Is Your Spouse Micro-Cheating? Here’s What that Is and How to Know
These things may look innocent at first but they can have serious consequences.
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Although cheating is as old as time, you might be surprised to learn that people are still coming up with creative new ways to do it. Enter micro-cheating, the latest way people are stepping out on their relationships—but they may not even realize what they’re doing. Thanks to the rise of digital technology and the impact of current events, it’s no surprise micro-cheating is mega-trending.
What is micro-cheating?
This phrase has been used recently to describe day-to-day actions that could be considered “inappropriate flirting” when someone is in a relationship. The hallmark of micro-cheating is being emotionally and perhaps even physically focused on a person who isn’t your partner. “What is cheating?” is one of the questions sex therapists get asked the most. For a more detailed look, here’s what relationship experts say are some of the common ways people micro-cheat:
- Texting flirty jokes and memes
- Making a Tinder profile just to see how many matches/likes you get
- Putting extra effort into your appearance in case you run into your crush
- Google stalking a crush
- Lying about your relationship status, either in person or online
- Sending anonymous flirty messages, tweets, or posts
- Liking and/or commenting on a crush’s social media
- Discussing your sex life with someone who isn’t your partner
- Constantly texting throughout the day
- Sending “feelin’ cute” or slightly revealing selfies to a crush
- Hiding a friendship
- Telling someone you’d date them if you/they weren’t married
- Having inside jokes that your partner isn’t a part of
- Inventing reasons to see or spend time with your crush
- Confiding emotionally intimate things in someone who’s not your partner
- Sexting, including graphic language and sending nudes
It’s a slippery slope
While these behaviors may seem innocent on the surface, micro-cheating takes harmless crushing to the next level and if left unchecked, can lead to a full-blown affair, says Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, psychiatrist, chief medical officer of LifeStance Health, and co-founder of Pacific Coast Psychiatric Associates in Walnut Creek, California. Even if it never turns physical, micro-cheating fits all the criteria for an emotional affair, and those can be even more damaging to your relationship, she says.
“In many cases, physical cheating is an impulsive act, often as the result of being temporarily impaired from drinking,” she says. “On the other hand, emotional affairs are intentional, and require a series of increasingly intimate decisions over a period of time.” Both types of affairs are terrible (and they can happen together) but it’s often the emotional aspect that is the hardest to recover from because it was premeditated, she says.
“It can feel easier to forgive a spouse for a one-night stand than for months of lying and deception,” she says.
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Micro-cheating is real cheating
These behaviors can feel like a gray area. Things that are totally innocent when done between friends become cheating when one or both people get feelings for each other, says Caroline Madden, PhD, author of Fool Me Once: Should I Take Back My Cheating Husband? and a marriage therapist specializing in healing after infidelity in Burbank, California. For instance, having lunch with an old friend is a great way to reconnect, but if you have always harbored a crush on this person, a solo lunch all-too-quickly can lead to flirting. In addition, different people have different comfort levels in a relationship; some things that you may consider micro-cheating, your best friend may take more seriously.
When it comes to deciding if something is cheating, follow the Golden Rule principle. “Ask yourself, if you found out your partner was doing what you are about to do, would it hurt your feelings?” Madden says. “Transparency is everything. Any picture or text you send to a ‘friend’ should be able to be posted on social media or sent to your mother.” (You may also want to brush up on these five rules of a happy marriage.)
However, don’t get caught up in black-and-white definitions as that can be a way to rationalize bad behavior, Madden says. Only you know your own feelings and motives and it’s important to be honest with yourself about them. What other people think is irrelevant; the only person whose opinion counts in this conversation is your partner’s, Madden says.
“Bottom line, doing anything that your partner would have a problem with is cheating in your relationship. And, yes, this is in fact ‘real’ cheating. These behaviors are the beginning of the slippery slope that leads to a full-blown sexual affair,” she says. “This isn’t new, it just has been given a cutesy name to make it sound harmless. It isn’t.” (Here’s how to tell if you’re in a codependent relationship.)
Why micro-cheating is on the rise
The pandemic and other disruptive current events have created a perfect storm for micro-cheating, Dr. Patel-Dunn says. A lot of micro-cheating happens through digital means like social media and texting because it’s easier to hide or explain away than physical actions. And, thanks to working from home and quarantine orders, many of us are spending more time online than ever.
It’s not just quarantine, though. The upheaval of normal life has cut people off from their social support groups and coping techniques. Plus, spending extra time together in a stressful situation has made a lot of people see flaws in their relationship, which can lead to increased fighting. And without the distraction of the day-to-day busyness, there’s plenty of time to ruminate on problems and idealize other people who aren’t in the thick of it with you, she explains.
