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Is Micro-Cheating Damaging Your Relationship?

Micro-cheating can be detrimental to your relationship. Learn more about this form of betrayal, including why it happens and how to navigate it.

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We live in an age where we can communicate with people all around the world whenever we wish. Sure, this has made it much easier to start and maintain relationships with people. However, it also means that cheating on your significant other has gotten a bit easier. When you think of someone cheating on their partner, you might picture a late-night rendezvous or an office fling. But there’s another form of cheating that can be detrimental to a relationship and leave wounds that are just as deep as a full-blown affair. Before we get a little too comfortable outside of our relationships, let’s take a look at the effects of micro-cheating.

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A Small Step in the Wrong Direction

Many of us are familiar with physical cheating: a person engages in sexual activity with someone besides their partner. However, micro-cheating is when a person in a committed relationship behaves inappropriately, often secretly or dishonestly. It’s also considered a situation where someone is striving to develop emotional intimacy outside of their relationship. Some examples of micro-cheating include messaging old flames on social media, flirting with friends or co-workers, and sneaking out to spend time with someone else. 

Although these cheating behaviors are “small” compared to full-blown affairs, they show that a person is focused on someone outside of their relationship. Therefore, these actions can have just as big of an impact on the relationship as physical cheating.

How Micro-Cheating Can Impact Your Relationship

While it may seem like it’s not a big deal at first, micro-cheating can be hugely detrimental to a relationship. The tell-tale signs of micro-cheating alone wouldn’t be considered cheating per se. But they seem to be the first steps in developing an intimate relationship with someone else. 

It doesn’t matter if these behaviors are reciprocated or not. They’re still enough to make the other person in the relationship feel a bit icky. This feeling can begin to erode trust and end up snowballing rapidly, ultimately bringing an end to a relationship.

Before we start discussing how and why, let’s look at two different scenarios related to cheating that can help provide context.

Scenario One: Drunken Mistake

A man goes out one night with a group of friends. They drink too much alcohol, and in a drunken state, the man has a romantic encounter with a person who isn’t his significant other. This person is someone they met at the bar and will most likely not see again. Even if the encounter didn’t mean anything, it’s still considered cheating and frowned upon by most people. 

Scenario Two: Deliberate Deception

A man is bored one night, so he sends a message to his high school girlfriend on Facebook. He says she looks great in her profile photo. The ex thanks him, and a conversation starts. Over the next few days, they send a few messages back and forth, catching up on what has happened in their lives. They realize they’re both going to be at their high school reunion in a few weeks and decide to grab a drink beforehand. 

As the big day gets closer and closer, the man begins to feel nervous about seeing his ex again. He starts working out a little bit harder at the gym and watching what he eats. The day finally arrives, and he meets his ex at a bar a few doors down from the venue where their reunion is being held. He doesn’t tell his partner he’s meeting his former flame. 

In this scenario, many of these behaviors would be considered micro-cheating. After all, the man’s main area of focus is no longer on his partner. Instead, it’s being directed to someone he used to date decades ago. 

Different Impacts

At first glance, Scenario One seems to be much worse since the person had a sexual connection with someone outside of their monogamous relationship. However, Scenario Two may be more hurtful. One of the reasons why micro-cheating can feel worse than one-off cheating is that all of those small actions were deliberate. Throughout the whole situation, there were many opportunities for the man to take a step back and realize what he was doing. He could have stopped it but chose not to.

Understanding Why People Cheat

When considering the difference between cheating and micro-cheating, it’s important to understand why people cheat. The answers are always slightly different, but the fundamental reason is the same. People usually cheat when something is missing from their relationship. Maybe communication or intimacy is lacking. Everyone has different needs, and possibly the partner isn’t meeting a certain need like they used to. Cheating can also occur when someone is suffering from low self-esteem. They could start to relish the attention they’re getting from another person.

