What is micro cheating? Because it sure sounds like a macro problem


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I would neither classify myself as exceedingly jealous nor exceedingly sensitive, yet I’ve certainly clocked some memorable freak-outs after seeing a love interest “like” another lady’s selfie. I have to assume I’m not the only one who’s been there, seeing red before spiraling into a self-doubt tailspin thinking, “HE’S OBVIOUSLY SLEEPING WITH HER.”

Perhaps social media hasn’t straight-up caused the proliferation of these small but still—in my book, at least—totally wrong situations but simply, but it has certainly put a spotlight on them. So, in the name of learning and abiding by the new relationship boundaries, the world needs to know: What is micro cheating (and am I justified in setting my boyfriend’s bed on fire if he comments on someone’s picture with heart-eye emojis)?

So, once more for the people in the back, what is micro-cheating?

Unlike cloaking, ghosting, rebating, and the like, micro cheating isn’t a new problem, and its cousin, micro flirtation, may not even be the worst thing in the world. “Micro cheating are flirtations with someone other than your significant other that have sexy and or seductive overtones,” says relationship therapist and author Jane Greer PhD. “It may be commenting on someone’s appearance or other desirable qualities, like intelligence or humor—anything that makes someone distinctly individual and attractive.”

Now, for the plot twist: Micro flirtation is also a thing, and it’s not necessarily bad—in fact, Dr. Greer says, it may even allow for a harmless ego boost. “These little flirtations make you feel good about yourself, and you can bring that good energy back to your primary relationship.”

“Micro cheating are flirtations with someone other than your significant other that have sexy and or seductive overtones. It may be commenting on someone’s appearance or other desirable qualities, like intelligence or humor—anything that makes someone distinctly individual and attractive.” —Jane Greer PhD relationship therapist

The problem is when the micro flirtations become a force of habit and, well, the thing that gets you off. “If these flirtations start to become your primary source of good feelings, that’s when micro cheating can occur,” Dr. Greer continues. “And if you’re keeping these interactions a secret from your partner, you’re at an even greater risk of crossing the line.”

Listen, you’re smart—you know when you’re engaging in shady behavior. If you have some light banter with your adorable Starbucks barista every morning, that’s not likely to manifest into anything tangible or a problem with your partner. You simply come out of that engagement with a bit more confidence and a Venti latte to start your day, and that’s it. But if you’re one to watch your ex’s Instagram Stories like a hawk and DM flirty comments about their night out, something deeper is at work there.

What is micro cheating, and is micro flirtation always bad?
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When it comes to micro flirtation, portion control is key

The concept of micro flirtation feels similar to when I eat a Kind bar at work when I don’t have the time yet for a full-fledged lunch: It’s sweet, provides an energy boost, and it staves off hanger. But, healthy as they may be, no part of me wants to replace all my meals with Kind bars, you know? Micro flirtations feel similar. One here and one there could positively fuel your relationship by powering up your sense of self—but they shouldn’t be your main source of emotional sustenance.

Micro flirtations could positively fuel your relationship by powering up your sense of self, but they shouldn’t be your main source of emotional sustenance.

“Micro flirtation makes you feel desirable and boosts your self-esteem, but if it’s the primary source for good feelings—or what’s missing in your primary relationship—that could become a serious problem,” Dr. Greer says. “If you’re getting these good feelings from both your significant other and elsewhere, then the micro flirtations are more about an ego boost than filling a void in your primary relationship.”

Do, um, fantasies count as micro cheating?

I get it—being in a relationship shouldn’t mean putting the kibosh on those erotic Chris Hemsworth or whomever daydreams, right? While fantasies are a little more hazy than flirtations and involve less action on our end, similar rules apply. A fantasy here and there won’t ruin your relationship, but if you’re making it into an orgasm crutch, take it as a sign that you aren’t being satisfied in the real-life situation at hand.

Let’s look to one 2018 paper published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin about the effect of fantasies on a relationship: Through a series of four studies tracking couples and their sexual fantasies, it was shown that “dyadic fantasies,” or fantasies about one’s own partner, had a bolstering effect on the couple’s sex life, increasing desire and engagement. As for “extradyadic” fantasies, about someone other than a partner, the study showed that it doesn’t necessarily “lead to engaging in damaging behaviors within the relationships,” but could “motivate actual infidelity” in the long run. In plain English, fantasizing about other partners is mostly neutral, albeit a little problematic if your eye is straying to someone tangible.

So, just as with micro flirtations, be aware of whom you’re fantasizing about, because the answer could provide insight for how you may proceed in the future. Because, hate to break the news, but it is very unlikely that you’re ever going to get with Chris Hemsworth (Chris Pine, maybe). The good news on that front is it’s probably A-okay to keep your Thor fantasies in your mental masturbation library. If you, however, are thinking about your ex while with your main squeeze…yeah, you might need to analyze that with a pro, because something seems amiss.

What’s the best way to measure these micro problems?

Ultimately it’s up to you to set up healthy guidelines with your partner, and that includes a dialogue about what is and isn’t appropriate. But while a micro flirtation with a third party to the relationship isn’t necessarily evil (unless it becomes habitual), Dr. Greer is quick to caveat that it’s certainly a slippery slope. “Micro flirtations do make you vulnerable to micro cheating,” she says. “But they can also be an innocent way to feel sexy and desirable, and you can bring that energy back into your relationship with your partner.”

So, sure, one “like” on Facebook can make someone feel good about themselves and definitely isn’t a reason to throw away a relationship. And to that end, my darling boyfriend, if you want to come home now, it’s safe. The bedsheets have stopped smoking.

If you’re a little more suspect of your S.O., here’s what to look for when it comes to the traits of a serial cheater. And if you’re fresh on the dating scene, here’s what it means when your crush double-taps all your Instagrams.

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