Micro-cheating: 9 signs and what you can do about it

Image credit: Shutterstock - By Roman Kosolapov

Micro-cheating may be a term you are just learning about, but it is certainly a set of behaviors you have seen many times before.

Micro-cheating is a slick way that people who are not ready to commit to a relationship stay in the game without compromising their existing partner or status.

It’s something that many people do without realizing it.

Ty Tashiro, psychologist and author of “The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love“, says to NBC that micro-cheating is a “relatively small act of emotional infidelity with someone outside of a person’s committed relationship” that usually happens through online interactions or texting.

Micro-cheating does not automatically assume that someone is a bad person, but it does point to the fact that they don’t adhere to the same level of commitment that you do.

This is an important distinction to make when it comes to micro-cheating. What is micro-cheating for one couple may not be for another.

Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT and CEO of Seeking Integrity, an online community that addresses behavioral health challenges, told NBC that “different behaviors might be infidelity for one couple, micro-cheating for another couple, and not a problem at all for another couple.”

So if you aren’t comfortable with certain behaviors or habits your partner has, it might be time to be honest with yourself about what is really going on.

Here are some instances that I believe might indicate that your partner is micro-cheating. Remember, in the end, it’s mostly going to come down to what you consider “micro-cheating” yourself.

1) They never put their phone down.

Although it is true that most people are glued to their phones these days, sometimes you find that your partner is on their phone just a little too much for comfort.

Taking it with them everywhere they go, never leaving it out of their sight, and always being very quick to pick it up and hide the screen from view when a notification comes through – these are the telltale signs that your partner might be micro-cheating.

Psychologist Douglas Weiss, Ph.D. tells Bustle that a sign of micro-cheating to watch for is “if their cell phone has a code on it or they take their cell phone to the bathroom, even at home.”

It stands to reason that micro-cheating via text, social media, and even email is a very real possibility.

Because many of us are required to have our phones all the time for work, conversations strike up between coworkers, colleagues, and acquaintances that can be construed as inappropriate in real life.

If you’re seeing this symptom, as well as some of the others I mention in this article, it doesn’t necessarily mean your partner is cheating. However, you do need to start taking action to stop the degradation of your relationship.

2) They laugh at something they see on their phone but then say “nothing” when you ask what is funny.

If your partner seems to be deriving a lot of pleasure from conversations or posts on the internet, but they won’t share those jokes or information with you, you might have a micro-cheater on your hands.

Rachel DeAlto, Match’s Chief Dating Expert, told Bustle that if your boyfriend or girlfriend is sending flirty text messages with someone they like, that may be a sign of micro-cheating.

Of course, the same can be said for you: if you are actively denying your partner information, or if you are sharing things online that you wouldn’t normally talk about in real life or with people you wouldn’t normally engage with in real life, you might also be micro-cheating.

You might be so focused on blaming your partner for what’s going wrong in your relationship that you forget to turn the mirror on yourself.

Take the time to make sure you are not putting your relationship in jeopardy as much as your partner is.

And if you are, talk to them about that too.

3) They follow their ex-partners on social media.

People who micro-cheat do it in the slickest of ways: everyone is on social media so it’s easy to hide what is really going on when you pick up your phone and start scrolling through profiles and feed images.

If your partner is spending a lot of time talking about, following, posting or commenting on ex-partners’ social media feeds, you might have a problem.

According to Martin Graff, a psychologist at the University of South Wales in the UK, micro-cheating “can be something as simple as repeatedly ‘liking’ someone’s posts on Instagram or commenting on someone’s Facebook.”

If this is something you’ve known about and accepted about them prior to the relationship, you will need to talk to your partner about how this has become a problem and why after all this time.

If this is a new behavior, it’s better to talk to your partner sooner rather than later, so that you don’t continue to worry about what it means.

Boundaries need to be set by you – and your partner – for what micro-cheating looks like and you both need to take responsibility for your actions.

Even if flirting happens online, it’s still a form of flirting where people could get hurt.

4) They deny it when you ask them about their behavior.

A major sign that micro-cheating is happening is when you sit down with your partner to talk about your concerns and they blow up in your face.

Of course, some backlash is to be expected as people don’t like to be accused of doing things that are wrong, but you shouldn’t allow yourself to be belittled or abused in the process.

Maryland-based couples therapist Lindsey Hoskins told Time that it’s crucial not to approach your partner in an attacking way about micro-cheating because they’ll immediately get defensive:

“Defensiveness is caused by feeling attacked, so the person who is worried needs to come into the conversation really being conscientious to not attack,”

If your partner freaks out about the confrontation, you may start to feel defensive about it as well.

5) They still talk about their ex-partner

You might consider yourself to be a pretty liberal partner, but there’s just something about your partner chatting with his ex that rubs you the wrong way.

If you are no longer friends with any of your ex-partners, finding out that your current partner is still chatting with their ex (or exes!) may come as a blow to you.

