Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Images from Getty and The Gender Spectrum Collection
My wife, Sam, and I have been open about crushes throughout our relationship. (By "crushes," I mean casual attractions and harmless infatuations—not anything more involved or intense). Whatever their gender, whether they’re a celebrity or the nurse swabbing my wife’s nose for a COVID test, we keep these outside attractions inside our relationship. When we have something a little sexy to gossip and laugh about, we remember how to flirt with each other, even when neither of us is entirely sure when we last washed our hair.
It's not a set of rules—it's a state of mind.
As Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a therapist and co-founder of BFF Therapy, a counseling center in Beacon, New York, likes to tell her clients: “You will feel attracted to things. That doesn’t mean anything bad is happening.” What it does mean is that you’re a human being experiencing the world around you. She compared attraction to walking into a bakery and smelling muffins. It would be weird to pretend the muffins didn’t smell delicious, or that you didn’t notice them. Why, then, are we inclined to pretend we don’t notice that other people are attractive? Here are some ideas about how to broach the subject of crushes with your partner, what to do if either of you have jealousy issues, and how these conversations can be beneficial to relationships if you have them respectfully and thoughtfully.
You might feel inclined to lay off the topic if you’re worried you’ll make your partner feel insecure or unattractive, or that they’ll stop trusting you. These are all legitimate fears, but some people find that it's actually not a big deal in their relationship; Gina Senarighi, a therapist and couples coach, said that talking about your outside attractions can even bring you closer. “Our culture is set up to tell us that it’s wrong to have an attraction,” she said. “Every rom-com tells us that we should never find attraction or intrigue outside of our relationship.” But those expectations set people up for failure. “It is trust-building,” she said, “to be able to be vulnerable, and be our authentic selves, and have that accepted by our partner.”
Ask your partner if talking about crushes is something you’d both be OK with.
Senarighi acknowledged that these conversations might be different for every couple. If you’re wondering where to start, she compared it to wading into a pool: “Don’t jump in,” she said, by talking about how hot someone is out of nowhere if that's not something you've done together before, or feel like it might throw your partner for a loop. In figuring out what your partner is comfortable with—and what you're comfortable with: “Maybe it starts with ‘Let’s just talk about celebrity crushes, people we’re probably never gonna meet,’” Senarighi said.“Start practicing from there," said Senarighi, "and sitting with what about that makes you feel uncomfortable.” You and your partner can talk about insecurity directly, too, and if being open about outside attractions ends up feeling more unpleasant than it does fun and lighthearted, it's fine to skip these conversations if that's what works best in your relationship.Maybe this starts with casually asking your partner what physical trait they find most attractive in another person. I might answer that I’m attracted to men who are tall, women with full lips, and anyone who is friendly. These are easy entries into the crush conversation, because they’re not directed at a particular person. You could also try talking about things you love about each other that you also find attractive in other people. Maybe it’s talent or confidence, or maybe it’s something physical. Sam laughed the first time I told her about my crush on a Top Chef winner. “What is it about her?” she asked me. I told her that she had cute dimples, and that she was a bit dorky but that she also somehow seemed both confident and approachable. Sam doesn’t have dimples, but she does possess those other qualities. Seeing things I love about her at play in my attraction outside of her gave Sam—who knows me about as much as you can truly know another human—an even clearer glimpse into what delights me.
Communicating openly about sex and attraction sustains the mystery in my relationship— it's a reminder that Sam and I are and always will be two individual people, even while we’re deeply connected. Pop sex expert Esther Perel has famously taken issue with the idea that our partner should be comfortable and dependable while also somehow being adventurous, sexy, and spontaneous. Those are a lot of roles for one person. “There has to be room for us to be inspired as individuals, or we lose passion and we lose desire,” said Senarighi. She uses the term “super comfy” when acknowledging the state couples can get to when intrigue is replaced by familiarity. “Desire fatigue sets in over time,” she explained. “We need to make room for mystery and autonomy.” This is where conversations about our attraction can be especially nice: It’s an opportunity to reveal more of our individual selves, outside of the partnership.
Think about flirting over your crushes as a way for you and your partner to maintain a little sexy mystery—and potentially get closer.
“When vulnerability goes right,” said Senarighi, “We build trust.” A bonus? Emotional intimacy often leads the way to sexual intimacy. So while there might be parts of these conversations with your partner that feel dicey, other pieces of them might feel like you're sharing a secret or a fantasy. When Sam and I talk about our crushes, it almost always circles back to our own relationship. It’s one of the reasons we loved watching Bridgerton together. We were able to acknowledge; Wow, he’s hot, and they’re having super steamy fictional sex with each other, but here we are, watching from the comfort of our bed, where we get to have the real thing.
See if you can find where emotional openness can contribute to more openness sexually.
“[Outside attraction can be] a turn-on for many people,” according to Senarighi, “and it’s more common than people think.” She said that many people find it arousing to know that their partner finds someone else attractive, or that someone else finds their partner attractive, and once you talk openly about it, then there’s the possibility of sharing sexual desires or fantasies with each other in a non-threatening way. One of the best parts of being intimate in a trusting relationship is knowing that my wife is listening when I say, “This is what turns me on,” and then thinking about how we can share that together.
Jealousy is normal and, in many cases, healthy. The goal shouldn’t be to try and ditch it altogether—it should be to let jealousy do its job and reveal what it is that the person feeling it wants or desires. DeGeare suggested sitting with jealousy and exploring what it’s trying to tell you, which is usually that it’s less about your partner’s attraction, and more about your own insecurity. DeGeare pointed out that “the frustration of jealousy is often not getting to the root of the deeper fear, whether they’re insecurities about ourselves or our relationships.” If your partner admits a harmless crush on the local barista and your immediate response is anger, ask yourself what that jealousy is trying to tell you. Maybe you want more attention from your partner, and once you realize that, then you’re better equipped to communicate this to your partner. “You miss that lesson if you just react," said Senarighi. "If you sit with it, you get to learn a lot about yourself and your partner."
Make jealousy a teacher.
(Sam and I even use jealousy to flirt with each other, within reason. Years ago, at a Pride party, Sam pointed out a girl she thought was cute. Later in the night, after many drinks, I spotted her in the crowd and requested a selfie, which I immediately texted to Sam. First Sam called me a freak, but then she kissed me.)
Even if you're both into talking about crushes, you don't have to do it every single time you're attracted to somebody else; each partner is still entitled to privacy and autonomy, and for a lot of people, it might be grating to overdo it by talking about how hot every third person you see is. It’s when privacy becomes secrecy that problems with crushes can arise, and, often, they're exacerbated when people withhold their feelings from their partners. “If [a certain crush] is so touchy you can’t talk about it [when you normally would], then it goes from privacy to secrecy,” said Senarighi. “Secrecy breeds distance and resentment over time, and you’re going to keep withholding, not because you’re [necessarily] doing anything wrong, but because you don’t feel safe to tell each other things.” If something immediately raises the red flag that it feels like something you should keep from your partner, chances are they're exactly the person you should talk to.So go ahead and open up about your crushes. Talk about what excites you. If you trust your partner to share in whatever turns you on, you'll demonstrate to them that they can trust you, too.Follow Laura Leigh Abby on Twitter.