“Since the pandemic started and many people are now working from home, I have many clients confide in me that they are surprised at how much they miss certain coworkers,” Madden says. “It turns out that the ‘special friend’ at the office was acting as a Band-Aid on a bad marriage by meeting their needs for respect, appreciation, and emotional connection.” The quarantine has made some people realize they are stuck in an empty marriage or toxic relationship, she says.
“The core issue is that current events have greatly increased anxiety and insecurity, putting people in a very emotionally vulnerable position,” Dr. Patel-Dunn explains. “It’s normal for people to look for comfort and support from friends and loved ones during these times and sometimes that can turn into cheating.”
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Signs your spouse might be micro-cheating on you
It can be difficult to tell when your spouse is micro-cheating, specifically because many of these behaviors can be innocent in the right context. So it’s important to look at other behaviors that may indicate they’re being sneaky.
They always keep their phone face down
You can’t see notifications that pop up if your partner keeps their phone face down. Some micro-cheaters will go so far as to disguise texting apps as other apps or only chat within password-protected social media private messages, Madden says.
They delete whole text conversations
Are there whole text threads missing with someone you know your spouse texts regularly with? “If they are deleting stuff so you don’t accidentally see something, even if it has nothing to do with sex, that is still cheating,” Madden says. “There’s a reason they feel like they have to hide it and it’s not a good reason.”
They’re constantly on their phone during family time
If you ask your spouse to put the phone away so you can have uninterrupted time together, and they can’t, that’s a red flag, Dr. Patel-Dunn says. It shows they prioritize that “friendship” over your relationship.
They call someone “just a friend” but spend more time talking to them than you
“People caught micro-cheating will almost always claim they are ‘just friends’ with the person you are worried about,” Madden says. “If the other person has feelings for them, they might not even be aware that they are on a slippery slope.” Pay more attention to what your spouse does than what they say.
They won’t share their phone passcode
There are plenty of reasons you need the passcode to your partner’s phone—like using it to look something up or answering the phone when their mom calls, Madden says. People who don’t have anything to hide won’t have an issue sharing their unlock code. (Hint: This can also be a sign of sex addiction.)
They like and comment on every single post a friend makes
This is definitely a thing that more and more couples fight about these days with everyone on social media. Liking and commenting on another person’s social media posts isn’t a definitive sign your partner is cheating but it can give you a lot of clues, Madden says. For instance, if your husband is liking all the bikini pics of the woman next door or your wife comments on every post her high school crush makes, it’s evidence they are spending a lot of time thinking about that person in a flirty way. Likes and comments often lead to private messages, she adds. Many people say that there were early warning signs on social media of cheating.
They have someone saved in their phone under the wrong name
Any time someone is lying, there’s a problem, Dr. Patel-Dunn says. So if you notice that your spouse is constantly texting with someone whose name you don’t recognize, they’re either hiding their relationship with that person from you or they’ve saved someone you do know under a false name—often a name of the opposite gender, to throw off suspicion.
They swear they could never cheat and laugh at those who do
Some people think, either due to low self-esteem or an overestimation of their willpower, that cheating could never possibly be a temptation for them. “This is dangerous. Because he thinks he would never cheat, he feels free to get really close to the edge,” Madden says. “Then he falls off the cliff taking his marriage and your heart with him.”
Your sex life is dead
When your partner is getting their romantic and sexual needs met through another person, they naturally turn less to you, Dr. Patel-Dunn says. This often manifests as a declining sex life and much less physical and emotional intimacy between you.”
What to do if your spouse is micro-cheating
“The best way to counteract and prevent micro-cheating is to work on strengthening your relationship,” Madden says. “Lean into the relationship, pay more attention to your partner, plan date nights. Because here is the truth: Many people are tempted to cheat because they don’t feel appreciated or loved at home.”
Oftentimes micro-cheating highlights what is lacking in your relationship, Dr. Patel-Dunn says. “One or both partners may be surprised to realize micro-cheating is happening because it starts on a very subconscious level,” she says. “This is a real opportunity for introspection and communication. You need to talk about it and get it out in the open.”
These conversations can be very difficult to have, particularly if your spouse is in denial about their micro-cheating, Dr. Patel-Dunn says. In this case, it’s time to get marriage counseling immediately, before micro-cheating turns into something more devastating. “If both partners are committed to fixing the underlying issues, this type of emotional honesty can strengthen your relationship and fortify you against micro-cheating in the future.”
- Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, psychiatrist, Chief Medical Officer of LifeStance Health and co-founder of Pacific Coast Psychiatric Associates in Walnut Creek, California
- Caroline Madden, PhD, LMFT, author of "Fool Me Once: Should I Take Back My Cheating Husband?" and a marriage therapist specializing in healing after infidelity in Burbank, California