Entertainment And News

No, Micro-Cheating Isn't A Real Thing

Photo: Zachary Delorenzo, Ilias Chebbi and Brian J. Tromp via Unsplash / Mark Specter and Artempa via Canva
woman looking over shoulder, man texting, social media notifications

Every day it seems as though there’s a new “trend” in the world of dating that’s meant to panic us all. Whether it’s “guardrailing,” “benching,” “cushioning” or some other cutesy Millennial-sounding term, there’s a flurry of articles to tell us all to watch out for it.

And now there’s “micro-cheating.”

What exactly is micro-cheating?

Originally coined around 2017 by dating expert Melanie Shilling, micro-cheating is pretty much any otherwise insignificant action that suggests a person in a relationship is engaging in "covert flirtation" with someone outside of their relationship.

"You might be engaging in micro-cheating if you secretly connect with another person on social media, if you share private jokes, if you downplay the seriousness of your relationship to your partner or if you enter their name under a code in your phone," Shilling explained to Daily Mail in 2018.

RELATED: The Question Your Partner Might Ask You Right Before They Cheat, According To Research

One of the important questions in any relationship is, simply, what have we promised to one another? For a monogamous couple, the line is fairly simple: they’ve agreed that they won’t have sex or engage in sexual activity with other people. Now, what precisely “counts” as cheating can vary, but the lines are relatively clear-cut. The idea of emotional cheating is less so. In fact, some people may question whether emotional cheating is even a thing. But while we can bicker over whether it’s possible to have an “emotional affair,” sometimes the way we interact with other people can for sure cause our partner's distress.

The supposed signs of micro-cheating are in many cases just basic human interactions with others.

Micro-cheating seems to be an epidemic, causing untold trauma to unsuspecting innocents as their lothario partners… interact with people outside their relationships like emotionally mature human beings?

According to Thought Catalog writer Mélanie Berliet, there are in fact "33 ways your partner is micro-cheating (and totally getting away with it)," such as being a good tipper, sending memes to another woman and confiding in someone other than his girlfriend.

But let’s be real here. This is, to use the technical term, absurd. It’s one thing to argue that emotional infidelity exists in the first place. It’s another entirely to pathologize normal behavior in a way that needlessly stokes the fires of insecurity and anxiety. 

To be blunt, this reads less like the behaviors of a cheating partner and the ravings of someone who’s convinced that their partner is banging telepaths whenever they close their eyes. 99.9% of the behaviors listed are quite literally basic human interactions with friends. The remainder is so baroque that I’m left wondering if it was borrowed from a bad telenovela.

And while it’s inarguable that secrecy and sketchy behavior can be signs of ill intent, there’s another, more sinister side to these “signs” of incipient infidelity.

RELATED: Woman Says Her Boyfriend's Excuse For Cheating On Her Was 'His Body His Choice' & Now She Wonders If He's Right

If there’s one common denominator with many of the signs of “micro-cheating” it’s this: you’re spending time with anyone other than your partner.

Your partner is your alpha. Your partner is omega. They are all things and all people to you and to ignore this sacred bond is a crime that can never be forgiven. In and of itself, this is the material of Overly Obsessed Girlfriend memes.

However, the underlying theme of these “micro-cheating” expressions is one of isolation and control. The idea that you don’t have any secrets from your partner, for example, is disturbing. The desire for privacy — for a corner of your life that you don’t share — becomes a cause for suspicion. Even your thoughts become suspect; are you taking a moment to daydream about something else? Cheater.

Just as disturbing is the theme of isolation. Reaching out to another friend is, likewise, a sign that you’re undermining your relationship. Having shared jokes, private conversations, or even reminiscing over your past together is “putting your partner in second place.” Any relationship with someone becomes taboo because of the potential for micro-cheating. Did that business lunch last too long? Is he making too many calls about “work” for the actual amount of work done? Is he looking too long at another woman? Why did he send that link to her? Why did he laugh like that at her joke? Is he too complimentary of her? Is he not complimentary enough?

As absurd and over the top these accusations sound, to many people, they’re distressingly familiar. It’s not a laughable way to put the fun in dysfunctional, it’s a flashback. See, the behavior encouraged by the concept of “micro-cheating” mirrors classic abusive behavior.

