Every day it seems as though there’s a new “trend” in the world of dating that’s meant to panic us all. Whether it’s “cuffing season”, “backburnering”, “roaching”1 or some other cutesy Millennial-sounding name, there’s a flurry of articles to tell us all to watch out for it. And now there’s “micro-cheating”.
I was blissfully unaware of this current concept until Friday. That was when, as so often happens, my friends decided that evidently I don’t have enough rage in my life. But hey, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t at least brush up on the latest dating panics.
Needless to say, I have some opinions on the concept of “micro-cheating”. And why, specifically, it’s bullshit.
Let’s begin, shall we?
What, Exactly, Is Micro-Cheating?
One of the important questions in any relationship is, simply, what have we promised to one another? For a monogamous couple, the line is fairly simple: they’ve agreed that they won’t have sex or engage in sexual activity with other people. Now, what precisely “counts” as cheating can vary – for some, it’s kissing, for others it requires the exchange of bodily fluids – but the lines are relatively clear cut. The idea of “emotional” cheating is… less so. In fact, many people would question whether emotional cheating is even a thing. But while we can dicker over whether it’s possible to have an “emotional affair”, sometimes the way we interact with other people can cause our partners distress.
But then we have “micro-cheating”.
Dating expert Melanie Shilling told Huffington Post Australia that mirco-cheating is “a series of seemingly small actions that indicate a person is emotionally or physically focused on someone outside their relationship.” And what would micro-cheating entail?
According to Shilling, one example would be texting someone outside your relationship or giving them compliments that you don’t give your partner. Other examples include commemorating anniversaries or memories with your ex, shutting chat windows when your partner enters the room, spending too much time on your phone on a date, or sending too many heart emojis when you text someone.
Did you have a business meeting with someone of the opposite sex3 and not get any business done? Micro-cheating, according to Shilling.
Shilling is hardly the first to use the term micro-cheating. In the article 33 Ways Your Boyfriend Is Micro-Cheating (And Totally Getting Away With It), other examples include:
- Reaching out to a girl who’s “just a friend” for a recommendation or advice on an issue he could easily Google the answer to
- Confiding in or venting to someone other than his girlfriend when he’s feeling especially emotional
- Recommending that his girlfriend starts wearing a certain type of clothing because he secretly wants her to look like the girl he’s kind of crushing on.
- Gifting his girlfriend with a bottle of the perfume his crush wears so she’ll smell like his latest fantasy chick.
- Closing his eyes when he needs a minute to escape and daydreaming about the girl he’s crushing on
- Sending a photo to an ex that reminds him of a good time past
- Establishing secret code words and/or inside jokes with women outside his romantic relationship
Needless to say, micro-cheating seems to be an epidemic, causing untold trauma to unsuspecting innocents as their lothario partners… interact with people outside their relationships like emotionally mature human beings?
This? This right here is why Daddy drinks.
This Is How To Be A Human
OK, let’s be real here. This is, to use the technical term, mindfuckingly absurd. It’s one thing to argue that emotional infidelity exists in the first place. It’s another entirely to pathologize normal behavior in a way that needlessly stokes the fires of insecurity and anxiety. The idea that someone can not only be cheating on you, but possibly cheating on you without realizing it is so far into the waters of what-the-fuckery that sanity is only a speck on the horizon. To be blunt, this reads less like the behaviors of a cheating partner and the ravings of someone who’s convinced that their partner is banging telepaths whenever they close their eyes.
99.9% of the behaviors listed are quite literally basic human interaction with friends. The remainder is so baroque that I’m left wondering if it was borrowed from a bad telenovela.
Take Shilling’s example of reaching out to an ex about an anniversary or some other significant event. To some, this might be seen as a sign of putting an ex ahead of your partner. Others might recognize this as “being a friend”. Ending a relationship doesn’t mean that you hate your ex, nor does it mean your entire relationship gets the damnatio memoriae. The fact that you have fond memories of your time together doesn’t mean you don’t care for your partner, any more than being nostalgia means you don’t care for your life now.