In other cases, micro-cheating may simply be caused by not having clear boundaries. This is particularly common when you’re at the start of the relationship. After all, you haven’t quite established whether or not the relationship is monogamous or what you expect from one another.

In the case of Scenario One listed above, that need is fairly obvious. However, in Scenario Two, it’s a bit different. The man may have decided to contact his ex because he missed her. But it’s somewhat more likely that he did it because he wanted to know someone was interested in him. The micro-cheater gets validation concerning their own self-worth when they engage in this kind of flirtation outside of monogamy. This certainly doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it does go a long way in explaining why it happens. 

How to Know if Someone is Micro-Cheating

At first glance, it may be hard to tell if your significant other is cheating or if you’re reading into something too much. That friendly message or quick hug may be nothing. But if things don’t feel right in your relationship, it could be something. If your gut is telling you something is going on, that might be your body’s defense mechanism kicking in and trying to prevent you from getting hurt. 

Unless a person is caught sending explicit messages or being physically intimate with someone else, it’s sometimes difficult to know for sure if they’re micro-cheating. Most likely, you won’t be able to confirm your significant other is taking the first steps in developing a physical relationship or becoming emotionally involved with someone else. But if you can’t quite shake the feeling something is going on, it’s important to be open and honest with your partner. 

This means opening up about how you’re feeling and why certain behaviors they’re displaying are making you uncomfortable. Pay attention to how they react to your concerns. If they’re defensive, they may have something to hide. Meanwhile, if they’re just confused about what you’re talking about, the behavior may be more innocent than you originally suspected. 

Common Signs of Micro-Cheating

While micro-cheating differs from person to person, there are a few warning signs you should keep an eye out for. These include

  • Exchanging WhatsApp numbers or social media profiles and sending frequent Instagram, Facebook, or text messages 
  • Flirting
  • Maintaining a close relationship with an ex
  • Lying about relationship status or hiding their wedding ring to make it seem like they aren’t in a committed relationship 
  • Confiding intimate details about your relationship with other people
  • Playing around on dating apps
  • Sexting with people outside of the relationship
  • Checking out of the relationship or seeming absent

Any of these behaviors should send up a red flag. While it doesn’t ALWAYS mean that your significant other is planning on physically cheating on you, this emotional cheating can be the first step on a slippery slope of immorality. 

What to Do If Someone is Micro-Cheating

Assessing the Situation and Exploring Your Feelings

If you’re in a situation where you feel like your partner is micro-cheating, stay calm. Think carefully about what you’re feeling and why by exploring these questions:

  • Do you feel more sensitive regarding your partner’s behavior towards a particular person?
  • What is the past relationship between the two people in question?
  • Is the interaction between your partner and the other person inappropriate for their relationship? For example, is your partner getting messages late at night from a co-worker? Or is the co-worker suddenly liking all of their social media posts?
  • Did they once date?
  • Are they childhood friends?
  • Does your partner spend a lot of time with a co-worker?
  • Does your partner have a track record of cheating or micro-cheating?

As you provide answers to yourself, try to keep a clear head. Just because someone has cheated before doesn’t mean they will automatically do it again. They may have learned their lesson if you were willing to take them back after the first time. 

Keep in mind that your significant other may not even realize they’re micro-cheating. You also need to figure out whether the third party is instigating the behavior. If your partner is getting frequent messages from an ex but very rarely responding, don’t forget to give this fact the proper weight as you choose your next course of action. 

Deciding How to Move Forward

If you discover that your partner is micro-cheating, it’s completely normal to feel a sense of betrayal. However, at this point, it’s important to remember that you’re in control of the situation. It may not feel like it at the time, but you get to decide whether you want to break up or find a way to resolve, forgive, or forget. The ball’s in your court. 

In saying that, if you decide to end it, explain the reason why. As mentioned before, slightly oblivious people may not realize what they’re doing. Others may be doing it because they like how it makes them feel. 

