Sure, it’s easy to identify cheating when there’s genital licking/stroking/touching involved.
But what about with things that are a little more subtle — like winking, under-the-table app swiping, or knee touching?
There’s a word for those things that flirt the (very thin) line between fidelity and infidelity: micro-cheating.
“Micro-cheating refers to small acts that are almost cheating,” says Tammy Shaklee, LGBTQ relationship expert and founder of H4M Matchmaking.
What counts as “cheating” is different in every relationship, so what qualifies as micro-cheating can vary, too.
As a general rule, micro-cheating is anything that’s more emotionally, physically, or sexually charged than what’s considered kosher in your relationship.
“It’s a slippery slope,” she says. “It’s anything that could lead to full-blown cheating in the future.”
Nope! Thanks to our new obsession with naming dating trends and tragedies, we just now have the language to call this behavior out.
Shaklee notes the most common forms of micro-cheating involve text messaging and social media (*cough* DM slides *cough*), so if micro-cheating seems more common than ever before, it’s because we’ve become increasingly Online.
No, but the two have some overlap.
As Gigi Engle, Lifestyle Condoms brand ambassador, certified sex coach, and author of “All the F*cking Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life” says, “Emotional cheating is a cousin of micro-cheating.”
With emotional cheating there’s zero hanky panky, but there’s an inappropriate emotional investment.
Micro-cheating, on the other hand, doesn’t refer exclusively to emotional boundary crossing.
Again, it all depends on what things count as cheating in your relationship.
This means that anything from downloading the new dating app Lex “just to check it out!” to playing with a friend’s hair, double-tapping an ex’s Instagram photo, or having regular, ahem, extended lunches with a co-worker could count.
Other examples include:
- always replying to a specific person’s Instagram story
- paying more attention to someone who isn’t your partner than your actual partner at a party
- muting someone or deleting a text exchange so your partner won’t find out you’re chatting
- sharing personal details about sexual tastes, kinks, and fantasies with someone who isn’t your partner
Engle calls out that micro-cheating isn’t exclusive to monogamous relationships.
“If you have an open relationship where you’re allowed to have sex outside the relationship, but no feelings, having a secret emotional relationship with someone would be a form of mirco-cheating.”
She adds that the same goes if you’re in a polyamorous relationship and don’t tell your partner about someone new you’re seeing despite having agreed to.
It’s generally overinvesting time, energy, or head space in a person who isn’t your partner, says Shaklee.
That may mean getting a bit too attached to a co-worker — think lengthy work lunches, routinely picking them up coffee in the morning, or messaging after hours.
It may mean being a little too “friendly” on social media — liking someone’s old photos, visiting their profile over and over, or sliding into their DMs.
It could even mean dressing differently when you know you’re going to see a certain someone (#dresstoimpress), or failing to mention your Main to someone you find attractive.
“If your gut tells you that your partner would feel uncomfortable by your actions or gestures — or you feel uncomfortable — it’s a pretty good indication that you’re micro-cheating,” says Engle.
The number one sign that you’re micro-cheating is prioritizing someone else — and their feelings, approval, or attention — over your partner.
“When something good happens, are you telling someone before you tell your partner?” asks Shaklee. “When someone else is talking, do you find yourself physically maneuvering towards them?”
If the answer is Y-E-S to any of these, start figuring out WHY you’ve been acting or feeling this way.
Are you experiencing less attention from, intimacy with, or excitement toward your partner than before? Your questionable behavior may be indicative of dissatisfaction within the current state of your relationship.
If so — and you think your relationship is worth salvaging — it’s time to work with your partner to fix that.
If, however, there’s been a noticeable shift in your relationship that doesn’t feel amendable, the solution may be to breakup, says Shaklee.
It’s time to chit chat. “Come to your partner with specific examples of the micro-cheating. Explain how their behavior is hurting you,” says Engle.
The goal should be to leave the conversation with a game plan for moving forward (or not…).
How to enter the conversation:
- “I’m noticing that you’re extra physically affectionate with X; I’d love to have a conversation about whether that’s something you’re aware of, why that might be the case, and how it makes me feel.”
- “I’m nervous to bring this up, but I saw that you commented a string of heart emojis on your ex’s photo, and it makes me feel uncomfortable. Would you be open to a conversation about social media and boundaries?”
- “We’ve been seeing each other for a few months now, and I’d love to have a conversation about deleting dating apps off our phones and not ‘swiping just for kicks’ anymore.”
Remember: Your feelings are valid.
“If they blow you off saying ‘it’s no big deal,’ or make you feel needy or unreasonable, that’s a form of gaslighting,” says Engle. And that’s good reason to reconsider your relationship.
But, if your partner responds with care, and is open to changing their behavior and setting boundaries, your relationship could grow stronger.
Building boundaries where there previously weren’t any can be tricky. These steps can help.
Have an honest conversation. Head to neutral territory (think: park, parked car, coffee shop), then, get realll well, real, about what you’re feeling and where you think that feeling is stemming from. (And be sure your partner has space to share their feelings, too!).
Take steps to strengthen your relationship. Because micro-cheating is usually indicative of issues within the relationship, work with your partner to rectify that. That may entail better prioritizing quality time, starting to schedule sex, or engaging in more PDA.
Chat about what counts as cheating and micro-cheating. And be specific! Is DMing anyone and everyone on Instagram a no-no? Or just people you’ve previously dated or had an interest in? Is physical affection always inappropriate, or just when it’s directed towards single friends? Is talking with a co-worker after-hours always unfair, or just when it happens over text (as opposed to email)?
Have this conversation again and again. As new co-workers, friends, and acquaintances enter your lives and social feeds, new opportunities for micro-cheating will come up. So continue checking in with your partner about what feels comfortable within the structure of your relationship.
The truth, according to Engle, it that “not every couple will be able to move past the micro-cheating.”
But, if moving past it is the goal, Shaklee says the recipe is consistent care, honesty, ongoing gestures of love, reassurance, and prioritization of the relationship.
“Seeking the assistance of a licensed professional who can help you work through it can also help,” she says.
What counts as micro-cheating varies from relationship to relationship, depending on what’s been established as cheating. This is why creating emotional, physical, and sexual boundaries (and sooner rather than later!) is so important.
If micro-cheating does happen within the relationship, it’s important to address it and then come up with a plan to keep it from happening again.
After all, it may be called micro-cheating, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a macro-issue.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.