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There's a woman we'll call Emma. I've known her for a few years through work she does for somebody in my family. I am in a long-term relationship, terrified of making my partner jealous, and hopelessly socially anxious usually, so we've never had a real conversation.

Usually (always) when I see her, my partner is there, but over the weekend she wasn't able to make it. Emma seemed unusually friendly and chatty, and we talked quite a lot. There was also some body language which I feel like was saying a lot more than the words, but I have no idea because I've historically been socially inept. I was actually blown away by my unexpected ability to survive the smalltalk.

So the thing is, I have no idea how to tell if she was trying to make a move with my partner not being around. She didn't say anything that would suggest ulterior motives, but like I said, there were some moments she seemed to use her body as a way of saying something else.

If I ask directly, "when you did X, were you flirting?", I have a feeling that'll just make things really weird, whether or not I'm right. Is there some tactful way to figure this out? She will be in our lives for who knows how long, due to her work, so I want to make it not-weird but also figure out wtf was going on.

And asking my partner for insight is right out. She wouldn't take it well if somebody else were showing interest in me. (Yeah, it's a fun world I live in)

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    You don't, not without a female help at least. Best you can do is forget about it. Emma will not move further (unless she's on fire) and you don't want to cheat, there's nothing to do. Just smile and wave your hand – jean Dec 5 '17 at 19:15
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    Why are you "terrified of making your partner jealous"? Sounds a bit like a toxic/abusive relationship. – peufeu Dec 5 '17 at 19:44
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    @peufeu: We (partner and I) are working through a lot right now and it may or may not work out. Which I've been very candid about for a while with her.Terror of jealousy has been an underlying theme, as has my own lack of self-confidence (hence "CowardlyLion"). Working on that through therapy, getting more confident, and then all of a sudden discovering that maybe a woman I know doesn't find me repulsive? It's a bit much. – CowardlyLion Dec 5 '17 at 19:49
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    "Terror of jealousy" sounds definitely weird. I could understand being afraid of hurting her, or afraid of her pulling out a shotgun though... But if you aren't "allowed" to have any female friends, it's damn abusive. – peufeu Dec 5 '17 at 20:00
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    @CowardlyLion If you think someone else potentially being interested is a tick in the ‘leave’ column that means you are prepared to leave for someone else and you don’t sound as though you are that fussed who. I’m not sure you have s girlfriend or a lifeboat. Have you tried learning to swim by yourself for a while? – Spagirl Dec 5 '17 at 23:36
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There are two possible underlying truths:

  • she is flirting with you (but might not even know it, and certainly might not be willing to say it)
  • she is not flirting with you

You have identified two ways of discovering the truth:

  • ask her
  • describe the situation to your partner and then ask if that is flirting

The problem with the first approach is that she might lie and say no even if she was, or she might say no because she didn't realize she was. Or she really might not have been flirting and might be really offended (perhaps to the point of quitting her job) that you asked.

The problem with the second approach is that your partner is unlikely to be able to tell from your descriptions. I discount the "my partner might be angry to think someone is interested in me" reason, since if you were to discover for sure that this person is flirting with you the first thing you're going to want to do is tell your partner. But anyway, asking your partner just doesn't seem practical since you're the only one who witnessed it and your descriptions are going to be coloured by your interpretations of what you saw and heard.

So, I am going to suggest a third way, which I think is safest since it avoids:

  • giving this person reason to believe you want to be flirted with
  • turning someone's workplace into a place you think flirting might happen
  • discussing with your partner how people behave when she's not around

Assume she was flirting. Avoid interacting with her if you don't need to. So if you're having a cup of coffee in her workplace as part of visiting your family member, don't pull up a chair and chitchat with her as part of your own break. Return to "we've never had a real conversation" status and stay there. Don't avoid her, just do whatever you did before that kept the two of you from talking much. Since your partner normally accompanies you, keep doing that since it's normal. And when your partner doesn't accompany you, stay away from Emma or even be a little stiff and formal. If you need to say something like "it appears there is no milk in the fridge," then do that, but nothing chatty and warm.

Worst case is that someone who is not your friend will be reminded they are not your friend. But if Emma had intentions on you, behaving like this will stop them. If she didn't, and was just enjoying a weekend chat with a new person, she may be momentarily disappointed, but it won't really mean anything to her because she hadn't set her cap for you, as it were.

  • As you may gather from comments, it's not so black and white as this, but for the question I asked, this is definitely good advice. – CowardlyLion Dec 5 '17 at 21:33
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    Being cold in response to someone being friendly is a great way to never make any friends -- I certainly wouldn't recommend it because of a theoretical problem. You can ensure you behave appropriately without avoiding "real conversations" with someone. – Matthew Read Jan 12 '18 at 0:47
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    @MatthewRead A place that is a family home for you and a workplace for someone else is an asymmetric situation with power imbalances that don't make it a good place to make friends. Make friends in the park, at the coffee shop, on the ski slopes, and with peers at work. – Kate Gregory Jan 12 '18 at 0:52
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The problem is that being comfortable around you and being flirtatious aren't really different until one starts thinking about it too much. Sort of like a Schrödinger's cat situation: by trying to categorize it, you create the categories in the first place.

Of course, one option is to never categorize it until you feel bothered. For one thing that may be a bit of a non-option with a jealous girlfriend: the dynamics then lean towards her considering it flirtation, and you then decide that it isn't. Poor cat.

For another, you are already bothered. The problem is that if you are bothered on behalf of your girlfriend's reaction rather than that of yourself, expressing that puts you on the defensive.

The simplest way to leave the cat in the bag is not to react in particular and avoid seeking out similar situations in future. That should either calm down things or at least put you on reasonably stable footing you can defend towards both your friend and your girlfriend.

Things may or may not be likely to escalate otherwise but there is no necessity to know. You want to be dealing with potentially stressful situations from a position you are comfortable being in.

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