  • Isolating you from your friends? Check.
  • Keeping tabs on who you talk to, who you spend time with, and even who you message on Facebook? Check.
  • Demanding access to your emails and text messages? Check.
  • Constantly accusing you of “cheating” on them? Double-check.

Literally, everything becomes a “reason” for the aggrieved partner to cry “Cheater!”, including and especially activities that the abused victim might use to protect themselves. Every behavior, no matter how banal or mundane becomes justification to be angry at their lover. These supposed slights and micro-infidelities, these ways of “undermining the relationship” make all of the problems the fault of the micro-cheater. It wouldn’t be this bad if you just would stop giving reasons for them to be so mad at you all the time. 

RELATED: What It Really Means When Your Partner Cheats On You, According To Research

Part of what is so insidious about the concept of “micro-cheating” is how it plays on anxieties and fears about not just relationships, but modern society.

With the advent of social media, always-on Internet connections, texting apps, and movie studios in our pockets, we are capable of connecting with more people than ever — and often in ways that others may be unaware of.

It’s one thing if your husband comes home with the classic lipstick on his collar or your wife smells faintly of someone else’s cologne. It may break your heart to know that they’ve cheated on you, but you have a way of detecting it. It’s harder to conceal infidelity when you have to be physically present to arrange it.

But when they can have entire conversations with other people — in front of you — that you are unaware of, how can you be sure that they’re not sharing too much? With the way, Facebook encourages us to overshare and Instagram prods us to present a very particular form of glamour, how many ways are there for some homewrecker to sneak into your relationship?

And worse — you don’t know who your sweetie may be in contact with, or why. He says he’s just friends with this person… but why has he liked so many of his photos on Instagram? Why did she share that article about sex positions on his wall? Why did she tell her ex “happy birthday” with a silly little gif?

Schilling can say that you need to be rational and objective, but the questions themselves are predicated on the idea that privacy is de facto bad and that having relationships separate from your partner is inherently suspicious. It presumes, not just a universal morality, but a universal and unspoken number of rules — rules that you can break without realizing they even exist. And — in the style of all great catch-22s —questioning the premise is cause for suspicion. You wouldn’t care so much about it if you weren’t thinking about getting away with something, would you?

RELATED: 3 Harsh Lessons I've Learned By Cheating 6 Times

Micro-cheating presumes that any interest in another person is inherently bad.

But the fact of the matter is that everyone gets crushes. Everyone finds themselves infatuated with another person or finds themselves having sweaty thoughts about somebody — regardless of their relationship status. It’s part of the human condition; no one person can be all things to us. We are all going to be interested in other people and no amount of monitoring is going to change that. Monogamy just means that we choose not to sleep with other people, not that we don’t want to.

And that’s fine. But trying to safeguard the primacy of your relationship by watching for signs of “micro-cheating” just creates a system of confirmation bias; you’ll find reasons to be suspicious because you’re expecting to see them. It discourages trust between partners and actively damages the relationship.

Relationships aren’t depositions. You aren’t obligated to account for every thought, every action, and every line of text, just because you’re dating someone. Putting a ring on it doesn’t mean that you no longer have an expectation of privacy. You always have the right to your own life and your own secrets.

You also have the right to your own friendships outside of the relationship. Commitment doesn’t mean you signed a contract that says “All Your Attention Belongs To Us.” Having friends, even friends of your preferred gender, isn’t a threat to your relationship. Even being flirty with other people doesn’t mean that you are undermining things.

What makes a strong relationship are strong boundaries, not asserting one person’s beliefs as a universal standard.

It’s on both parties to discuss and agree on what the rules of their relationship are. Micro-cheating isn’t a threat to the relationship; it’s not even a thing.

The real threat to the relationship is baseless accusations and substituting anxiety as intuition. If you want your relationship to thrive, forget the “micro-cheating” discourse. Build a relationship founded on respect, trust, and communication with your partner instead.

RELATED: 4 Little Things Women Do That Men Count As Cheating

Harris O'Malley is an internationally recognized blogger and dating coach who gives dating advice to all who need them.

This article was originally published at Dr. Nerd Love. Reprinted with permission from the author.