Bring up cheating in a relationship and most people know what you’re talking about.
There’s the drunken night you regret. There’s the ex you can’t say no to. The months-long affair, bursting with passion. The secret family, meticulously hidden away in another state.
Those are all obvious. But once you start to ask about where cheating begins and ends—where, that is, something crosses the line from not-cheating to cheating—that’s where it can get tricky.
This is the uncertainty at the root of the term “micro-cheating,” which has cropped up in recent years to help define relationship behaviors—largely carried out online and on social media—that might feel like cheating, even if they don’t tick any of the obvious boxes.
“I’ve had past partners who would leave flirtatious comments or only follow women who were more sexual and comment or like their posts a lot,” said Nina Jankovic, 29, a psychology student in Montreal. “I think the favoriting and following sexual accounts, though, is a lot more common than more forward communication, but that’s what I’ve experienced.”
Sound like a familiar experience? You’re not alone.
What is micro-cheating?
Given its relatively recent appearance in the dating discourse, there’s not necessarily a black-and-white micro-cheating definition yet.
To some degree, as with regular cheating, micro-cheating is in the eye of the beholder.
Behaviors that might feel like red flags or deep breaches of trust to some may be simple examples of healthy human flirtatiousness.
There is an argument to be made that finding new things to classify as some type of “cheating” is a corrosive outcrop of an already unrealistic mentality—culturally enforced monogamy. The idea that everyone can only be attracted to one person at a time (as history has sometimes shown) is just not workable on a large scale.
But micro-cheating, by definition, groups together actions that feel like cheating _to the person being cheated on_—even if they don’t feel egregious to the person engaging in them.
The same way a married man having an affair in the 1950s might hand-wave it off as simply a necessity of male sexual desire, a woman in a relationship in 2019 could dismiss sending flirtatious texts to an ex as being ultimately meaningless—but that doesn’t invalidate the wife or boyfriend’s feelings of discomfort or betrayal.
Even if you’re not crossing your own barriers, you might be crossing your partner’s. And that’s where it gets tricky.
Many of the below behaviors—which aren’t intrinsically harmful and are totally fine for single people—could be classified as micro-cheating examples:
- Liking or commenting excessively on social media posts made by people you’re attracted to.
- Following people who post a lot of sexual content (acquaintances rather than celebrities), whether you engage or not.
- Posting revealing photos of yourself (aka “thirst traps” or otherwise flirtatious or sexual content on social media).
- Sending flirtatious/jokey messages, texts or emails to people you’re attracted to.
- Staying in close contact with exes or crushes.
- Actively concealing the above behaviors from your partner (e.g. using a fake name for a contact in your phone, deleting texts or direct messages, using a fake or secondary profile to engage in flirtatious ways, etc.)
In short, it’s behaviors that you almost certainly wouldn’t do if your partner was there—but that feel just tame, hidden or gray-area-ish enough that you can defend doing them to yourself, since they’re not breaking any broadly understood rules.
When does micro-cheating become real cheating?
So the line between micro-cheating and harmless innocent behavior might be complex. What about the line between micro-cheating and signs of full-on cheating? At what point do you drop the “micro” entirely?
Again, it’ll depend on each couple. But often it’s a question of shifting gears from indirect behaviors to direct behaviors.
Rather than exchanging funny, flirty selfies with a crush, you exchange sexually suggestive pictures. Rather than making risqué jokes with an ex, you devolve into full-on sexting. At that point, the desire at the core of your actions is laid bare—it’s not about friendship or communication or having fun, it’s about sex.
Knowing that possibility exists might be enough for someone to draw the line at micro-cheating entirely—the logic being, you won’t have to worry about catching real cheating if you never let it get to the “micro” version in the first place. That was the case for Jankovic as she experienced past partners’ actions.
“Whenever I’ve brought it up with men, they usually get defensive,” she said. “And when I see men who follow a bunch of accounts like that or liking photos like that, that is a red flag for me now. And I just don’t date people like that anymore, or not seriously, anyway.”
Micro-cheating will probably keep evolving
Because the cultural conversation around these rituals hasn’t become widely understood or accepted yet—new apps mean new behaviors mean new cultural norms—it’s easy to engage in different examples of micro-cheating without even realizing it.
Much of social media is set up to produce a “like first, ask questions later” mentality; even if you’re single right now, you could already be developing a pattern of liking and commenting that’ll betray a future partner’s trust without realizing it.
At the end of the day, what’s most important is to have open and honest discussions about what’s okay and what isn’t with whomever you’re dating—ideally before the relationship is too far along.
Even if you’re not on the same page about this, being clear about what the other person wants and expects from you means you’ll be able to go about your life without accidentally violating their trust—and also without living in fear that you’re doing something wrong when you aren’t.