We like to assume the difference between cheating and loyalty in a monogamous relationship is black and white, but of course everything—especially in relationships–is gray. Sure, sleeping with someone outside of the relationship behind one partner's back is pretty undoubtedly considered cheating. But what about frequently hanging out with someone you're sexually attracted to? The latter, and more obscure, scenario could fall under the umbrella of "micro cheating."
What is micro-cheating?
Micro-cheating is the act of cultivating, in small ways, inappropriate intimate connections outside your relationship, according to couples therapist Alicia Muñoz, LPC.
This subtle form of cheating doesn't involve physical intimacy with the other (i.e. they haven't kissed or had sex with another person), but the actions do break a couple's agreements about romantic exclusivity in other ways.
"Many people don't consider emotional affairs to be cheating since they aren't having sex," AASECT-certified sex therapist Jessa Zimmerman writes for mbg. "But it is the secrecy and betrayal of trust that creates the most damage."
What types of behaviors count as micro-cheating?
Importantly, what counts as "cheating" in any relationship will depend on the type of agreements the two people have about exclusivity. But in general, here are some behaviors that likely count as micro-cheating in a typical monogamous relationship, according to Muñoz:
- Cultivating intimate or erotic energy with others
- Cultivating a fantasy of emotional closeness with others
- Seeking out repeated intimate interactions with exes
- Seeking out repeated intimate interactions with people you find attractive
- Revisiting a person when you feel upset in your committed romantic relationship
- Regularly draining your erotic energy with social media or other digital means, creating an intimacy drought in your relationship
"Micro-cheating often begins with lying to yourself," Muñoz says. "Often, it involves a slew of subtle psychological defenses like minimizing, rationalizing, and denying."
To keep yourself honest and determine whether the connections are harmless or inappropriate, she recommends asking yourself: What would my partner think/feel if they saw me doing this? Or: Does doing this deepen my connection to my partner, or distance me from my partner?
Signs someone is micro-cheating.
If you're worried your partner may be cheating or micro-cheating on you, Muñoz shares a list of potential signs to help you spot it:
- They are fixated on their phones when they normally would not be, making them not present in the relationship.
- They seem indifferent or checked out when you're speaking to them clearly, directly, and with vulnerability.
- They become defensive when you ask them about an interaction or social media exchange they've had.
- They regularly hint at others' attractiveness but don't state their needs and feelings to you directly.
- They withdraw and become detached for long stretches of time—especially in times of stress or conflict.
What might micro-cheating mean about your relationship?
There are many reasons people cheat, according to sex therapist Tammy Nelson, Ph.D. "A person may be cheating because they like who they are when they're with their affair partner. They might feel sexier, smarter, more charming, and more alive when they cheat. With their spouse at home, they might feel invisible, dull, boring, or old," she writes at mbg.
Zimmerman says this subtler form of cheating often starts by accident. "What begins as a work dinner, a message from an old friend or flame, or a shared workout at the gym can be developed into a flirtation and an intimate affair," she writes. "Many people have these interactions without it turning into cheating. Others, especially those who aren't completely fulfilled in their own relationships, begin to indulge the feelings of validation, attraction, and excitement."
Micro-cheating can be caused by a momentary lapse of judgment, but it could also be a sign that the relationship isn't right for you. "Some affairs are what I call 'can openers'—a way to end your partnership even when you didn't know you wanted out," Nelson says. "It's an unconscious way to wake yourself up to the fact that it really is over."
All that said, a relationship isn't necessarily over if there's been micro-cheating in the past. "If both people are open to learning about their own contribution to the problems in the [relationship], if they're willing to learn how to take responsibility for themselves, they can actually create a much better relationship than they had before," psychologist Margaret Paul, Ph.D., previously told mbg.
How to deal with micro-cheating in a relationship:
Commit to changed behavior.
If micro-cheating has become an issue in your relationship, Muñoz recommends directly discussing it with your partner. It's important for the person who has been micro-cheating to understand how it makes their partner feel and to commit to changing their behavior. This also includes ending any current "micro-affairs" they may be having. Once those micro-affairs have been ended, both partners can work on rebuilding the relationship—if they choose to, that is.
(Here's more on how to stop cheating, if this is something you personally struggle with.)
Discuss boundaries and agreements.
Following a period of mistrust, setting boundaries and establishing open communication are really helpful for repairing the relationship.
"You can talk about the boundaries that help you both feel safe when it comes to flirtation, erotic images, 'best friends,' close work colleagues, etc.," Muñoz says. Additionally, couples can make a "fierce honesty" pact, where they both agree to be more open with their impulses and urges. This can help boost confidence when either partner is feeling insecure, she explains.
Define what monogamy means to you.
Nelson also recommends creating a concrete definition of monogamy together. "Monogamy is not a biological prison, nor is it a privilege. It is an agreement. It is a choice. It is something you choose every day," she says. "Therefore, the agreement should be as explicit as it can be. After an affair, talk about what you want in your new monogamy agreement. What constitutes monogamy for both of you?"
Get some support.
Working with a couples' therapist and listening to emotionally informative audiobooks or podcasts together, in addition to talking about your own needs and listening to your partner's, can all go a long way in repairing the hurt relationship.
The bottom line.
Micro-cheating is not quite as obvious as a physical affair, especially since each couple will define it differently, based on their boundaries. If you're wondering whether your actions count as micro-cheating or are worried your partner might be doing it to you, it may be time to have an open, vulnerable conversation with one another about the issue.
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.