Do they close their laptop when someone comes in the room? They could be having steamy cybersex… or they could want to give their partner their full attention. Or they may just hate it when people read over their shoulder. They could be planning a surprise. Or their partner could, y’know, be irrationally jealous and they don’t feel like having a fight right now.
Did they have a meeting with someone of the opposite sex where no “business” got done? Have you been to business meetings, AKA where productivity goes to die?
Reaching out to a friend instead of Googling the answer? Google can do many things, but it can’t provide context. It can’t understand your needs based on knowing your particular circumstances. Or you may simply trust that friend over anonymous users on Reddit.
Are they using heart emojis in Facebook comments to people? That is, literally, how people communicate these days. Unicode hearts isn’t any more of an indicator that you’re giving your love to someone else any more than the barf emoji means you have food poisoning right now.
They have inside jokes with people? Friendship.
They confide with someone who’s not their partner? Friendship.
Giving a unique compliment to another person? Friendship.
Now, encouraging your partner to wear clothes or perfume that another person wears is weird… but quite frankly, the standards raised here are so questionable that I’m left wondering whether we can trust the interpretation of someone who seems to blare “Before He Cheats” 24/7 and Googles “undetectable keylogger” for fun. These are the declarations of someone who could take the silver in existential paranoia and the bronze in manipulative motherfucker.
And while it’s inarguable that secrecy and sketchy behavior can be signs of ill intent, there’s another, more sinister side to these “signs” of incipient infidelity.
Thou Shalt Have No Privacy Before Me
If there’s one common denominator with many of the signs of “micro-cheating” it’s this: you’re spending time with anyone other than your partner. Your partner is your alpha. Your partner is omega. They are all things and all people to you and to ignore this sacred bond is the crime that can never be forgiven.
In and of itself, this is the material of Overly Obsessed Girlfriend memes.
However, the underlying theme of these “micro-cheating” expressions is one of isolation and control. The idea that you don’t have any secrets from your partner, for example, is disturbing. How dare you not let your partner see what you’re writing. What kind of monster wouldn’t let his or her snugglebunny have access to every corner of their life? Only a cheating bastard would, duh! After all, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear.
The desire for privacy – for a corner of your life that you don’t share – becomes cause for suspicion. Even your thoughts become suspect; are you taking a moment to daydream about something else? Cheater.
Just as disturbing is the theme of isolation. Reaching out to another friend is, likewise, a sign that you’re undermining your relationship. Having shared jokes, private conversations or even reminiscing over your past together is “putting your partner in second place.” Any relationship with someone becomes taboo because of the potential for micro-cheating. Did that business lunch last too long? Is he making too many calls about “work” for the actual amount of work done? Is he looking too long at another woman? Why did he send that link to her? Why did he laugh like that her joke. Is he too complimentary of her? Is he not complimentary enough?
As absurd and over the top these accusations sound, to many people, they’re distressingly familiar. It’s not a laughable way to put the fun in dysfunctional, it’s a flashback.
- Isolating you from your friends? Check.
- Keeping tabs on who you talk to, who you spend time with, even who you message on Facebook? Check.
- Demanding access to your emails and text messages? Check.
- Constantly accusing you of “cheating” on them? Double-fucking-check.
Literally everything becomes a “reason” for the aggrieved partner to cry “Cheater!” , including and especially activities that the abused victim might use to protect themselves. Why would he give someone a fake name in his contacts? Because he’s a cheater… or because he’s hoping to keep it a secret from his controlling abuser? Why would she close her messaging app when her partner came in the room? Because she’s exchanging sexy texts with her secret lover… or because she’s reaching out for help to leave?
Every behavior, no matter how banal or mundane, becomes justification to be angry at their lover. These supposed slights and micro-infidelities, these ways of “undermining the relationship” makes all of the problems the fault of the micro-cheater. It wouldn’t be this bad if you just would stop giving reasons for them to be so mad at you all the time.
