Experts estimate that somewhere between 25 to 75 percent of relationships experience infidelity – or, in layman’s terms, “cheating.” Why the huge gap? One explanation is that what’s considered cheating varies from person to person, and across relationships.
Does just genital-to-genital contact count? How about sexting? Maintaining an active Tinder profile? Is watching porn cheating? What about flirting?
The bad news is, there’s really no hard-and-fast answer to what constitutes cheating. Any behavior that has the potential to make a partner feel betrayed can cause harm to the relationship. While physical cheating is often widely recognized as a betrayal, other behaviors – often known as “micro-cheating” – can also leave a partner feeling betrayed, jealous, and hurt.
What is micro-cheating, exactly?
Micro-cheating might include sharing secrets with someone else that you haven’t shared with your boo, prioritizing hang time with others outside of the relationship, not being completely forthcoming about how you’re spending your personal time, or sharing intimate details about your romantic relationship – like frustrations or challenges – with an outside party. We don’t always categorize these behaviors as infidelity or cheating, but even these micro-betrayals can threaten a relationship.
An important note: There’s a difference between micro-cheating and an abusive, controlling relationship. When you define boundaries with a partner, don’t confuse micro-cheating with them preventing you from having a support system, or a life outside of the relationship (because you should have those things!). If you feel like you need to talk to someone, you can always call the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
How can you prevent micro-cheating?
People are often on different pages when it comes to what constitutes a betrayal, so open and honest communication is key. One of the best ways to prevent micro-cheating is to discuss and define what fidelity means in your relationship and keep an open line of communication throughout. Because let’s face it, every partnership is different, and what might feel is okay in one relationship might classify as a betrayal in another.
“What someone considers micro-cheating is heavily dependent upon the rules and limits that they set in their own relationship,” says relationship expert Adina Mahalli.
In order to set those rules and limits, it’s essential to be reflective on what might make you feel betrayed and to adequately and clearly share that with your partner(s). It might be helpful to think about experiences in past relationships (romantic or platonic) that made you feel icky and to consider why you might have felt that way. Using your support system – friends, family, counselors, etc. – as a sounding board to process these reflections can be helpful, too.
Once you have some ideas on what might make you feel secure in a relationship, share those things with your partner(s). Not only can this clarify relationship expectations, but it is a great way to learn about each other and build intimacy. Keep in mind that behaviors that might trigger jealousy in one partner might not be the same behaviors that trigger jealousy in another and that that’s okay. Healthy relationship boundaries aren’t always identical for all partners. Rather, it’s about making decisions that prioritize your relationship, that make your partner(s) feel loved and secure.
What to do if there’s micro-cheating in your relationship
The good news is, micro-cheating does not mean your relationship is doomed. In fact, it can be a great opportunity to take inventory of the relationship and assess – for all partners – its strength and health, identify ways to enhance it or decide that it may be time to part ways.
(Sidenote: It’s high time we start to recognize that a relationship ending does not equate a failure. Sometimes it takes some time trying a relationship on for partners to realize they’re not compatible.)
If you suspect or have discovered that your partner is micro-cheating, talk about it.
“If you feel hurt and suspicious of your partner, it might be beneficial to examine differences in communication styles and friendships off and online and have a conversation about the health of the relationship in real life,” recommends sexologist Noelle Cordeaux. But a conversation is vital. “Don't assume,” Noelle says. “Give your partner a chance to show up!"
If, in taking inventory of your own behavior, you realize you might be acting in ways that might be hurtful to your partner, take the opportunity to reflect on why you’re acting this way. Is it just out of naivety, and you could easily stop the behavior knowing it’s potentially harmful? Take that into consideration and try to stop behaving that way. If you’re realizing you’re seeking attention from others you wish you were getting from your partner, congratulations! You’ve found an excellent catalyst to prompt a (potentially hard and uncomfortable, but likely helpful in the long-run) conversation with your lover. If you realize you’re no longer invested in the relationship, perhaps it’s worth considering a break-up.
Although micro-cheating has the potential to cause frustration and hurt feelings, it can ultimately provide an opportunity for partners to more clearly articulate their individual needs and desires – which can fluctuate and change throughout the course of a romance. Increased understanding and shared meaning are always helpful in fostering healthy, satisfying relationships.