'I'm a Therapist, Micro-Cheating is More Common Than You Think'

Micro-cheating sounds like a new concept but it's actually quite old.

Cheating itself is defined by acting dishonestly and unfairly, and micro-cheating tends to be where the actions themselves may be smaller—texting, conversation, social media messages and social gestures—but the intention is a betrayal of the romantic relationship the person is in. Micro-cheating is often a secret outlet for people to get their conscious and sometimes unconscious needs met.

If we are honest, those sorts of behaviors have likely been going on within relationships for a long time, but the phrase "micro-cheating" makes it sound like the idea itself is new.

As a therapist, I tend to discover micro-cheating when I delve into the intention behind the actions of my clients or their partners. Or, when I see that needs are being met outside of the relationship.

There are many ways micro-cheating can show up; anything that is a secret or that you need to get rid of are tell tale signs, and in my experience, they often end up hurting the relationship. People may say that micro-cheating is insignificant, but it's not really. It becomes pretty significant over time, hurting the relationship along the way.

A good test of whether you may be micro-cheating is exploring whether there is anything that you feel you need to hide or delete, to prevent your partner from seeing it. If you're hiding messages on social media, or deleting text messages and feeling like you need to clean up your phone, you're probably micro-cheating. A really good test is whether you could imagine giving your phone to your partner for a whole week, without stress. If that is possible, you're probably in a great place in your relationship.

Another significant sign of micro-cheating is downplaying relationships outside of the main partnership. You may be saying to your partner that you're just going out for drinks after work with a colleague, but your intention with that colleague is not entirely honorable to the relationship.

There is also a fine line when it comes to people who are flirty. I have seen people hosting parties and making an extra effort to impress certain guests. That's also a place where it's important to check in and ask yourself what your intention is. Are you dressing up, wearing perfume or make-up specifically for one person who is not your partner? It could be that you're just being a great hostess, but if you check in with your intention and it's about that other person, it could be micro-cheating. There are so many fine lines that can, and are, crossed all the time.

I have had a client who was micro-cheating in the world of gaming. This person was online as a digital personality and having a "relationship" with another digital personality. It all played out on screen, but in some of the games they were able to be "intimate."

My client's real life partner became aware of the digital relationship and now, the real life relationship is falling apart, because the partner feels betrayed. It's complicated, because on one hand, my client could say that it's not happening in real life and there is nothing going on physically. It's all fantasy. And, if my client's partner was there watching, enjoying and taking part, perhaps that would be OK.

But it was translating into feelings of hurt and betrayal, so it hurt the relationship. If behaviors are chipping away at the trust in the relationship, then it's important to just be honest and call it what it is: micro-cheating.

In another relationship, a heterosexual male had a work friendship and was really close with this work partner. For a while they worked really well together, until the boundaries became blurred. They would have after-work drinks together, and in conversations during the day he began to share his marital stress with this work friend. When you start sharing really intimate information about your relationship you are treading a really fine line that can be crossed to allow other behaviors to take place.

micro-cheating, cheating, relationships, marriage
Stock image. Getty/iStock

That's exactly what happened. They started out having an emotional relationship through micro-cheating behaviors, and then a physical relationship developed. Ultimately his marriage did not make it.

I don't believe micro-cheating and cheating exist separately. It's about the intention, particularly when the intention does not honor the relationship. That said, I have worked with couples who have come through, or are working through, this kind of betrayal. As a therapist, there are three steps I believe to be important if couples are experiencing or working through micro-cheating.

Make the commitment

I suggest to clients, and anyone working through micro-cheating, that they make a decision to protect the relationship. That means deciding that enough is enough and accepting that what you are doing is hurting your partner or your relationship and your behavior needs to change. Both partners, or all the partners if there are more than two, should agree that they are going to take steps to protect the relationship. The intention is to protect.

Have the conversation together

I have a good friend who often says to his partner: "Don't have the conversation without me!" We can get into trouble in relationships when we have conversations about boundaries by ourselves, in our heads. Typically, I see clients doing that because the conversation around boundaries is too difficult and they don't know where it's going to go.

When I suggest having that conversation to clients in therapy, they are often extremely resistant. I always check in and ask what it is they are feeling when I say that. The reaction is typically that their partner won't want to have the conversation. I'll then explore whether it is the partner, or in fact my client who doesn't want to participate. We then talk about how to begin to have the conversation. How can my clients raise this concept of boundaries or their concerns about micro-cheating? And, at what time strategically. Because you can't just blurt it out over breakfast!

Check in every day with your intentions

I suggest making a decision to regularly check in with yourself. Ask yourself: Am I getting dressed to impress this other person who isn't my partner? If so, what is that about? Addressing your intentions can help you direct yourself away from behaviors that may be damaging to your relationship.

I find that the couples who are best able to resolve situations of micro-cheating are ones who really want to heal themselves and the relationship. People who are micro-cheating, if they are really honest with themselves, probably wouldn't say it feels good. It hurts to know you're hurting someone and betraying trust.

Sometimes couples do have to make concrete changes during resolution. If someone struggles with micro-cheating, maybe they need to separate themselves from certain people, places or even social media at times.

Indeed, couples who come through micro-cheating are ones that demonstrate willingness to make modifications to their behavior. That helps to build trust. I know two couples who moved homes. That's not the answer all the time, but, for some people, it took a concrete move to start over. People who are really committed to healing are the ones who demonstrate resilience and are able to show truth, honesty and integrity.

When I was younger the conversation was around whether platonic relationships can exist. That's an old conversation now, but what are the parallels between what we were talking about then, and micro-cheating? Boundaries.

When a person says that micro-cheating isn't real or an issue, I have to wonder how serious they are about the relationship they are in. Maybe they are not committed, and that's OK too. It's a difficult conversation: to tell your partner you are not as committed to the relationship as they are, or they want you to be.

So it's useful to consider whether your doubts may be a result of your own reluctance in the relationship or even the denial of your own behaviors. Because micro-cheating is definitely real.

Gwen Butler LCSW, CST is an AASECT certified sex therapist specializing in sexual health and pleasure. She offers individual and couples counseling and workshops at her private practice in Long Island, New York. Her book Indulge: 25 Indulgences to Unlock your Sensual Self is available here.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.