This piece is part of an ongoing editorial partnership with RealClearLife, a news and lifestyle site that connects successful men to everything they need to know. Be sure to head over to their website for the latest.
The term “micro-cheating” may sound innocuous, but late-night texts and stray likes on social media can add up to major repercussions in a relationship in the digital age.
If flirting is cheating’s ugly cousin, think of micro-cheating as a catchall term for smaller behaviors like deleting texts or lingering too long on your ex’s online accounts. On their own, they’re probably not enough to end a relationship. But piling one atop another may inspire jealousy, uncertainty and decay in a long-term partnership.
To help navigate the changing relationship landscape, RealClearLife called on psychologist Melanie Schilling and sex therapist Dr. Tammy Nelson to help break down the definition of infidelity — including how partners should handle themselves when they start waltzing across blurry lines.
“The rules of every relationship need to be determined by the couple. Straight or gay, old or young, the two individuals bring their own set of values and beliefs to the relationship and this is where they need to start,” Schilling says. “As a couple, it’s important to establish your boundaries and agree on your levels of tolerance for things like flirting with others, freedom on social media and friendships outside the relationship.”
Most couples likely already have major boundaries established — it’s almost universally agreed that swapping any type of fluid with another man or woman without a partner’s permission is cheating. But what about delving into the nitty gritty about protocol for Snapchatting a coworker, or liking an ex’s new picture on Instagram? Or peeking at the old Tinder or Bumble account?
“Sometimes what looks like a micro-cheating behavior is quite simply flirting or a close friendship, or a ‘work spouse’ relationship. It might be totally innocent,” Nelson says. But pay attention to seemingly innocuous behaviors like this, because it could spell trouble and be a sign that it’s actually the idea of an affair with which you’re flirting.
“If you see that you are doing things that include micro-cheating — behaviors like sending someone photos of yourself or selfie-flirting, sending texts to check in first thing in the morning or to say goodnight at the end of your day, sharing playlists of your favorite songs, sending social-media posts that have sexual content, meeting for drinks after work or flirting at the bar — then notice what you are doing. Don’t lie to yourself,” Nelson says. “Think long and hard about your micro-cheating before it turns into a move that you can’t take back.”
Schilling agrees that, “micro-cheating can be a precursor to full blown cheating, but not always.”
“This is why it is so important to address the behavior as soon as you notice it,” she explains to RealClearLife. “Sometimes, micro-cheating is about seeking attention from a partner, testing the limits of the relationship or rebelling against rules. Such behaviors may not always lead to infidelity, but if not addressed, they could.”
On the other hand, micro-cheating can also be “a manifestation of the early stages of infidelity. All the more reason to nip it in the bud.”
If your partner does bring up concerns about micro-cheating, Schilling says it’s important to listen without judgment: if she’s bringing it up to you, that means it’s serious enough to be a major concern to her, whether or not that seems like an overreaction.
“The tricky thing about talking about micro-cheating is that it can feel like ‘making a mountain out of a mole hill,’” Schilling says. “Sometimes, it is a collection of very small, almost imperceptible behaviors or conversations.”
If it turns out that there’s a kernel of truth in some of your partner’s concerns, both Nelson and Schilling say it’s OK to take some time to yourself to figure out what your needs are.
“Ask yourself what’s going on,” Schilling says. “What did I get out of that? What is the real reason I did that? Be really honest with yourself. What is the likely impact on my partner? How did I feel about that? Where do I want to take this? Am I pursuing another relationship?”
It might be valuable to seek the advice of another male to help you identify the answers to some of these questions.
“If you feel like you’re in over your head, ask for help. Tell a close friend what’s going on,” Nelson says. “Choose someone who you know has the emotional intelligence to have a real conversation and not just give you a quick one handed burpee hug and move on to safer subjects.
“Talk about your fears and your anxiety. And then tell them what you really want. If they’re your real friend, they’ll remind you of your true goals when they see you out at the bar next time sidling up next to the ‘work spouse.’”