‘Micro-Cheating,’ Despite the Cute Little Name, Can Secretly Be a BFD—Here’s How To Spot It

Photo: Getty Images / Delmaine Donson
Chatting a smidge too long over beers with your high school girlfriend at the 10-year reunion. Double-tapping the pics of the married friend you suspect is into you. Omitting your partner from your stories about the past weekend over drinks with coworkers. These things may not be cheating in the traditional sense of the word, but they certainly exist in a gray area that is getting awfully close to crossing that line. There’s a word for these “are-they, are-they-not” cheating behaviors: micro-cheating.

“Micro-cheating refers to any subtle behaviors that could indicate emotional, romantic, or sexual interest in someone(s) outside of your relationship,” says Jesse Kahn, LCSW, CST, director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC. Specifically, an interest that would break the agreements you have with the partner in question. While small and often innocuous on their own, micro-cheating behaviors are an inappropriate breach of your relationship’s implicit or explicit boundaries. Kahn adds that micro-cheating can be damaging to your relationship if not reeled in.

"Micro-cheating is usually a much more subtle breach of boundary [than cheating]...it can still be very damaging to the relationship and other partner(s) involved." —Melissa Cook, AASECT-certified sex therapist

To find out why the heck micro-cheating happens and the various forms and shapes it can take, plus what you can do if it is happening in—or you think it’s happening in—your relationship, read on.

Experts In This Article

How does micro-cheating differ from regular cheating?

Cheating—of both the micro and macro variety—is anything that exists outside of the agreements of what is emotionally, physically, sexually, or otherwise permissible in your specific relationship, says Kahn. The difference between the two types is the severity, intensity, or frequency of the boundary breach, they say.

“Macro-cheating, which is the type of cheating most of us will be familiar with, usually involves more extreme breaches of the relationship boundary,” says AASECT-certified sex therapist Melissa Cook, an advisor with FunWithFeet, a safe online platform for foot fetishists. “It could include a sexual encounter with another person that’s not allowed, a deep emotional connection, or a full-blown affair,” she says. Usually, macro-cheating is also accompanied by intense attempts to cover up evidence and hide what’s taken place, she says.

On the flipside, “micro-cheating is usually a much more subtle breach of boundary,” says Cook. In some cases, that breach is of a boundary that hasn’t been explicitly communicated—such as around social media engagement, texting frequency with others, and so on.

Another way to think about the difference is that macro-cheating is fully crossing the line—and in some instances leaping over it—while micro-cheating is a toeing of the line. Yet while micro-cheating actions usually border the edge of infidelity rather than crossing it, “they can still be very damaging to the relationship and other partner(s) involved,” says Cook.

What are the traits of micro-cheating?

Micro-cheating typically entails spending time in the gray area of what is considered allowed or acceptable in your relationship.

In a monogamous relationship where flirting with others isn’t allowed, an over-the-top compliment on their appearance, Instagram deep-dive complete with double-taps on double-taps, or sexually-twinged convo with anyone else could all count as micro-cheating. In a non-monogamous relationship, micro-cheating might include sexting with a secondary partner about a sex act that isn’t allowed outside the primary partnership, complimenting an off-limits person in a way that could be interpreted as flirting, minimizing the nature of your other relationships in your dating profile, or spending date night with one partner texting another.

Other examples of micro-cheating, per Kahn, could include any of the following. The key word here is could. Every relationship has its own implicit and explicit relationship agreements, and thus what qualifies as breaches or near-breaches of those agreements will vary.

  • Encouraging someone to flirt with you (for example, by flirting back or not shutting it down).
  • Not mentioning that you are in a relationship in social settings, or minimizing its seriousness.
  • Obsessively engaging with someone’s social media—in particular if it is sexual in nature.
  • Spending money on someone else without consulting your partner or telling them afterwards.
  • Speaking negatively about your partner to an ex, other partner, or mutual friend, etc.
  • Keeping the intensity or frequency of your communication with someone under wraps.
  • Continuing to “water” your relationship with an ex.
  • Pouring erotic or sexual energy into people or things such that there is none left for your partner.
  • Dressing a particular way in front of (or for) someone else because they know they’ll like it.

What are signs of micro-cheating?

1. There is less energy for the relationship

When someone is micro-cheating they are investing time, focus, or energy—including, but not limited to erotic and sexual energy—into someone(s) outside of the primary partnership, says Emily May, LMFT, an expert and advisor with Private Sugar Club.

To be clear: It is very healthy for people to have (platonic) relationships outside of their romantic one!

However, if an individual is regularly draining all of their energy in their other relationships, that’s an issue, May says. In order for relationships to go the distance, they need to be tended to; lack of energy (due to micro-cheating, for example) can lead to the relationship starting to decay like a house neglected by its landlord.

Lack of energy for the relationship could show up as less intentional date nights, less frequent sex or diminished interest in sex, less quality time over all, and less engagement when you are together.

2. Guilt is ever-present

It is possible for someone to unintentionally micro-cheat. For example, say someone didn’t mention that they had a partner to a new colleague or acquaintance because they got caught up in hashing out who the best athlete of all time is. (Hot take: It’s Simone Biles).

