Say you’re in a committed relationship, but you send funny memes and inside jokes back and forth with a former flame. Or you go out for drinks once or twice a week with an attractive co-worker.
A full-blown affair isn’t happening, but you could be toeing the line of infidelity if you’re intentionally hiding the messages or social outings from your partner. Micro-cheating is the catchall term that describes interactions that fit somewhere in the gray area between faithful and unfaithful.
What Is microcheating?
“[Microcheating] is anything that you’re doing that is violating the boundaries of your relationship… but does not strictly fall into [another] definition of cheating,” said Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center.
Meeting up at a seedy motel room with a lover other than your partner is a pretty clear-cut example of cheating—and it’s universally frowned upon. Micro cheating, on the other hand, is a bit more ambiguous.
The Huffington Post published an article in 2016 called “33 Ways Your Boyfriend Is Micro-Cheating (And Totally Getting Away With It),"” listing microcheating scenarios such as your boyfriend sharing special news with someone other than you to sending a “good morning” text to another person.
The validity of those scenarios were hotly debated by readers in a Reddit thread. One commenter wrote: “[In my opinion], this article is nitpicky and (at least mostly) ridiculous. The majority of these “microcheating” examples seem to be centered around the concept that women and men primarily interact for the purpose of [sex] and courtship.”
While another commenter found the microcheating scenarios a bit more distasteful: “Most things on that list are emotional cheating or flirting. I’m not okay with either. I need monogamy in a relationship, and I consider flirting with others disrespectful to me.”
Ultimately, what is or isn’t micro cheating can vary from one couple to another. “Most people know where that boundary would be for their partner,” said Toni Coleman, a Washington, D.C.-based psychotherapist and relationship coach. Talking to or going out for happy hour with an ex may be OK in some relationships. While in other pairings, communicating with an ex is not OK, and keeping it a secret is a breach of trust.
If you’re not sure whether you’re microcheating or not, here’s the one-question test Coleman recommends: Are you doing anything that you think your partner would be uncomfortable with if they knew about it? If not, you’re in the clear. If the answer is yes, there’s a chance you’re microcheating.
Is microcheating considered infidelity?
Infidelity is also defined by the people involved in the actual relationship. Some people may not view certain micro cheating behaviors as infidelity as long as they’re informed, according to Bilek. For example, it may not be off-limits for two people in a relationship to maintain close friendships with the opposite sex as long as it’s out in the open.
Microcheating, however, can lead down a slippery slope to more serious affairs. “It’s kind of like the gateway drug concept,” said Coleman. Few affairs start from a chance encounter and whirlwind romance with a stranger.
Most affairs happen with an old flame, co-worker or an old friend, and it starts as flirting or various forms of microcheating, Coleman said. Maybe you compliment someone, or things get touchy after too many drinks. Small signals can give the impression to others that you’re on the market and it can potentially turn into a larger problem.
Examples of microcheating
Microcheating can present itself in many different ways. Some examples are blatant, while others are less glaringly obvious. It’s important to note that not all interactions with someone other than your partner falls into the microcheating category.
Flirting, for example, is actually natural. “In fact, there is a kind of sexual energy around people who find each other attractive,” said Coleman. People in committed relationships may flirt, but boundaries must be respected. The line is drawn where a partner feels uncomfortable or thinks the behavior is inappropriate.
Some examples of microcheating include:
- Heightened social media interactions, such as spending a lot of time checking someone’s social media profile, commenting on pictures or chatting through private messages, especially if it’s with an ex.
- Using pseudonyms for your phone contacts, so the actual name doesn’t come up on a call or text.
- Going out for lunch or drinks with a friend or co-worker, knowing there’s an attraction.
- Reminiscing with exes, old flames or friends. This is a step beyond just checking up on old friends; it includes having conversations that move from “How are you?” to _"_I’ve always had a crush on you” and _"_Where were you when I was single?".
- Keeping an active dating app profile or otherwise doing activities that single people do, even without intent of following through with a date.
- Having intimate conversations that involve connecting with someone emotionally. This may flirt with the line of full-fledged emotional cheating.
Microcheating warning signs
The signs of microcheating are similar to signs of other cheating. Subtle changes to how your partner acts should catch your attention. Watch out for:
New interests. A partner starts gaining interest in new activities and losing interest in old ones out of the blue. There may not be cause for concern if your partner wants to share the new hobbies with you, according to Coleman. But if they’re secretive about it, something deeper could be going on.
A new appearance. They start gussying up before work, changing their wardrobe or enhancing their appearance, possibly to impress someone.
A hidden phone. Your partner hides their phone, clicks out of phone apps or changes the screen on their computer when you come in the room.
Changing hours. They have unexplained changes to their work hours or daily schedule. They act evasive when you ask where they’ve been.
A gut feeling. Sometimes your gut can be the best judge of a problem in a relationship before you stumble upon actual evidence. Maybe you haven’t seen many concrete signs, but you feel something is amiss. Start paying closer attention to you partner’s actions so you can pinpoint behaviors that you can confront.
Related: Signs She Could Be Cheating
How to deal with microcheating
If you’re the one micro cheating, think about what the behavior is saying about you and the relationship. One-on-one counseling can help you gain some clarity, said Coleman. If you believe your partner is micro cheating, here are some suggestions on how to address the situation:
- Prepare to bring examples to the table. Take note of each strange behavior you’ve witnessed to bring up when you decide to talk with your partner.
- Confront the behavior in person. Let your partner know you’re feeling a disconnect or noticing a change. Bring up the microcheating concerns with them in person so you can pick up on facial expressions and body language.
- Don’t be threatening. Be calm but direct—speaking angrily or making harsh accusations can make the person defensive.
- Seek counseling together. Discussing problems with a professional may help put the relationship back on track.
- Decide if you want to continue. Even major situations of infidelity can be overcome, according to Bilek. But that doesn’t mean every relationship lasts forever. You and your partner may have to decide whether you can agree on boundaries or if it’s best to just part ways.
- Protect yourself in the future. Before you get serious with someone, doing a people search can help you find out background information like their social media pages, websites and more. Doing your research may clue you in to whether they’re involved in current relationships with people that may push your boundaries.
The bottom line
Microcheating is cheating if it pushes the limits of your relationship and you or your partner feels disrespected. The boundaries for a relationship can vary, which is why it’s important to speak with your partner about what you both will accept and won’t accept in the relationship.