Micro-Cheating Could Be Ruining Your Relationship. Here’s What to Do About It

5 minute read

Infidelity is everywhere: Studies have shown that around 23% of married men and 12% of married women have at some point had sex with someone other than their spouse. But while something like extramarital sex is easy to define, the general concept of cheating is far more nuanced.

A 2015 study, which was published in the Journal of Sexual and Marital Therapy and based on interviews with seven U.K. couples counselors, found that just about anything, from sexting to lying to intercourse, could be considered cheating — or not — depending on a person’s perspective. In the end, the authors concluded that the study “demonstrates the existence of multiple, conflicting definitions of infidelity.”

Further complicating the issue is the latest relationship buzzword: micro-cheating. And there’s a good chance many of us have encountered micro-cheating in our own love lives.

What is micro-cheating?

Micro-cheating refers to “a set of behaviors that flirts with the line between faithfulness and unfaithfulness,” says Maryland-based couples therapist Lindsey Hoskins. But much like full-blown infidelity, Hoskins says it’s near-impossible to concretely define micro-cheating because “the line is in different places for different people in different relationships.”

Virtually anything, from Tinder swiping for fun to flirting with a cute stranger, could be considered micro-cheating, depending on someone’s values and relationship priorities. But Hoskins says some of the most common transgressions she sees include frequent text or social media communication with a possible flame, regularly talking with an ex-partner and growing too friendly with a co-worker.

Is micro-cheating a problem?

At their core, micro-cheating behaviors might not be cause for concern; it’s only when they start to cross a line — either emotionally or physically — that trouble arises. After all, humans are programmed to be on the lookout for potential mates, says Jayson Dibble, an associate professor of communication at Hope College. “It’s hard for me to condemn noticing attractive others,” he says. “That’s just human nature.”

Many times, Dibble says, flirting with someone outside your relationship is harmless, and is more about getting a quick ego boost or dopamine hit than it is about truly being interested in that person. “Research confirms time and time again that even when people are having sex, they’ll fantasize about someone other than their partner,” Dibble adds. “That can be healthy, too, because it keeps you moving. It keeps you virile, it keeps the flames going so you can bring that to your partner.”

Dibble’s research even suggests that people in relationships who keep and communicate with “back-burners” — that is, potential future romantic or sexual partners — might not be compromising their relationships by doing so. He co-authored a 2014 study, published in Computers in Human Behavior, that found no measurable decrease in relationship investment or commitment among romantically involved people who also communicated with back-burners.

But micro-cheating can be a slippery slope, Dibble says. What may start as a harmless text conversation or office friendship can morph into something more, intentionally or not. If outside interactions are starting to take time or mental and emotional energy away from your actual relationship, that’s a sign they might be more serious.

The caveat to Dibble’s study — and to all micro-cheating behaviors — is that your partner might not look so kindly on your actions. Keeping a back-burner (at the office, online or anywhere else) may not decrease your own commitment, but it can certainly make your partner uncomfortable.

Hoskins says that distinction is important. “You can feel differently about it, but it’s a problem for your relationship if it’s a problem for your partner,” she says. “By virtue of having agreed to be in that relationship, you’ve agreed to be sensitive and aware and pay attention to things that bother the other person.”

What should you do about micro-cheating?

Proactive communication is key, Hoskins says. Couples should ideally discuss relationship boundaries before they become an issue, which can help prevent fights and resentment from bubbling up later. And that likely means having regular conversations about what’s okay and what’s not, Hoskins says.

“It’s a really good and healthy conversation to have early on in a relationship, but it’s almost impossible to have the conversation once and say, ‘Great, we covered all the bases and we never need to worry about talking about that ever again,'” Hoskins says. “Ideas change. New things come up. It’s an evolution.”

The way you talk about these issues matters, too. If you feel that your partner is doing something wrong, you’ll likely have a more productive conversation by not aggressively confronting them, Hoskins says. “Defensiveness is caused by feeling attacked, so the person who is worried needs to come into the conversation really being conscientious to not attack,” she suggests. If you’re the one accused of micro-cheating, be honest about your behavior, make an effort to listen objectively to your partner’s concerns and consider how you can be more thoughtful in the future.

Finally, Hoskins recommends analyzing why the micro-cheating happened in the first place, and working together to fix whatever may be lacking in your partnership. “Say, ‘Okay, what exactly is it that was appealing about that? What was the feeling you were getting from the behavior or interaction?'” she suggests. “‘If that’s an unmet need in our relationship, can we focus on that? Can we focus on adding that kind of dynamic into our relationship?'”

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com