What Is Micro-Cheating? Here Are 16 Signs It’s Happening
If your partner sleeps with someone else behind your back, I think we can all agree that qualifies as cheating. Just try and worm your way out of that one, buddy. But what about flirting with a colleague at work, frequently posting fire emojis on someone’s Instagram photos, or texting your ex? Welcome to micro-cheating.
Although the physical act of kissing or having sex with someone else might seem way worse, these smaller, emotional forms of cheating can hurt someone just as much. And everything becomes a murky shade of grey when trying to classify what does and doesn’t count as cheating. Should we all be able to talk to and smile at and have fun with people of the opposite sex? Absolutely. You’re in a relationship, not a straightjacket. So… when does a harmless conversation turn into micro-cheating?
According to a 2015 poll by YouGov, one in five Americans admit to being unfaithful to their partner in a relationship (roughly 20%), while 41% of men and 28% of women have considered cheating. Another study published in the Journal of Sexual and Marital Therapy found that anything including sexting, lying, and intercourse could be regarded as cheating or not, depending on each person’s perspective. In other words, the study found that there are many conflicting definitions of infidelity.
So, to avoid being gaslighted by a lying, cheating, a** of a man, “but I was only on Tinder talking to multiple women because I don’t think that counts as cheating… Maybe the real problem here is you and your definition of cheating,” let’s define micro-cheating and clarify what counts as micro-cheating.
What is micro-cheating?
Micro-cheating refers to tiny things people say and do when their partner isn’t around (or sometimes even in front of them, the audacity) that dance on the knife-edge of the exclusivity boundary you have both agreed to. Although you may never physically cross a line, you are still jeopardizing the trust and integrity of your relationship. Unless you’re a narcissist, deep down, you know you’re doing something a little bit Slim Shady.
The word “micro” makes it all too easy to trivialize these small acts of betrayal, so it’s important to remember that we’re still dealing with cheating here. Equally, every relationship is different. Some couples believe that flirting with others is harmless and not a violation of boundaries, while others see it as infidelity.
So the question is, how would my partner feel about my behavior? Would they be angry, hurt, and feel betrayed? Or would they shrug their shoulders and be like, “so what?! I flirted with the postman two minutes ago and LOVED it“?
Micro-cheating usually happens via texting, dating apps, or social media. The common thread weaving these interactions together is when you’re initiating intimacy or closeness with someone else, and it’s a little more than friendly.
Here are some examples:
- Always liking and commenting on someone’s social media posts.
- Sliding into someone’s DMs.
- Sharing sexual kinks and fantasies with someone.
- Deleting messages with someone in case your partner sees them.
- Revisiting someone’s social media profiles over and over again.
- Being at a party with your partner and paying more attention to someone else.
- Dressing differently (to impress) when you know you’re going to see someone.
- Sending flirty or sexual messages.
- Joining a dating app or site to see what else is out there, see how much interest you get, or flirt.
- Lying about your relationship status or avoiding mentioning that you are in a relationship.
- Removing your wedding ring when you go out, even if you don’t intend on physically cheating.
- Talking about your sex life.
- Saying you would date someone or that they would be your type if you weren’t in a relationship.
- Constantly texting someone.
- Sending revealing photos of yourself (sexy, suggestive photos, or nudes).
- Always sharing good news with someone else before your partner.
Why do people micro-cheat?
While it’s perfectly normal to be in a healthy, committed relationship and still find other people attractive, it’s not normal to act on it.
You’re going to notice good-looking men who are not your partner, and he’s going to notice attractive women who are not you. You should both be okay with that (it’s a fact of life) and be able to talk about it in a lighthearted way without either of you being blinded by jealousy. Similarly, there will be times when people flirt with you, whether they know you’re in a relationship or not, and it’s okay to enjoy that and feel flattered, even if you don’t reciprocate. It’s also well known that during sex, people will often fantasize about someone else, which can be a healthy thing (as long as it doesn’t become the norm).
But what leads people to go one step further and micro-cheat?
Usually, it’s an ego thing. Your brain gets a quick dopamine hit in the moment, and this rush can lead to you repeating the same action over and over again in search of the same reward. Other times people are looking for more excitement or extra stimulation in the romance department.
But what does science have to say about it?
One study found that people in relationships who communicate with “back-burners” (potential romantic or sexual partners) don’t decrease their level of commitment in their relationship. Even if that is the case, what matters is whether or not your partner will feel betrayed by your actions. Too often, couples don’t sit down and discuss their boundaries and what they are and are not willing to tolerate in a relationship (this is Little Love Step #6). As you can imagine, this leads to a gigantic mess, particularly if someone feels their boundaries have been violated, but there was never a discussion about what those were to begin with.
You would think that adults are far too grown up and wise and grounded to set themselves up for disasters like this in their relationships, but sadly you’d be sorely mistaken.