You might feel betrayed and you might find it difficult to trust what is really going on.

It’s not hard to see why you might feel uneasy about this.

As reported in Psychology Today, studies have shown that “people were more likely to stay in touch with exes they still had feelings for” and that “those who stayed in touch with an extended to be less committed to their current partner than those who did not, but contact with an ex wasn’t associated with how satisfying they found their current relationship.”

The hard part about relationships is that nobody can tell you whether your feelings are right or wrong except you.

You may find that you need to do some work on your thoughts about the situation if you want to continue to be in a relationship with them, or you need to confront them about the purpose and ask them to stop.

Neither path is easy, but doing what makes you feel comfortable is the right one.

6) They are still checking their dating app profile on a regular basis.

It’s not uncommon for couples to meet on dating apps these days. It’s still a very common practice for a lot of singles.

Unfortunately for some, they don’t get out of the habit of checking their dating app profiles after they’ve found someone to share their lives with.

But according to research, some people who are in a committed relationship still use dating apps.

“We noticed that several academic studies on dating apps consistently reported that a subsample of their participants were in a committed relationship while using Tinder or another dating app (in between 18 and 25% to be precise),” explained study author Elisabeth Timmermans of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

This is attributed to a number of things including simple habit; one thing is for sure though, if they’re constantly checking their app for updates on other girls or guys, you need to talk to them about it.

I personally believe that this should be considered cheating because they shouldn’t be wondering what’s out there if they’ve found what they’re looking for in your relationship.

It might be an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s an important one you need to have together.

7) They get defensive when you ask them to stop certain things.

If you’ve asked them to stop hanging out at certain places, like strip clubs or bars, or if you have asked them to stop talking to certain people, like their ex-partners and they get mad about it, you might have a problem on your hands.

If they start tossing guilt trips at you, such as “you knew this about me” or, “I did this when you met me”, you might want to take a step back and ask yourself if you thought they going to change or why you expect them to change now that you are in a relationship together.

An extreme version of this when someone confronts a partner they know are cheating and even though they are guilty, they get defensive and even shift the blame onto something else, according to Jackie Pilossoph, creator of the website, Divorced Girl Smiling.

Again, these kinds of conversations are never easy and can put a lot of strain on the relationship, but they are vital to the longevity of your commitment and day-to-day life.

Keep in mind that when you do ask them to stop doing something, it’s important to not do it in an accusing way.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula, author of Should I stay or Should I go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, told Bustle that you should “start with communicating in a way that doesn’t leave them defensive, and that means not accusing.”

She also says that “defensiveness is often a part of a projective style, which is seen in people who find it difficult to take responsibility, feel insecure, or may be fully narcissistic.”

8) They go to events alone.

If you are still in the honeymoon stage of your relationship and your partner is already leaving you at the door when they goe to parties or events, you might have a micro-cheater on your hands.

It’s not that they are going out looking for love in other places, but if they aren’t proud to have you on their arm when they walk into a room, something else is going on.

Some people prefer to fly solo even if they are in a committed relationship – and that’s fine – but if that kind of behavior is not what you signed up for and you were expecting more from them, you might need to have an honest conversation.

Licensed psychologist Dr. Wyatt Fisher tells Elite Daily that “emotional and physical withdrawal,” are possible signs of micro-cheating and might be something you should be aware of.

9) They think you are overreacting about all of the above.

If, at any time, they freak out that you bring any of these issues to their attention, consider yourself that you might be in possession of a micro- cheater.

According to Australian Relationship Expert in the Daily Mail, “Often micro-cheating may seem like a bit of innocent flirting with a person outside of your relationship but it can, unfortunately, ruin your relationship.”

This might mean that your partner may not think that what they’re doing is micro-cheating and therefore might overreact.

Sometimes, all it takes is a frank conversation about what you are seeing to get them to straighten up.

Sometimes, though, these conversations set off a defensive nature that makes you second think your choices.

And that’s okay. It’s better to know that they prefer to single life to coupledom before you go too far down that road.

If they’re sorry and didn’t realize how they were acting, there’s hope for you yet.

How to Handle a Micro-Cheater

Your partner might not be sneaking around behind your backchecking into hotel rooms with strange people, but they could very well be violating your trust and relationship with micro-cheating.

Psychologist Ty Tashiro told NBC that “when one betrays a partner’s trust there are always emotional consequences for the partner’s well-being and the integrity of the relationship.”

However, what’s important to keep in mind is that micro-cheating is so common that it’s likely you have engaged in some form of it yourself.

You might not have had a formal name for what you were doing, but if you leave any encounter feeling like you might have crossed a line, or at least stepped on it, then you were micro-cheating.

Remember, micro-cheating, is a series of behaviors that people engage in that is misaligned with what relationship values are thought to be.

According to Maryland-based couples therapist Lindsey Hoskins, micro-cheating refers to “a set of behaviors that flirts with the line between faithfulness and unfaithfulness,” and that it’s difficult to specify exactly what micro-cheating is because “the line is in different places for different people in different relationships.”

