Micro-cheating – what is it?
Micro-cheating is defined as a type of behavior that shows faint romantic interest in someone other than one’s current partner.
It’s generally characterized by activities that can be seen as small infractions—such as liking a photo on a social media platform, flirting with someone online, or having a text conversation with someone you’re interested in—but the gray area between “harmless” and “dishonest” can make it a tricky subject to navigate.
Although it’s often associated with cheating on a partner, micro-cheating has become increasingly prevalent among people who haven’t made any public commitment to each other yet but are spending time getting to know one another and building trust.
If you’re dating but not committed to being monogamous, micro-cheating may not be an issue. However, if your goal is ultimately to pursue something long term and exclusive, this behavior could indicate that there is some work ahead before you get there.
So how do you know if your behavior qualifies as “micro-cheating”?
Assess what your actions are saying: Are they harmless or harmful? Are they helpful or hurtful? Do they support the relationship you want to have? If the answer is yes across the board, it sounds like you’ve got nothing to worry about.
Is it always bad?
Even when the dictionary definition of micro-cheating is black and white, it doesn’t always mean that there’s no gray area. To a certain extent, what is considered harmless flirting to one person may be a violation of boundaries to another. The key is listening to your partner(s) and having open communication about what kind of behavior you are each comfortable with.
When it comes down to it, micro-cheating isn’t necessarily bad, but lying definitely is. It’s important to work through any potential issues that arise directly with your partner instead of allowing the lies and dishonesty to fester into something far worse—even if they seem small at first. If you feel like you’re being cheated on in any way—whether or not it would be considered “micro” cheating—that’s something that should be addressed head-on with your partner.
Communication is crucial for maintaining a healthy relationship, so don’t make assumptions about what is OK or not OK in terms of flirting with others when dating someone new.
The bottom line: As long as cheating isn’t part of the equation (and as long as both sides are comfortably aware), then honest flirting may actually enhance intimacy instead of breaking trust.
What are the signs of micro-cheating?
You might have heard of micro-cheating—the term comes from “small cheating,” or smaller infractions that could collectively make up a larger one. Micro-cheating can be something as insignificant as eating an entire pint of ice cream while on your own, but in some cases, it could be more serious.
The things that count as “cheating” ultimately depend on the type of agreement the partners have about exclusivity, or on whatever they’ve discussed as acceptable and not acceptable. But some of the behaviors that are often considered as micro-cheating are:
- Giving more attention to someone who isn’t your partner than your actual partner
- Muting a thread with someone or deleting a text exchange so your partner won’t discover you’re chatting
- Sharing things such as sexual tastes, kinks, and fantasies with someone who isn’t your partner
- Fantasizing about having emotional closeness or being intimate with others
- Having repeated intimate interactions with people you like or find attractive
Micro-cheating isn’t just about behaviors and actions; it’s more about lying and keeping secrets, and how those lies and secrets affect your relationship with your partner.
What if you’re micro-cheating, and don’t realize it?
You might not realize it, but some of your actions may already be forms of micro-cheating. But, then again, it can be subjective and it depends on the boundaries you’ve set with your partner/s.
Generally, micro-cheating involves someone else’s attention, approval, and feelings over your partner. And it often involves subtle psychological defenses such as rationalizing and denying.
What to do about it
If you’ve ever been micro-cheated on, or you find yourself doing it (even unintentionally), what can you do? Here are some ways to work through the problem as a couple:
- Be honest with yourself and your partner. Your feelings are valid and deserve to be heard.
- Don’t make excuses for the other person’s behavior. It is possible for someone to commit these actions without realizing it, but making excuses is just another form of lying, which undermines trust and intimacy in your relationship.
- Work on your communication skills as a couple. Try to talk about things that upset you as soon as they happen (or soon after), so you don’t hold them in and let them build up until they become an issue later on.
If there’s something that really bothers you, try using “I statements”, where instead of saying “you always…”, say “I feel like…” so both parties have time to breathe before responding defensively.
- Set boundaries around what is acceptable behavior in your relationship—and enforce them when necessary!
For example if someone goes behind their partner’s back by keeping secrets or spending too much time alone with an ex/crush instead of being open about it like an adult, then there should probably be consequences for those actions which could include anything from having a serious talk about why that behavior was hurtful all the way up to breaking up because some people just aren’t ready for commitment yet.
Micro-cheating may not always be obvious. But what counts as micro-cheating ultimately depends on what the partners have agreed upon. This is why having an open and honest conversation about emotional, physical, and sexual boundaries is so important in any relationship — and it’s best to do it as early as possible.
Moore, A. (August 30, 2022). What Is Micro-Cheating? 6 Behaviors That May Cross The Line In Relationships. MBGRelationships. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/micro-cheating
Manning-Schaffel, V. (September 17, 2018). What is ‘micro-cheating’? And does it really count? Better by Today. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/pop-culture/what-micro-cheating-does-it-really-count-ncna905206
Kassel, G. (November 25, 2019). What Exactly Is ‘Micro-Cheating’? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/micro-cheating
Welss, R. (July 12, 2021). How Partners Can Cheat Without Cheating. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/love-and-sex-in-the-digital-age/202107/how-partners-can-cheat-without-cheating#:~:text=But%20what%20about%20%E2%80%9Cmicro%2Dcheating,without%20actually%20being%20physically%20unfaithful.%E2%80%9D