Wright Foundation | January 14, 2021

Go Beyond Flirting: How to Communicate Your Way to True Intimacy

When you want to connect with someone, do you share honestly, or do you FLIRT?

Here's how to turn flirting into true intimacy.


In the movies, we see flirting as a lot of eyelash batting, sultry glances, and witty banter back and forth. Sometimes it’s cute; sometimes it’s edgy, but rarely is it straightforward.

By its very nature, flirting is attempting to “charm” someone into bed (or at least on a date), right? It’s coy and demure, while making your interest known. It’s a way of putting yourself out there but still playing it safe, but it’s no way to reach true intimacy.

If we want true intimacy in a relationship or a potential relationship, we have to start with honesty and authenticity—not just flirting.

Are You Honest with Your Date?

When we hope to connect with someone, whether it’s a new date or building a deeper connection with our boyfriend or girlfriend, how honest should we be? We often want to present our ideal self to our potential love interest and put our “best foot forward,” right?

So what do we do? We create a dating profile online curating only the best photos. We flirt by showing a side of our personality that’s easy-going and “cool.” When we meet with a potential date, we mimic their interests because we want to be appealing and their perfect match. When we go out, we don’t order what we really want at the restaurant. We keep our opinions quiet. We may stick with neutral topics and giggle at all our date’s jokes (no matter how lame).

Before the date, we probably picked out the perfect outfit. Maybe we consulted with pals on what to say or do. When we’re really interested, we lay on the flirting extra thick to lure them in.

Flirting, as fun as it is, is unproductive at best and deceptive at least. Yes, a friendly online meeting can get the conversation started and help us assess the playing field, but don’t hide behind an idealized dating profile or a persona for dates.

Putting it all out there or walking up to someone and expressing our sincere interest might feel frightening, but it’s also a much quicker means to an end. Telling someone openly and honestly that we’re interested and genuinely intrigued at the prospect of getting to know them will create intimacy much faster than arm touching and eyelash batting.

Hook-Up Culture vs. True Intimacy

Now, in this day and age of swiping left and right, hopping into bed with someone based on looks and superficial circumstances has become commonplace. People are intimate in the sexual sense of the word, but it’s not connecting them. They aren’t getting the true intimacy out of their relationships.

What’s disturbing about today’s hook-up culture is it doesn’t allow for true intimacy. People are patting themselves on the back for being so open, yet they’re closed off in reality. They’re rebelling against their upbringing, society and they’re fearful of truly putting themselves out there. It’s vulnerable and scary to be oneself on a date or to honestly share feelings, yearnings, and dreams with someone else. But if we hold back, we won’t reach the authenticity we need for a deep connection.

True intimacy in a relationship comes not from flirting, or even sex, but communication.

We can be emotionally intimate with friends, with parents and family, but most importantly, with a partner. Emotional intimacy often feels more frightening than physical intimacy because we’re letting someone see who we truly are.

Not everyone is ready for intimacy. Some of us are still at the beginning part of our exploration and journey to discovery. We may not be prepared to date yet, and frankly, that’s okay. We don’t need to engage in a sexual relationship with people to keep them interested or put ourselves “out there.” It’s perfectly fine and encouraged to let people know we’re doing personal growth work and simply seeking new friends right now.

If we aren’t sure how to express ourselves to others or be our best, authentic selves, work on those assignments first. Explore all that untapped potential so that we can confidently share our real selves with a partner when we’re ready.

Conversation, communication, and sharing are where real intimacy is born. When we tell someone our innermost thoughts and feelings, it’s much more honest and vulnerable than flinging off our clothes and jumping into bed together. It takes real courage to tell someone how we feel and discuss what we really want.

We each owe it to ourselves to be honest, and demand what we want and need from a healthy relationship, rather than settling for a mediocre situation. Contorting our personalities and needs to match what we perceive as the desires of the person we’re dating doesn’t work. We should be who we truly are.

Honesty Breeds Healthy Conflict: And That’s Okay!

Now, when we consider how to be honest on a date, we might get a little worried. What if expressing ourselves honestly means saying something the other person doesn’t want to hear? What if we offend them or they get upset? What if we even argue?

When we’re honest, conflict will come up—probably often—and guess what? It’s okay! It’s even healthy!