Pathologized Anxiety and Weaponized Suspicion
Part of what is so insidious about the concept of “micro-cheating” is how it plays on anxieties and fears about not just relationships, but modern society. With the advent of social media, always-on Internet connections, texting apps and movie studios in our pockets, we are capable of connecting with more people than ever – and often in ways that others may be unaware of. It’s one thing if your husband comes home with the classic lipstick on his collar or your wife smells faintly of someone else’s cologne. It may break your heart to know that they’ve cheated on you, but you have a way of detecting it. It’s harder to conceal an infidelity when you have to be physically present to arrange it.
But when they can have entire conversations with other people – in front of you – that you are unaware of, how can you be sure that they’re not sharing too much? With the way Facebook encourages us to overshare and Instagram prods us to present a very particular form of glamor, how many ways is there for some homewrecker to sneak into your relationship.
And worse – you don’t know who your sweetie may be in contact with, or why. He says he’s just friends with this person… but why has he liked so many of his photos on Instagram? Why did she share that article about sex positions on his wall? Why did she tell her ex “happy birthday” with a silly little gif?
Schilling can say that you need to be rational and objective, but the questions themselves are predicated on the idea that privacy is de-facto bad and having relationships separate from your partner are inherently suspicious. It presumes, not just a universal morality, but a universal and unspoken number of rules – rules that you can break without realizing they even exist. And – in the style of all great catch-22s – questioning the premise is cause for suspicion. You wouldn’t care so much about it if you weren’t thinking about getting away with something, would you?
Part of what makes the concept of micro-cheating both absurd and infuriating is that there is the occasional warning sign to be found. Somebody who’s continually downplaying their relationship – “I’m seeing someone, but it’s not serious. No she doesn’t get me, he’s always so distant, we haven’t had sex in months” – is a bad sign. But by the time you get to the legitimate warning signs, you’ve had to wade through lists of made up offenses that range from the banal to scenarios that would be farcical if they weren’t being portrayed as a real and deadly threat to your relationship.
All any of this does is create a system where any suspicion is valid and the worst possible explanation is the most likely. Trust your gut because you know something is wrong – even if the problem is that you don’t trust your partner.
And let’s be real; by the time someone is giving another woman a “hope certificate”, their current relationship may not be dead, but it sure as hell is on life support. And the doctor’s hand is hovering over the switch.
Care and Feeding of a Strong Relationship
Part of what makes the idea of micro-cheating harmful is that it presumes that any interest in another person is inherently bad. But the fact of the matter is that everyone gets crushes. Everyone finds themselves infatuated with another person or finds themselves having sweaty thoughts about somebody – regardless of their relationship status. It’s part of the human condition; no one person can be all things to us. We are all going to be interested in other people and no amount of monitoring is going to change that. Monogamy just means that we choose not to sleep with other people, not that we don’t want to.
And that’s fine. But trying to safeguard the primacy of your relationship by watching for signs of “micro-cheating” just creates a system of confirmation bias; you’ll find reasons to be suspicious because you’re expecting to see them. It discourages trust between partners and actively damages the relationship. Relationships aren’t depositions. You aren’t obligated to account for every thought, every action and every line of text, just because you’re dating someone. Putting a ring on it doesn’t mean that you no longer have an expectation of privacy. You always have the right to your own life and your own secrets.
You also have the right to your own friendships outside of the relationship. Commitment doesn’t mean you signed a contract that says “All Your Attention Are Belong To Us”. Having friends, even friends of your preferred gender isn’t a threat to your relationship. Even being flirty with other people doesn’t mean that you are undermining things.
What makes a strong relationship are strong boundaries, not asserting one person’s beliefs as a universal standard. It’s on both parties to discuss and agree what the rules to their relationship are. Micro-cheating isn’t a threat to the relationship; it’s not even a thing. The real threat to the relationship is baseless accusations, accusations based on bullshit standards and substituting anxiety as intuition. If you want your relationship to thrive, forget the “micro-cheating” bullshit. Build a relationship founded on respect, trust and communication with your partner instead.
- Is that a thing? Did I make that one up? Maybe I should write a panic-inducing article about roaching [↩]
- Full disclosure: my book New Game +: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is published through Thought Catalog [↩]
- Does this mean that gay men are incapable of micro-cheating? Or are they forever micro-cheating? [↩]