But Kathryn Smerling, PhD, LCSW, an NYC-city based family therapist and author of the upcoming book Learning to Play Again: Rediscovering Our Early Selves to Become Better Adults, says that most of the time someone who has micro-cheated will leave an interaction (or close out of chat thread) and feel a prickling sensation of guilt. “If you leave an interaction feeling guilty, or like you have been unfaithful to your partner, it is likely that you have cheated,” she says.

Meanwhile, if your partner is exhibiting symptoms of guilt, it could be because they micro-cheated, she says. Guilt manifests differently for everyone, but commonly presents with lack of eye contact, increased insecurity around the other person’s actions, tummy issues, appetite changes, emotional distance, emotional outbursts, or sleep troubles.

3. There are secrets brewing between you

If there’s something that you did or said that you won’t feel super-duper comfy explicitly sharing with your partner, it is probs cheating of some variety, says May. So, if you are intentionally hiding comms with someone else from your partner, are in more-regular contact with your ex than your partner knows, or are meeting up with someone behind your partner's back, it’s a sign that you’re micro-cheating.

Does that mean that your partner needs to have full access to your Google calendar, 24/7 location share, your phone passcode, and free reign to your phone? No. But it does mean that if you feel like you need to be secretive, you’re likely being unloyal, says May.

4. The phone starts to feel like a mistress

“If someone is being secretive about their phone, it could be because they are engaging in micro-cheating behaviors,” says Dr. Smerling. Things like changing phone passcodes, increasing overall screen time, or taking their phone to the bathroom when they never used to could mean someone is DMing someone off limits or text-complaining about the relationship to an ex, etc.

Is micro-cheating considered cheating?

Yes, micro-cheating is considered cheating. (It’s in the name.) “However, unlike traditional cheating, micro-cheating doesn’t always mean there is a huge issue in the relationship,” says May. It may just mean that there is an area (or two) of the relationship that needs your attention.

“Someone might be engaging in micro-cheating because they don’t feel appreciated in the relationship,” says May as an example. Here, an increased effort for the cheating partner to ask for words of affirmation, and the other partner to speak that love language can help.

“[Micro-cheating] could also signal that someone is dissatisfied with the amount of intimacy in the relationship,” May adds. To address this, a couple might ramp up date night frequency, or commit to doing regular bonding exercises like rose-bud-thorn. Or if they are dissatisfied with the degree of physical or sexual intimacy, the couple might set their morning alarm 10 minutes earlier so that there is time to snuggle before the chaos of the day, schedule sex, or try sexting throughout the day.

What is emotional cheating?

Emotional cheating is the betrayal that involves developing and maintaining a deep emotional connection with someone other than their partner,” Cook says—without having the consent or awareness of their partner.

There’s a lot of overlap between emotional cheating and micro-cheating. Neither form of cheating are your run-of-the-mill affairs, replete with explicit physical and/or sexual content, says Cook. She says that secrecy is a “primary ingredient” of emotional cheating—which is also a main sign of micro-cheating. Plus, “both can still be damaging to the relationship as a whole,” says Kahn.

The main difference between the two, however, is that micro-cheating isn’t exclusively emotional in its nature—it can also be physical or somewhat-sexual in nature. Putting a hand on an ex’s back or giving someone the up-down, for example, would qualify as one (micro-cheating) but not the other (emotional cheating).

Cook adds that the term “emotional cheating” suggests that the actions or connections were ongoing and/or otherwise repeated in nature—as it takes time and consistency to make a deep emotional connection with someone. Meanwhile, micro-cheating might be a one-off incident.

Is micro-cheating a deal breaker?

“Micro-cheating can certainly impact your relationship,” says Kahn. But as Dr. Smerling says, everyone has different thresholds for what they find tolerable or not in their relationships. “It doesn’t always signify a deal breaker or major issue within the relationship,” she says.

The specific shape of micro-cheating, its frequency and intensity, the repair attempts the micro-cheater made in the aftermath (if any), and what kind of distance it has put between partners, will likely impact whether or not the couple can come back from it, Kahn says. While a single micro-cheating incident in isolation is unlikely to sink your relationship, “collectively, however, they can create discomfort and erode trust within a partnership.” Think of it as death by a thousand paper cuts.

As such, if micro-cheating makes a more regular appearance in your relationship than a Sufjan Stevens song in This Is Us, it might be time to call it quits—unless all parties are committed to change.

Further, if the micro-cheating actions have been of the serial cheating variety—as in, you’ve had a conversation, they’ve vowed to change, and then keep doing it—there is likely an insurmountable distance between the partners that cannot be easily repaired, says Kahn.

How do I know if I micro-cheated?

If you and your partner had a sit-down convo about boundaries and relationship agreements, you probably have a pretty good sense as to whether or not your micro-cheated. But if you haven’t, it may not be so clear cut.

