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What is 'micro-cheating'? And does it really count?

Cheating, micro or otherwise, is less about the particular behavior, and more about the keeping of secrets and the impact of those secrets when uncovered.
Image: A couple argues on the street
Isn’t micro-cheating just another buzzy term for having a wandering eye? It depends on how often the eye wanders, and when it does, if it lingers.Hybrid Images / Getty Images/Cultura RF

Cheating is fairly common. According to a 2015 poll by YouGov/The Economist, one in five Americans admit to having been unfaithful within the context of a committed relationship. And many of those who haven’t been unfaithful have at least considered it — 41 percent of men admit to thinking about cheating on their partners, as opposed to 28 percent of women.

This is where “micro-cheating” might come into play. The relationship experts we spoke to define micro-cheating as behaviors that hover near the mutually agreed upon boundaries in your relationship that comprise fidelity — from logging on to a dating site to see what’s out there, to forging emotional relationships that are more emotionally charged and sexually tinged than a typical, platonic connection.

Ty Tashiro, psychologist and author of "The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love", defines micro-cheating as “a relatively small act of emotional infidelity with someone outside of a person's committed relationship” that mostly occurs through occurs through apps, texting, or online interactions.

But is micro-cheating, cheating? Tashiro believes so. “Though micro-cheating does not involve physical contact with someone outside the committed relationship, it’s important to avoid the temptation to overemphasize the ‘micro’ part of the phrase and remember that ‘cheating’ is the operative word,” he says. “When one betrays a partner’s trust there are always emotional consequences for the partner’s well-being and the integrity of the relationship.”

The damage lies in the deception

Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT and CEO of Seeking Integrity, an online community that addresses behavioral health challenges, says the difference between micro-cheating and full-on infidelity is better defined by how much your secret interactions might affect your partner when he or she finds out.

“Different behaviors might be infidelity for one couple, micro-cheating for another couple, and not a problem at all for another couple. Cheating, micro or otherwise, is less about the particular behavior, and more about the keeping of secrets and the impact of those secrets when uncovered,” says Weiss. “For instance, some couples would think that flirting is OK, some couples would call it micro-cheating, and others would call it full-blown infidelity.”

Is micro-cheating the same as a wandering eye?

Why do people feel compelled to micro-cheat? A variety of reasons, says Weiss. “I suspect that most micro-cheating is done on impulse, for a bit of excitement or extra stimulation. It’s like ordering cheesecake for dinner instead of a salad. You get a little bit of a rush from it without going totally overboard,” he explains.

Weiss says it’s somewhat normal to find other people attractive within a committed relationship — just not to act on it. “Being in a relationship does not mean you never notice anyone other than your partner,” says Weiss. “It also doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it when someone flirts with you regardless of whether you respond in kind. Nor does this type of behavior automatically reflect poorly on the strength of your relationship or how attractive you find your partner or how good your sex life is,” he says.

Isn’t micro-cheating just another buzzy term for having a wandering eye? It depends on how often the eye wanders, and when it does, if it lingers. Recent research from Florida State University examined how couples married for just over three years reacted to photos of potential partners. Those who quickly looked away from the photos were less likely to cheat than those who didn’t look away as quickly. They also discovered a tendency to put your partner above all others by devaluing or downgrading the attractiveness of potential romantic partners lowered the risk of infidelity.

After all, solid relationships are based on trust — and micro-cheating isn’t exactly a trustworthy behavior if you’re keeping your interactions on the downlow. “What is lost on many people who cheat is that their interpretation or rationalization of the cheating behavior does not matter, it’s the interpretation of their partner and their partner’s feelings that matter,” says Tashiro. “There’s an old saying in social psychology, ‘What’s perceived as real is real in its consequences,’ and that certainly applies to micro-cheating. When someone feels that there has been an infidelity, there is a sense that an agreed upon standard has been intentionally violated and it’s human to respond to deception with anger, distrust and loss of affection,” he says.

What’s more, once trust is blown, it’s hard to regain and science says it’s for good reason. A study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior found those who strayed in their first relationship were three times more likely to stray in their next relationship. And those who suspected their partners were stepping out on them were four times more likely to think their next partner was as well.

Honesty is the best policy

So how should a couple best deal with micro-cheating? Be honest and straightforward, says Weiss: “Micro-cheating isn’t necessarily a sign of anything except maybe that a couple needs to do a better job of communicating. And better communication can occur with or without therapeutic assistance. Open, honest, non-reactive communication is the key to healthy intimacy. The more open and honest a couple is, the more intimacy they have. Remember, with infidelity, it’s not the specific behavior, it’s the lying and secrets that drive a couple apart. If you can eliminate the lies and secrets, the relationship gets much stronger.”

And if your partner doesn’t own up, you have to stand up for yourself and what you find acceptable, says Tashiro. “When partners rationalize their micro-cheating, it should come as a warning sign that they are insensitive to your needs and well-being. If the partner continues to micro-cheat or refuses to discuss the topic with you, then it might be worthwhile to seek professional counseling.” After all, if you don’t have a partner that isn’t honest and doesn’t respect your feelings and boundaries, your issues might be more macro than micro.


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