice tone and pitch to give and receive communication. This reciprocity is played in turns – picture the mother cooing to her infant, who then coos back.

Now you have language. But even with words, there remain desires and needs that we feel but can’t articulate, even to ourselves. One unconscious need I see frequently in my practice is the need for external validation. And especially when you can’t even admit this need to yourself, you may end up acting in a way designed to fulfill this need without meaning to, or even knowing you’re doing it.

For example, researchers including Steven Pinker and Eli Finkel show us that in most cases, the first gestures of flirtation are communicated so subtly, it’s easy to deny them without penalty if one sees the flirtation isn’t reciprocated. Usually by the time overt flirtation happens, there have been several reciprocal flirtatious, “hints,” if you will.

Only if you return these hints, consciously or unconsciously, can the game of flirtation continue. Each time you make or accept a move, you perpetuate the interaction. If you find yourself in trouble for flirting with those who are off limits (or flirting while you’re off limits!), ask yourself if you’re shutting things down before they get started or if you’re allowing the game to continue.

The problem certainly isn’t flirting or attraction itself – it’s when others get hurt in the cross-fire of your need for validation. This need for validation can come from a very deep part of your unconscious, so you may be participating in flirtation more than you want to admit-even to yourself.

If you find that you’re often accused of attracting all the attention or flirting with your friend’s crush, take a second to look at the situation honestly. Are you shutting down the flirtation or are you taking your turn in order to satisfy an unconscious desire for attention and validation? Only by recognizing and overcoming the knee-jerk of your unconscious can you keep a brief moment of flattery from interfering with your friendships.

Twitter: @JenKrombergPsyD

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How and Why You Unconsciously Play the Flirting Game

Dr. Jennifer Kromberg

Dr. Jennifer Kromberg is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of California. She has been in private practice since 2001 and sees a range of patients for a variety of issues. She has also worked in depth with eating disorders and the loved ones of those with eating disorders. Because of this experience, Dr. Kromberg has worked extensively with women, couples and families, which has led to her passion for writing about women’s issues, especially in the context of relationships. She also serves as a consultant to the Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s Medical Stabilization Program for eating disorders. Dr. Kromberg has a private practice in Torrance, CA.

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APA Reference
Kromberg, D. (2013). How and Why You Unconsciously Play the Flirting Game. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Jun 2013
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