If you want to make the relationship work, it’s worth your while to hear the other person out. This doesn’t mean you need to forget what happened and forgive them. But do give them the chance to explain things from their point of view. At this point, you need to be wary of gaslighting. This technique is often used to make people feel like the situation is their fault and that they are the bad guy.

Once you feel like you truly understand what has happened and why, you can decide how you want the relationship to proceed. Once again, you are the one who holds the power here. Don’t forget that. 

Getting Outside Support

As you maneuver your way through this relationship minefield, it could be really helpful to seek outside support. Depending on the situation, support could come from friends and family or couples therapy. These outside sources can help you make sense of the situation either by yourself or as a couple. 

Friends and family who have known you for a while could help you gain perspective on what is happening and can be a calming force when you’re really stressed out about the situation. The one hurdle with this is that, often, the people who are closest to you are the ones who may be the least likely to give you their honest opinion about your significant other. Many people think it’s not their place to comment, so choose wisely when you’re trying to find someone to confide in. 

Alternatively, relationship experts will help you examine your emotional connection, personal issues, and sex life. Confiding in them can really help you take a step back and get a sense of any underlying issues with the relationship that could be causing this emotional infidelity.

If you’re nervous about talking to someone else about what’s going on, you can still find help through other means! Podcasts, books, and blog articles can be great resources when it comes to relationship advice. They can give you a wide array of perspectives. It’s also a good idea to read some first-hand accounts of micro-cheating from relationships that have survived it. 

Protecting Your Mental Health

Whatever you decide to do, protect your mental health. Most of us will do what we can to protect our physical health. We put on our seat belts, we go to the doctor when we’re sick, etc. You should be just as protective of your mental health as you are with your physical health. Mental health plays an important role in your overall well-being, and it shouldn’t be ignored. At the end of the day, your #1 priority should be yourself. You need to be strong and healthy in order to take care of and nurture the people around you. 

Dealing With Micro-Cheating When Kids Are Involved

Knowing when to end a relationship gets much more complicated when there are kids involved. After all, it could mean that the children spend less time with a parent or parental figure and are likely to have their lives disrupted. In this case, it’s even more important to try and truly understand why this form of cheating is happening before you decide what to do. Emotional affairs occur for a variety of reasons, and it’s crucial to take into account how your partner feels and why they’re acting this way. 

Getting Ready to Love

We hope our guide to micro-cheating has given you a new understanding or perspective on this common form of disconnection. As is usually the case, communication is an important part of a strong bond. Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations and set healthy boundaries! And if it isn’t possible to find a resolution, it may be time to leave.

If you’d like to read more articles about building and maintaining healthy relationships, head over to our Connect blog. It’s full of helpful articles covering everything from the red flags of gaslighting in a relationship to romance in the digital age.

We also have an awesome array of scratch-off adventure books. These are perfectly designed for friends, families, and couples to build stronger relationships while spending quality time together. Full of over 50 different scratch-off challenges and adventures you can do at home or while you’re out and about, our books help you turn the ordinary into the extraordinary!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is micro-cheating?

Micro-cheating is considered being emotionally intimate with someone who is not your significant other or displaying inappropriate behavior toward a friend or a co-worker.

What are the most common signs of micro-cheating?

Some of the most common signs of micro-cheating include engaging in secretive behavior, checking out of the relationship, or maintaining a close, intimate relationship with an ex.

Can I forgive micro-cheating?

Depending on the situation, it’s possible to forgive micro-cheating. If you address it early on, you can commit to clear communication and solidify your bond with steady date nights.

What does micro-cheating look like?

Micro-cheating is often combined with secrecy, a lack of intimacy, and an overall coldness. Micro-cheating is caused by one person’s emotional or physical needs not being met.

Is micro-cheating bad?

Micro-cheating isn’t necessarily bad on its own. However, there’s a slippery slope between micro-cheating and full-blown cheating, and it can be just as detrimental to relationships. 

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