Still, a little self-reflection will reveal your micro-cheating behaviors to yourself, says May. “Answering yes to these questions could mean that certain boundaries are being crossed in your primary relationship,” she says:

  • Do I feel guilty when I think about my relationship?
  • If my partner found out about [X], would they feel betrayed?
  • Do I judge myself for the way(s) I’ve been using social media or interacting with someone?
  • Am I sharing things with this person that I wouldn’t—or haven’t yet—share with my partner?
  • Does this action take me further from my partner?
  • Am I constantly doing things that leave me with no energy for my partner?

How do I forgive myself for micro-cheating?

Forgiving yourself for micro-cheating, according to May, starts with owning up to the fact that you made a mistake. “Acknowledging how this could have damaged your primary relationship and how it might have made your partner feel can help you act in the way in the future that changes in,” she says.

Then, May suggests putting a proactive plan in place in order to ensure that micro-cheating doesn’t happen again. That could mean anything from communicating an explicit boundary with the person you micro-cheated with and cleansing your social media following, to making a concerted effort to mention your partner more regularly or to being honest about who you chat with at work or text.

If you’re struggling to forgive yourself and move on, Dr. Smerling suggests working with a mental health-care professional who can help you process what happened then work through lingering guilt and shame. “Learning to forgive yourself is an important part of life, and so it's a tool you want to add to your tool belt,” she says. And it’s A-OK if you need expert help doing so.

How do I address micro-cheating with a partner?

1. Pick the right time and place

“You want to make sure you and your partner are both in an emotional and mental state and physical place to talk about it,” says Kahn. (Read: Not out of the blue while driving to your in-laws’ house for dinner, or 15 minutes before your kids come home from school.) “Avoid bringing it up during moments of stress or tensions, as well as when you’re in the middle of navigating a different relationship conflict.”

Alternatively, you can set a specific time to talk about it by telling your partner something like, “I’d love to do a relationship check-in where we look at our calendars and talk about the state of our relationship some time soon. Is there a night you predict you’ll have the energy to do so?”.

2. Use ‘I’ statements

In the event that you want to talk to your partner about cheating, Kahn suggests using “I” statements that express your own feelings. “This approach can help encourage empathy from your partner,” they explain. You also want to do your best to avoid finger-pointing, as all of these things can put them on the defensive and keep you from having a productive convo, they say.

Some examples of how you might start the conversation:

  • I’ve been feeling really far from you over the last few weeks, and have been feeling hurt by the decrease in intentional date nights. Have you been feeling that, too?
  • I’ve been feeling like you would rather text or scroll on social media rather than spend quality time with me. Can we talk about it?

In the event that you are admitting micro-cheating, May suggests starting the convo by affirming your commitment to the relationship, and reminding your partner how much you love and value them. This will help ease any anxieties your partner may have around being left, while also setting a foundation for the conversation that is loving, she says.

From there, “own up to your actions, explain why you think it happened, explain how you have been feeling without blaming the other person, and then re-emphasize your commitment to your relationship once again,” May says.

3. Put on your listening ears

Equally important as initiating these discussions is listening to what your partner says. “It’s important to get to share your perspective and for your partner(s) to share their perspective without being interrupted,” says Kahn. “You can practice active listening by paraphrasing what they say to ensure you understand their viewpoint correctly.”

You could say, for example: “What I hear you saying is XYZ. Is that correct? Is there anything I missed or don’t fully understand?”

If you are coming clean as a micro-cheater, it’s important to recognize that while you have likely been coming to terms with the fact that you cheated for days, weeks, or months, your partner is just now getting confirmation that you’ve (micro)cheated. Here, “it is especially important that your partner(s) feels listened to and like you understand and validate their feelings and experience being cheated on," says Kahn.

4. Talk about it some more

Talking about micro-cheating and the events that led up to it isn't going to be a one and done convo! After all, the partner who cheated likely did so because a relational or personal need wasn’t being met that they needed to learn how to ask for or access. Meanwhile, the partner who was cheated on may want additional context around ‘why’ the cheater allowed the cheating to take place, amongst other things.

Undoubtedly, there's a thin line between continuing to talk about micro-cheating and dwelling. But Dr. Smerling says you shouldn’t be surprised if a second (or third) convo pops up in the days or weeks that follow. In fact, you may decide together to press pause at some point in the initial convo so that you can each have time to process and emotionally self-regulate, she says.

5. Make a game plan

It is very, very possible for your partner to the micro-cheating and continue your relationship. Should you do so, Dr. Smerling suggests using the whole shebang as an excuse to have a deeper conversation about wants and needs, how to rebuild trust, as well as boundaries and what signifies micro-cheating for each of you, she says.

When to seek professional support

Having an honest, emotionally open conversation about micro-cheating *without* the help of a relationship coach or therapist is like playing a video game on hard mode, per Dr. Smerling. If you have the emotional natural and communication skills that allow you to do so, kudos to you! However, “most couples are going to need a third party to help them remain calm as they discuss boundaries and set up relationship agreements that work for them,” she says.

She recommends seeking professional support sooner rather than later—but especially if you find yourselves struggling to move through the breach in trust on your own.

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