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woman in a relationship on tinderDanae Diaz

When does micro-cheating become ‘actual’ cheating?

Is it possible to be unfaithful 'just a little bit'?

Vicky Spratt
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Once upon a time, cheating was all about lipstick on the collar, the smell of perfume on a lapel, or an incriminating receipt in a trouser pocket. Even with the dawn of social media, there were clear clues – a full-on kiss in a party photograph, or someone checking in somewhere they shouldn’t. But now, in an age of dating apps and DMs, things are a lot more complicated.

Enter micro-cheating: the latest buzzword in the realm of infidelity. As the name suggests, it's all about little things you might think aren’t that naughty, but can be. And therein lies the dilemma – if it can include subtle actions, how do we define micro-cheating? And can there really be such a thing as 'cheating but only a bit'?

Yes, says Dr Martin Graff, a professor of psychology at the University of South Wales, who is something of an expert. He wrote about this modern dating dilemma in a recent article for a psychology journal, explaining how infidelity has evolved as we live more of our lives online.

Dr Graff defines micro-cheating as any act or behaviour by someone in a relationship which might suggest to a third party that they are emotionally or physically available. Before smartphones, micro-cheating might have been the sneaky removal of a wedding ring before a night out, but in the digital age it's easier than ever to signal to someone that you’re available - anything from 'deep liking' (when you go way back into someone's Instagram feed to like very old posts) to sending sly direct messages.

Nichi Hodgson, who has written a book about the history of dating, agrees that micro-cheating is a new name for old behaviour. “Even as far back as the 18th century, people were flirting via inappropriate letters or revealing inappropriate thoughts in their diaries," she says. "What has changed is that we now have tools which make it far easier to commit micro-cheating than ever before.” 

However, as Dr Graff points out, while micro-cheating may not be actually cheating on your partner, it is behaviour that could spark infidelity. Think of it as a warm up. “The fact that we communicate more and more online as opposed to face to face means that relationships are more ambiguous than ever,” he says.

In this murky world of micro-cheating, is there ever a watertight way of knowing whether you’re being micro-cheated on or, indeed, guilty of it yourself? We ran five potential micro-cheating scenarios by Dr Graff, Nichi, and relationship expert Leila Collins.

Micro cheating2Danae Diaz

Messaging an ex

You’re at a gig on a date with your partner. The support act turns out to be a favourite of your ex. You take a picture and text it to him or her. Fast forward 24 hours: they’ve replied and put a kiss at the end of their message. If you continue the conversation, are you cheating?

The experts say:

Nichi: “There is nothing wrong with being in touch with exes, but you should always run it by a current partner. This situation is fine if you aren’t secretly angling for a reconciliation or bored and in need of attention. A lot of people message their exes for a quick ego boost if they know that the ex might still harbour feelings for them.”

Leila: "Why would you want to get in touch with an ex if you've agreed it's over? It doesn’t matter what the intention is, it’s still bad form. I would class that as cheating."

Infidelity rating: 3/5

Liking someone else’s posts on social media

You’re in bed. You’ve turned the lights out, but you can’t sleep. Your thumb itches and you start scrolling through Instagram. You start liking the posts of someone who, if you weren’t in a relationship, would be very much your type. Then you do the same thing on your lunch break, and on the bus home you leave a few emojis on their latest post, including a heart.

The experts say:

Nichi: “People who feel insecure may be more bothered by this than others, and perhaps that’s a sign there is a bigger problem in their relationship. Liking people’s posts isn’t necessarily something to feel bad about, but if you were regularly liking the same person's posts, that might be more of a concern.”

Martin: “This one is ambiguous, and the time of day at which someone starts scrolling and liking is a good indicator of whether there is something untoward going on.” 

Infidelity rating: 2/5 if before dark, 5/5 after dark

Micro cheating3Danae Diaz

Building a ‘platonic’ friendship online

You went on a holiday with a group of uni mates and had a big night out where you really bonded with one of them who is on your course. Becoming Facebook friends when you got back was the logical next step. From there things have naturally progressed to following each other on Instagram. Suddenly, on the bus home, you get a DM asking for your number: they want to talk to you about coursework.

The experts say:

Leila: “You’ve got to be honest and decent about it. If you are in a stable relationship and you do these things, such as building a relationship with someone else or texting other people, it’s out of order.”

Nichi: “We often meet people who share our interests. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that but, again, I think you have to be very clear about where you’re at because the other person might misinterpret the friendship. If you start swapping DMs, which are undeniably a secretive means of communication, then you're hiding something.”

Infidelity rating: 4/5

Not deleting your profile on dating apps

We’ve all been there. After months of trawling dating apps, you’re now several months into what seems to be a real-life relationship. It’s great, but you can’t quite bring yourself to delete your dating apps yet. You even find yourself occasionally swiping when you’re bored.

The experts say:

Nichi: "Not deleting your online dating profiles is completely inexcusable. It’s also a power move to leave the other person anxious about the fact that you haven’t deleted them."

Leila: “This is cruel and unacceptable. It’s not only micro-cheating, but full-blown macro-cheating. Why would you want to communicate with somebody else if you’re in a relationship? I see all communication that you wouldn’t disclose to your partner as infidelity. No exceptions."

Infidelity rating: 10/5

Micro cheatingDanae Diaz

Fantasising about someone else while having sex

You can’t look your new boss in the eye because, last night, while getting intimate with your partner, their face popped into your head. It was completely unexpected, although you had been answering work emails late that night in bed, and it startled you so much it put you off. This is 100% worse than that time you snogged Ryan Gosling in your sleep, but is it micro-cheating?

The experts say:

Leila: “Fantasising about someone isn’t cheating. Fantasy is a private affair, and as you don’t act on it, that’s fair. However, if you message them afterwards, that is bad form. Ultimately, your fantasy is your own business.”

Nichi: "If you’re going to be in a monogamous relationship with someone, the very least you can be allowed is porn and fantasy. I would actually argue that fantasies are safeguards against cheating. This isn’t cheating. It's very common, and lots of us do it. But it is a case of not being present for your partner, and you'd be surprised how many people can sense when your focus isn't on them, even if they can't read your mind. So that’s definitely something to think about if this is you.”

Infidelity rating: 0

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This article was originally published on 26 May 2018.