Micro‑Cheating Is When Someone Flirts, or Strays Slightly Outside the Bounds of a Relationship. Is it Infidelity?
Indulging in sneaky late-night chats with one’s office crush, going on liking sprees on Instagram, lying about one’s relationship status on social media… none of these are, per se, suspicious. Digital dances of myriad kinds with online strangers are a common feature of life on the internet.
In the realm of modern love, micro-cheating is among the countless challenges and ethical dilemmas that are on the rise. A term used to describe subtle acts of infidelity that fall short of outright physical or emotional betrayal, micro-cheating encompasses a range of behaviors that involve flirtatious interactions outside of the bounds of one’s relationship. In doing so, the notion of micro-cheating becomes a frontier that reflects the prevailing ethical norms governing individuals in committed relationships. But while the idea of micro-cheating raises important questions about the kind of boundaries we set in modern relationships, it doesn’t conclusively determine exactly where to draw the line between innocent social interactions and actions that erode trust within a relationship.
“I have had a client who was micro-cheating in the world of gaming. This person was online as a digital personality and having a ‘relationship’ with another digital personality. It all played out on screen, but in some of the games they were able to be ‘intimate,'” recounts Gwen Butler, a sex therapist and couples’ counsellor. “It’s complicated, because on one hand, my client could say that it’s not happening in real life and there is nothing going on physically. It’s all fantasy… [But when m]y client’s real life partner became aware of the digital relationship… [they] fe[lt] betrayed.”
It is, perhaps, the subjective nature of relationships and varying expectations within them that make it difficult to establish universal guidelines around micro-cheating; some indeed dismiss it as harmless fun, while others perceive it as a breach of trust, an emotional betrayal, or a marker of dissatisfaction within the relationship. Caroline Madden, a marriage therapist from California, believes the latter to be common driver behind micro-cheating. “Since the pandemic started… I have many clients confide in me that they are surprised at how much they miss certain coworkers. It turns out that the ‘special friend’ at the office was acting as a Band-Aid on a bad marriage by meeting their needs for respect, appreciation, and emotional connection.”
According to Madden, micro-cheating isn’t a novel phenomenon, though. “This isn’t new, it just has been given a cutesy name to make it sound harmless. It isn’t.” Prior to the digital domain offering limitless possibilities for connection, micro-cheating took the form of taking off one’s wedding ring at bars, downplaying one’s relationship and misrepresenting its seriousness, secretly staying in touch with former flames, and even discussing the intricacies of one’s partnership with someone outside the relationship, without the knowledge of their partners. Indeed, micro-cheating can start off innocently; but so can adultery.
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Recalling yet another incident she encountered at work, Butler narrates the story of a man who “worked really well together [with his colleague], until the boundaries became blurred.” In time, they started hanging out outside of work, drinking together, and soon, “[H]e began to share his marital stress with this work friend. When you start sharing really intimate information about your relationship you are treading a really fine line that can be crossed to allow other behaviors to take place. That’s exactly what happened. They started out having an emotional relationship through micro-cheating behaviors, and then a physical relationship developed. Ultimately his marriage did not make it.”
This echoes the experiences of a woman in her late twenties, A. “My ex constantly flirted with others. [He] called it harmless flirting. It was. Until it wasn’t,” she says.
Some experts, however, believe that micro-cheating can be reframed in a positive way. “[The act of micro-cheating] can help excavate any underlying issues in the relationship, including boundaries, self-expression, and emotional needs… present[ing] an opportunity to examine feelings and set appropriate boundaries,” states an article on Body+Soul, adding: “[Y]ou can reframe the guilt associated with micro-cheating as an opportunity to check in with yourself and your partner… [I]f approached in a mindful and respectful way, [micro-cheating] can also be an opportunity for growth and self-reflection.”
One the other hand, many believe that since micro-cheating involves consistent emotional investment, it can be worse than physically cheating on one’s partner. “In many cases, physical cheating is an impulsive act… On the other hand, emotional affairs are intentional, and require a series of increasingly intimate decisions over a period of time,” explains psychiatrist Anisha Patel-Dunn. “It can feel easier to forgive a spouse for a one-night stand than for months of lying and deception.”
Trust forms the foundation of any healthy relationship, and micro-cheating can undermine this integral ingredient. But if one’s honest with their partner about engaging in flirtatious banter outside the relationship, would their actions still tread the line of infidelity? “I’m in a monogamous relationship, but I’ve chatted and flirted with boys. I have also been aware of another guy liking me, but didn’t cut off contact with him because, well, what if I need his help some day? I’m on dating apps, too, since I like forging new connections. My partner knows all of this,” states B. “But there’s one lie: my parents are sending me profiles of perspective grooms, and I’m talking to them just to keep my parents happy.”
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B.’s actions provide nuance to the ethics surrounding micro-cheating. In the absence of open communication, her interactions with the men she’s flirting and connecting with, would likely be an act of cheating — however minor it may be. In the instance of her communicating with prospective matches, though, she’s probably not intent upon establishing any romantic or sexual relationship, but merely acting out of a sense of obligation to her parents. Is it cheating, then? According to Melanie Schilling, the Australian psychologist credited with coining the term “micro-cheating,” it is. “Secrecy is the tell-tale sign. Micro-cheating is a subtle betrayal and it needs secrecy to fuel its fire,” she notes.
Indeed, without the element of deceit, actions that could, potentially, fall within the purview of micro-cheating — confiding in a friend about the relationship troubles one is undergoing, hiding one’s partner from one’s family, and maintaining contact with one’s exes, among other things — may be entirely innocent.
But this brings up yet another question: does being open with one’s partner about flirtatious banter outside one’s relationship ensure that one’s acts don’t constitute micro-cheating? Referring to her client who micro-cheated in the gaming universe, Butler opines, “[I]f my client’s partner was there watching, enjoying and taking part, perhaps that would be ok[ay].”
But irrespective of what would’ve constituted micro-cheating in this instance, the fact remains that whether an action amounts to cheating is complicated by the notion of consent as a number of questions abound: is one’s partner actually okay with them flirting, or are they being emotionally, economically, or socially compelled into being okay with it? Is one’s partner, perhaps, being manipulated into agreeing? Is there, perhaps, an unequal power dynamic conflicting with their assent? If so, then it’s likely an act of micro-cheating — if not outright emotional abuse by one’s intimate partner.
“While physical cheating is obviously much more black and white, micro-cheating involves forms of subtle signals and patterns which demonstrate that you are not 100% focused on your partner. Evidently, the area in which these behaviors lie is far more grey,” says therapist Amanda Bacchus. “Remember, the main difference between harmless flirtation and micro-cheating is the intention behind the actions.”