How do I know if my partner is micro-cheating?
The trouble with micro-cheating is there are often no obvious clues that tell you your partner is being unfaithful. However, here are some common behaviors that could suggest they’ve got something to hide:
- They always have their phone with them, are constantly using it, and get way too worked up at the thought of you going near it.
- They won’t share any of their passwords with you (for their phone, laptop, email, etc.)
- They like and comment on every social media post that someone else makes.
- You have issues in your sex life.
- It feels like they’re sometimes checked out of the relationship.
- They often talk about how attractive others are but don’t explicitly say they’re attracted to them.
- They withdraw from you for long periods.
Is micro-cheating forgivable?
As a dating coach, it’s not my place to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do. I can only present you with the options and my advice, which comes from years and years of studying dating and relationships and helping women find long-lasting love.
If you find out your partner is micro-cheating on you, it doesn’t automatically mean you have to break up. Talk about it. Try and see where they’re coming from and the reasoning behind their actions. Voice how those actions have made you feel.
However, research has shown that people who stray in their first relationship are a staggering three times more likely to do it again in a future relationship. Plus, people who suspected their partners were unfaithful were four times more likely to have suspicions of their next partner. So while micro-cheating can undoubtedly be forgiven and moved on from, there’s a strong chance that behavior will be repeated and harm your future relationships (if there are any).
How to move forward after micro-cheating
If you’re wondering how to cope after someone micro-cheats, the best policy (as always) is honesty. Micro-cheating may just be highlighting a communication issue in your relationship. Open and honest communication is vital for building trust and intimacy between two people and is critical for any healthy relationship. This is why lying is so damaging because it erodes that trust and will eventually drive you apart.
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So, if there has been micro-cheating in your relationship, talk about it.
Ask your partner if he has feelings for the person in question. If any specific actions have made you feel betrayed, voice them. For example, “When I see X happen, it makes me feel like Y… Can we talk about setting some boundaries in our relationship to avoid this happening again?”
If your partner genuinely cares about you and your relationship, it will hurt him knowing that he has hurt you, and he will want to do whatever he can not to do it again.
A major red flag is if he refuses to talk about it, brushes off your concerns, laughs at you, or tells you you’re paranoid or clingy (another lovely example of gaslighting).
Your feelings are always valid. If your partner doesn’t respect your feelings or boundaries, this is not a micro problem; it’s a MACRO, as in MASSIVE, problem.
Establish some boundaries in your relationship
As I mentioned earlier, Step #6 of the Little Love Steps is all about setting boundaries for a committed relationship. Without setting clear, healthy boundaries, the relationship is destined to fail. So if you’ve never sat down to do this, there’s no better time than now.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Have an honest conversation
Find a neutral spot (e.g., not your place or his, or worse, your parent’s house). Have a real conversation about how you’re both feeling and where these feelings have come from. Be kind and respectful while talking to each other, but don’t censor yourself either. You don’t want to walk away from the conversation feeling like you didn’t get everything off your chest.
2. Take steps to strengthen your relationship
When someone is micro-cheating, it’s usually a sign of other issues in the relationship. Perhaps you don’t spend enough quality time together, you’re going through a dry spell in your sex life, or all the romance and chemistry that first existed between you have mostly faded away. Think about other potential issues in your relationship and how you can work together to solve those issues and rebuild trust and intimacy.
3. Chat about what counts as cheating and micro-cheating
To make sure micro-cheating doesn’t happen again, you must define what micro-cheating means to you.
Is it flirting of any kind? Is it sliding into a single, attractive person’s DMs? Does it apply to anyone of the opposite sex, or is it just anyone he has ever been attracted to?
Be specific. And even if he is the one who has micro-cheated, get him to clarify what would count as micro-cheating to him too. Would he be cool with you texting your ex, liking a colleague’s Insta photos, or hanging out on dating apps?
When you flip the tables around, a lot of men start to feel totally uncomfortable with micro-cheating all of a sudden. Funny that.
4. Have this conversation again and again
New people enter our lives every day, whether it’s coworkers, friends, or total strangers that you may never meet again. This means that there will always be new chances for micro-cheating to happen. So make sure you keep communicating about how you feel and the boundaries that are important to you in the relationship.
5. Get some support
If you need help creating a safe, non-reactive space, consider seeing a therapist together. This is particularly helpful if one or both of you struggle to communicate in a non-reactive way, and it can be beneficial for repairing your relationship.
Only you know your true intentions, and the same goes for your partner. But regardless of whether he intends to hurt you or not, if he knows you would have a problem with his behavior, that isn’t just micro-cheating; it’s full-on cheating.
It doesn’t matter what anyone else has to say about it or what other people are doing in their relationships. What matters most is your boundaries, and if someone disrespects those boundaries, they’re disrespecting you.
Have you ever been micro-cheated on? What happened? Share it with me in the comments below.