So if you think you’ve got a micro-cheater on your hands according to your values and relationship principles, here’s how to handle the situation.

1) Identify the problem behavior.

Before you do anything, you need to be sure that this is actually a problem. Don’t ask for advice from other people.

They will have lots to say about the situation and none of it will help you make a decision for yourself.

We often turn to those around us for love and support, but when it comes to private matters of your relationship, it’s best to look inward and try to figure out if you are even bothered by your partner’s behavior, or if you are angry because that is what you think you should feel.

You might be totally cool with your partner talking to their ex or having dinner with other people who are their friends, so make sure you have a problem with his behavior before you create one.

Keep in mind what Robert Weiss told NBC:

“Different behaviors might be infidelity for one couple, micro-cheating for another couple, and not a problem at all for another couple.”

Therefore, it’s up to you to decide what constitutes micro-cheating and why it’s a problem.

2) Talk to your partner and give concrete examples.

Once you know for sure that the things they are doing is putting your relationship at risk and you are confident that their behavior is not what you had expected, it’s time to talk to them.

At this point, it’s important to resist the urge to be general. You need to be very specific about what you see, think, feel, and want.

Irene Hansen Savarese, LMFT, wrote an article in Good Therapy advising to avoid reacting emotionally and to prepare yourself before initiating a serious conversation with your partner.

When you talk about what you want, it’s important to not demand actions from them; instead, tell them what you need in order to feel loved and supported.

If you start barking orders at them about the things they can and can’t do, you are more likely to drive them away instead of opening up a candid conversation about your relationship and its future.

3) Ask for your partner’s input and let them speak.

After you have said your peace, give your partner the room to talk. Let them tell their side of the story and be opened to what you might hear.

Don’t approach this conversation looking for more evidence of cheating or micro-cheating. It’s helpful if you come to this difficult conversation with an open mind and be willing to hear your partner out.

Maryland-based couples therapist Lindsey Hoskins advises to ask what they found so appealing about their micro-cheating adventure:

“Say, ‘Okay, what exactly is it that was appealing about that? What was the feeling you were getting from the behavior or interaction?… 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?’”

You also need to be ready if your partner gets defensive and angry with you for such accusations.

Not everyone is going to handle this kind of conversation well. You need to be willing to give them space and time to process what you are saying and what you are asking for.

If the relationship is important to you, you’ll be willing to put a pin in the conversation until he is ready to talk in greater detail.

4) Set boundaries for your relationship.

When the conversation continues, or when you pick it up again at a later time after they’ve had some time to think, you need to be clear about what you want and need from the relationship.

Don’t point fingers and don’t blame them for the way they are. Your best bet is to acknowledge how their behavior makes you feel and how you want the relationship to proceed.

Keep the focus on you and how this is impacting you in order to maintain responsibility for yourself in the relationship.

Australian relationship expert Samantha Jayne told Daily Mail that what defines micro-cheating all relies on an individual’s values and boundaries.

Therefore, it’s important that you talk about boundaries together and that you both agree to them so that it is clear when they have been crossed and everyone can take their share of the responsibility.

5) Stick to your word.

If you’ve taken the time to sit your partner down and talk to them about micro-cheating, you need to be clear about what you’ll do if this kind of behavior continues.

Relationship Therapist Rhonda Milrad told Bustle that you should “express your boundaries to your partner and explore if they are willing to meet them.”

Now if they don’t stick with them, you don’t need to tell them that you’ll walk out on them, but you do need to make it clear how it will hurt you.

Relationships are a lot of work and can come in all shapes and sizes. If you are truly bothered by their behavior, you need to ensure that your life looks the way you want it to.

How to stop a micro-cheater in their tracks

At the end of the day, micro-cheating has no place in a healthy relationship.

While you might be able to think of every reason under the sun that it’s OK and isn’t even close to the same level as cheating, it still implies there is something missing from your relationship.

So, instead of accepting that fact, I have another suggestion for you (if you’re a woman): trigger the Hero Instinct in your man.

Trigger that in your man, and the micro-cheating will come to an abrupt end and your relationship will jump back on track…just the way it’s supposed to be.

How? Watch this free video from James Bauer, the relationship expert who first coined this term. In it, he’ll teach you everything you need to know about a man’s biological drive to feel needed and wanted. 

According to him, men are driven by these three basic things in life:

  1. To live a meaningful life and feel appreciated.
  2. To provide for those he cares about.
  3. To be respected by those around him.

So, if you trigger the Hero Instinct in a man, then micro-cheating will become non-existent. He will only have eyes and ears for you.

He won’t be able to control his need to protect you and be there for you. Sounds good? 

If it does, then here’s the link to his excellent video again.

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Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 15 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. Check out my latest book on the Hidden Secrets of Buddhism and How it Saved My Life. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

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