The term micro-cheating refers to small breaches of trust in a relationship that don’t pass the threshold into a physical affair. For example, someone may leave their wedding ring at home when they go out alone or secretly chat with an ex-partner online. Acts of micro-cheating are subjective and therefore can be difficult to navigate in relationships. But if they occur consistently, they can signal larger relationship problems.
Micro-cheating involves behaviors that lead someone to question their partner’s emotional or physical commitment to the relationship. These actions may include an individual regularly texting someone they find attractive, for example, or having an online relationship with someone they confide in but don’t meet in person. Such behavior may fall into an ethical gray area. Therefore, they can sometimes be difficult to identify, confront, and discuss.
Micro-cheating is subjective; an act or behavior could be characterized as micro-cheating by one person but considered completely fine for another. Therefore examples should be taken with a grain of salt but may include:
• Interacting with an ex-partner in a manner that makes their partner feel uncomfortable.
• Not making it clear to others that he or she is in an exclusive relationship, particularly when someone else is making advances.
• Allowing and even encouraging others' sexual advances.
• Secretly communicating with an ex-partner.
• Gifting others with private or prized possessions or money.
• Seeking emotional comfort and confiding in someone besides one's partner.
• Joining a dating site.
The definition of micro-cheating is subjective and depends on each couple and their expectations in a relationship. Nevertheless, considering a few overarching signs can help identify some commonly perceived forms of micro-cheating.
• Your significant other consistently tries to hide interactions with someone else.
• Your significant other repeatedly prioritizes someone else over you.
• Your significant other gets overly defensive when you ask anything about a particular person.
• Your significant other has a significant unexplained behavior change.
A warning sign of micro-cheating is continuously uncovering harmless secrets about a partner’s friendships. For example, if you find out that your partner has been having lunch with an attractive coworker for a few weeks and hasn’t told you, that probably isn’t cause for alarm. But if this happens repeatedly, trust may begin to waver. If you notice that your partner is frequently texting, flirting, or hiding things from you, and they have cheated before, you may want to reconsider whether you can trust them.
Research suggests that women may be more emotionally affected by online micro-cheating behaviors than men, suggesting that micro-cheating may be experienced more strongly by women. Women may also be more jealous after learning about micro-cheating. The action itself may not be as important to the perceptions of it as the context and intention.
An emotional affair or emotional infidelity is when someone has an intimate connection with someone outside of their relationship. Like micro-cheating, this doesn’t involve a physical affair. Emotional affairs exist on a continuum, from, for example, periodic lunches seeking support and complaining about a partner, to an ongoing relationship in which the two people say “I love you” to one another.
For more, see Emotional Infidelity.
Micro-cheating is tricky to navigate in a relationship. After all, some of what people consider micro-cheating is relatively normal behavior both in and out of a relationship. Being in a relationship doesn’t mean that people stop responding in natural ways to attention from those other than their primary partner. Micro-cheating occurs on a spectrum, and while one event may not be cause for alarm, a pattern may be a concern. The concept is also subjective, as people bring different beliefs into each relationship.
Given these challenges, it’s helpful to discuss ideas and expectations about what is and isn’t permitted with a partner at the outset. If a breach does emerge, it depends on the severity but in many cases, it may be best to approach the conversation with curiosity and openness.
Couples can prevent breaches of trust by discussing and negotiating the terms of their relationship, both at the start and as the relationship evolves. For example, is it okay to flirt with other people? Have an occasional dinner with an ex? Have a relationship with someone on Instagram whom they will never meet? Have cybersex outside the relationship if they never meet physically? People often enter into a relationship with different expectations, and discussing them together can bring clarity to both partners.
If you suspect micro-cheating and want to raise it with your partner, it can help to emotionally separate yourself from the information and weigh the signs that your relationship is strong, happy, and fulfilling against the signs that your partner is being deceitful or uninterested.
You may ask yourself questions such as: How important is this information? Has your partner ever given you a reason to doubt their faithfulness? Have you kept similar secrets from your partner? What was your motivation behind keeping this information secret from them?
After you take time to assess the situation, explain to your partner that you feel confused, upset, or blindsided by the recent revelation. Maintain curiosity rather than jumping to accusations. Allow your partner to respond while keeping an open mind. This may involve multiple conversations or the help of a therapist.
Infidelity or micro-cheating is often revealed digitally, so if someone is worried, it’s natural to want to monitor their partner’s phone or social media accounts. However, surveillance isn’t the best approach, because it can lead to mistrust and relationship deterioration. If someone suspects that their partner is behaving unethically, it’s best to discuss it with them directly.