If there are any natural boundaries at all to prevent infidelity, they are so diffuse and easily crossed that their existence is barely recognisable.
Micro-cheating is relationship terminology pointing to small behaviours that both approach and potentiate possible betrayal.
In my clinical practice, I see more couples than ever arguing about partners’ decisions around interactions with extra-marital acquaintances which feel threatening. In addition to traditional face-to-face flirtatious behaviours, a whole new threat exists in digital flirting, such as email, texting, Facebook messaging, Instagram likes, the list goes on.
It is not uncommon during sessions to be moderating a power struggle between a couple who are arguing about whether or not actions are considered micro-cheating or harmless contact. Some people are fighting for their right to autonomous decision-making, but that path can lead to unintended harmful consequences.
One of the most dangerous aspect of micro-cheating is that people rarely recognise the genuine threat to relationship stability, so they are not careful. There are always exceptions, but I rarely hear that one partner went looking for an affair. Instead, I listen to things like, ‘I never planned to be unfaithful,’ or ‘It just happened,’ or ‘I just fell into it,’ or ‘ can’t believe I’m in this situation,’ or many other phrases describing a feeling of being helplessly pulled into a nightmarish drama.
The problem with crossing boundaries is that you’re safe until you’re not.
What I mean by that is that in every situation, two people are exchanging playful and flirtatious messages because it is intoxicating to get positive affirmation from another person, and they mistakenly believe that they are safe from infidelity.
Most people tell themselves, ‘I’m not the type to have an affair so it won’t happen,’ or they underestimate the emotional bonding resulting from repeated contact. Eventually, there is a predictable “tipping point.” Malcolm Gladwell, in his same-titled book, describes this as an overall effect when an accumulation of minor phenomena reaches a critical point to create a significant change.
Micro-cheating behaviours can eventually cause a tipping point. In almost every situation, most shift from playful banter into a deeper emotional connection seemingly instantly, when it is the predictable result of an eventual connection from micro-cheating.
This type of emotional connection has a real-life impact on disrupting a relationship. Two people can have a genuine affair without ever being in the same physical location. The feelings experienced in emotional affairs are real and commonly starve the primary relationship. People in emotional affairs usually decrease their attention and effort toward their partner, and the result is unhappiness and possible relationship dissolution.
While there is a myriad of behaviours that can be labelled as micro-cheating, the construct has more to do with attitudes than behaviour.
Can you safely like someone’s Instagram post or make a comment and not be flirting? Of course!
Can you email, text or otherwise message someone platonically without compromising your relationship? Yes.
However, micro-cheating is ultimately a significant problem when it is hidden or minimised. When you hide your passwords from your partner, there is a more significant risk for micro-cheating.
When your partner is feeling threatened by your online interactions, and you continue those interactions, you are very likely micro-cheating.
Ultimately, the most effective boundaries in relationships are built by creating safe emotional and physical connection with your partner. Without effort and energy, relationships drift. Emotional distance leaves relationships much more vulnerable to infidelity.
‘Falling in love,’ the heightened motivational state, fueled by novelty and the ‘love cocktail,’ of brain chemicals is euphoric and often addictive. However, I have difficulty with the word ‘falling,’ because it implies an absence of power to influence our behaviour. Staying in love is an ongoing endeavour. Ultimately, if you don’t want to ‘fall out of love,’ with your partner, evaluating and curbing your micro-cheating is an excellent place to start.