"Flirting is an end in itself," says D.C. psychologist Martha Gross. "A flirt is someone who plays at loving. It's superficial." Usually, she says, there is no intent of following through.

Watching a partner flirt, however, sometimes can take fortitude and understanding.

"My husband always flirts," says a D.C. writing consultant. "He flirts with the checker at the Safeway. He focuses a lot of energy on her and she cashes his extra coupons. He flirts at parties, at the pool and with the 7:30 a.m. shoppers at Magruder's.

"We went to the Shoreham antiques show, and I'm standing there in my dirty jeans and a runny nose, holding two down coats, balancing a box of raisins and a can of juice while trying to keep my 3-year-old off the $18,000 Chippendale chairs. I look up and there he is, flirting with a svelte neighbor amid the lithographs."

The consultant says she finally learned to "tolerate" it. "I'm more secure, and he's toned down somewhat. I realize it's more a matter of personal style than sexual pursuit."

Differing predelictions for flirting often cause friction, acknowledges Gross. People with low self-esteem, she says, "often have unrealistic expectations, and need too much from their spouse. They think if you really loved me, you'd only pay attention to me. That's an unrealistic way of loving somebody. It's the childish wish to be the only one in their world."

Other people may flirt simply to fulfill his or her own needs. "They may be neurotic, or the person may just need a boost that day." Or a partner's flirting may signal that the relationship needs attention.

Gross advises that couples talk it over. "If you feel good about yourself and the relationship, you realize that the flirting doesn't have too much to do with you. You're more likely to say 'Oh, my husband likes pretty women.'

"But if you ask him to curb the flirting and he doesn't, then that issue must be addressed by the couple."