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What is Micro-Cheating?

blonde woman lying in bed with her hands above her head

And how to tell if you're doing it.

Maybe you think of something cute to say before going to get your coffee when you know that one barista’s going to be there. Or maybe your texts with a friend consistently cross the line into flirting.

Micro-cheating. It’s hard to define, partly because it’s going to be different for every relationship, but we think of it as physical cheating’s annoying younger cousin and emotional cheating’s annoying younger sister. It definitely doesn’t include any physical cheating, and it has some of the components of emotional cheating but doesn’t go quite as far.

It’s normal to sometimes fantasize about other people (sexually or otherwise). Your thoughts are just thoughts, and so are your partner’s. You don’t need to scrutinize every thought you have, or even every text you send, for signs of betrayal.

We can say this though: when you’re doing it, you know.

It’s all about intent

Whether something is micro-cheating or not all depends on the intent behind the action. The same action, like commenting on a coworker’s Instagram post, could be a form of micro-cheating or it could mean absolutely nothing.

It’s obviously different to comment on an ex’s photo with something like “wow this is hot” (this is gross, don’t do this) versus commenting on a coworker’s photo of their dog with “aw BOOP!” But it’s different still to comment on the dog photo because you have a crush on your coworker and you’re trying to connect with them versus commenting on the dog photo because you just really like dogs.

When is it a problem?

If somebody feels bad or would feel bad if they knew what was going on, it’s a problem.

How to deal

If you’re the one doing it, ask yourself why. If you’re doing it because you’re frankly just not that into your partner, it’s probably time to cut ties. It’s wrong to keep your partner on the hook while you look around for better options. But you may be doing it because it’s meeting a need that isn’t being met in your relationship, like a need for attention or for feeling special. A lot of relationships have ups and downs, and it’s normal to feel like sometimes you’re not getting everything you need from your partner. When you feel that way it’s time to communicate your needs clearly, not try to meet them outside your relationship (unless you’re in an open relationship, in which case, go right ahead).

If your partner is the one doing it, it’s totally normal to feel upset and hurt. You may even feel that you can’t trust them anymore and need to end the relationship. That’s okay. It’s also possible to grow from the experience and build a stronger relationship, if that’s what you both want to do.

Protect yourself

If it looks like things might move out of the micro- realm and into the physical realm, make sure your BC is squared away before you make any moves. And with any new partner, talk to them about getting tested for STIs beforehand. Use condoms or internal condoms (don’t forget, your nearest The Right Time health centers offer free or low-cost contraception) for STI prevention.

If you think your partner has physically cheated, as unfair as this is, it’s a good idea for you to get tested for STIs.

Beware of coercive control

None of this applies if you have an abusive partner who is accusing you of micro-cheating. If your partner monitors what you do and say on social media, tells you who you can and can’t talk to or see, reads your texts and emails, and/or tells you what you can and can’t wear, this is a form of abuse called coercive control. Help is available here.

Updated December 2019

Lauren Kernan is the Senior Content Manager at Bedsider. In her spare time, she makes paper flowers for her Etsy shop, reads about body positivity, and watches videos of her nephew over and over.

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