I define infidelity (cheating) as “the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.” Please note that this definition of cheating does not talk specifically about affairs, porn, strip clubs, hookup apps, or any other specific sexual or romantic act. Instead, it focuses on what matters most to a betrayed partner – the loss of relationship trust.
For betrayed partners, it’s not any specific sexual or romantic act causes the most pain. Instead, it’s the lying, the secret keeping, the lies of omission, the manipulation, and the fact that they can no longer trust a single thing the cheater says or does (or anything that the cheater has said and done in the past). That loss of trust can be (and usually is) emotionally and psychologically devastating.
This brings us to the topic du jour: micro-cheating. Cosmopolitan defines micro-cheating as “small things you do that could have whispers of infidelity – without actually being physically unfaithful.” Time defines micro-cheating as “a set of behaviors that flirts with the line between faithfulness and unfaithfulness.”
The difference, in my mind, between micro-cheating and full-blown infidelity lies not in the specifics of the sextracurricular act, but in how profoundly the lies and secrets about that behavior impact the betrayed partner when he or she finds out. Cheating, micro or otherwise, is less about the behavior and more about lies and the keeping of secrets and the impact on the betrayed partner.
Common behaviors that some people consider micro-cheating include:
- Texting and/or chatting on social media
- Dressing differently if/when you know you will see a particular person
- Lying or keeping secrets about lunches or after-work drinks with a coworker
- Liking and positively commenting on a person’s Instagram pics
- Tinder swiping (even though you never follow up)
The list of possible micro-cheating behaviors is pretty much endless. And some behaviors that might be problematic for one couple could be perfectly OK for another. So a particular behavior might qualify as full-blown infidelity for one couple, micro-cheating for another, and not a problem at all for another. For example, some couples might feel flirting at work as a way of moving up the ladder is just fine, while others would call that micro-cheating or even full-on cheating. The same might be true with porn use, Facebook chats with an ex, hookup apps, etc.
I think it’s important to point out that much of what most people consider micro-cheating is relatively normal behavior both in and out of a relationship. If you see someone that you find attractive and that person smiles at you, you’re probably going to return that with your own best smile and maybe even a quick eyebrow-raise, regardless of your relationship status. Being in a relationship does not mean we stop responding in very natural ways to attention from people other than our primary partner. And the fact that we respond in kind when someone blatantly (or subtly) flirts with us is not a reflection of the strength and quality of our primary relationship.
That said, if an individual intentionally and actively engages in micro-cheating on a regular basis, that alone might elevate the behavior to the level of full-blown cheating. The fact that any one instance would not be deeply upsetting to the betrayed partner does not preclude a series of micro-cheating behaviors from adding up and heightening the impact.
SIDE NOTE: Other terms that people sometimes misuse to make infidelity OK (in their own mind) include “new monogamy” and “polyamory.” These individuals define new monogamy and polyamory as being officially linked with one person but being able to sleep around, regardless of how that makes their primary partner feel. In actuality, new monogamy means that a couple mutually defines what boundaries are and are not acceptable in their relationship (as opposed to one person unilaterally deciding what’s OK without considering the input and feelings of the other). And polyamory means you openly and honestly love more than one person at the same time, with everybody in the relationship being knowledgeable about and OK with that (as opposed to sneaking around on your primary partner and saying you’re doing it because you’re polyamorous).
At the end of the day, how a couple defines and reacts to micro-cheating depends on the couple. As always, when there is disagreement about what does and does not constitute cheating in a relationship, the best approach to resolving this conflict and ultimately strengthening the relationship is open and honest communication. This can occur with or without the assistance of a therapist. Either way, open, honest, non-reactive communication is the key to healthy intimacy. The more open and honest a couple is, the more intimacy they will have.
For more information about defining and overcoming infidelity, I recommend reading Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating. This book is written primarily for heterosexual men who’ve cheated on their wives, but the information applies to all sexual and romantic relationships.