Often people tiptoe around on dates (particularly women, but men do it too), trying to be “polite” and to put out a vibe they’re easy-going. We don’t want to seem high maintenance, so we might see a movie we really have no interest in watching, we might bite our tongues when a date selects a restaurant (or worse, orders FOR us). We might not order what we want to eat at the restaurant because we’re worried our date will judge us for eating too much or for munching on something awkwardly.

The sooner we let those pre-date pretenses go, the better! We can take the challenge to start going for what we want. We can be who we REALLY are!

Look at it this way, if we charm someone into falling for us, what have they really fallen for? Are they really into us, or our most charming false self? We may pretend to have so much in common, but at heart, commonalities aren’t what makes a relationship great. Instead of compatibility and commonality, we should be aiming for honesty and authenticity.

There’s a long-standing misconception about compatibility in relationships, mainly that it matters. The compatibility misconception—that having a lot in common is a sign that we’re “meant” to be together—is a variation on the soulmate misconception.

A quick look at dating sites reveals that most singles are advertising for people who share the same interests, who like the same things, and share commonalities, thinking that these enhance compatibility and likely will reveal or help them find “the one.”

The truth? According to several respected marriage researchers, common interests are overrated, and over-focusing on compatibility can be a sign of trouble when aiming for true intimacy in a relationship. Happy couples are no more or less compatible than unhappy couples. But if one spouse or the other starts to complain, saying, “We’re not compatible,” or expressing how vital compatibility is, what he or she is really saying is, “We’re not getting along.” Compatibility is transient; it comes and goes, and no couple is compatible all the time.

Good relationships aren’t about being compatible. Couples in blissful relationships work with their differences—and grow from them. What is more important is that they share deeper values, meaning, purpose, and a dedication to growing. What matters are common values, not common interests.
The Heart of the Fight

We explore this and many other misconceptions about relationships in our book, The Heart of the Fight. Even as early on as your first date, we set the precedence for setting up honesty and truth no matter where our path leads (friendship, another date, or a potential relationship). There’s no time that’s too soon for honesty.

Truth Will Build a Deeper Connection in the Long Run

Instead of conforming to a date’s whims, we should be honest about what we want and what we expect. That means, if we don’t like the restaurant, say so! If our order is wrong, speak up! If a date expresses an opinion we disagree with, let them know. It’s not mean or impolite to express our honest, real feelings.

We all owe it to ourselves to be honest in our interactions. If we want to build true intimacy, whether we’re dating or in a relationship, we must be truthful in all dealings. Honesty means sharing those deep-seated beliefs and yearnings of our hearts. It means expressing our emotions, and it means expecting the same from our partner.

If we’re operating from a place of honesty, there will be conflict, but there will also be a resolution. Eventually, as the relationship goes on, trust will continue to grow as well.

Emerging relationship research proves that couples who have truthful, angry fights early in their relationship are happier over time. Social psychology researcher James McNulty has found that the “short-term discomfort of an angry but honest conversation” is beneficial to relationships in the long run.

What we often discover is that relationships are more robust than we think. They can withstand the fireballs of argument; more to the point, these heated exchanges can catalyze insight and understanding that foster relationship growth.

Other studies show that conflict early in the relationship helps couples weed out problems that can damage the relationship in the long run. John Gottman’s (1994) research indicates that the “temporary misery” of early conflict is healthier for couples in the longer term. Interestingly, in the early years of relationships, peaceful couples report that they are happier than bickering couples. When revisited three years later, the peaceful couples are far more likely to be divorced or on their way to breaking up. The couples who worked out their issues are more likely to be in stable relationships.

If you’re holding back or attempting to flirt your way into a relationship, stop! Instead, communicate your way into getting to know each other. Don’t hold back. Follow the instinct to be yourself. Authenticity, it turns out, is one of the most charming qualities out there. Have fun! Explore, connect, and engage. Be yourself!

For more on how to navigate the waters of relationships and dating, don’t miss our book The Heart of the Fight: A Couple’s Guide to Fifteen Common Fights, What They Really Mean, and How They Can Bring You Closer. We’ll explore some of the most common conflicts that we all face in the relationship world and how we can use these conflicts to build true intimacy in any relationship.