Do you have a friend of the opposite sex that you regularly share personal jokes with? Do you tag each other regularly on social media? Do you dress a little nicer when you know you’re going to see him or her? If any of these questions produced a “yes,” then you might be heading down the slippery slope of emotional cheating and it could be harming your marriage.
Also known as micro-cheating, this falls under the umbrella of emotional infidelity and refers to small, seemingly insignificant things that a person can do that, while not explicitly unfaithful, can carry with them the hint of infidelity. While having a friendship with a person of the opposite sex doesn’t immediately make you a cheater, micro or otherwise, if certain behaviors are left unchecked, there’s a chance they could snowball into something more. At the very least, they could put your relationship in jeopardy.
“Micro-cheating negatively impacts relationships because, even though the acts seem inconsequential by themselves, they can lead to a gradual erosion of trust,” says Jonathan Bennett, a Columbus, Ohio–based counselor and the co-owner of Double Trust Dating. “Micro-cheating can put you in situations that could easily lead to outright cheating. In addition, even so-called ‘insignificant’ breaches of trust can sometimes still have major negative impacts on a relationship.”
The problem with micro-cheating, and why it can sometimes spiral into something more serious, is that many times, the people involved are initially unaware that they’re doing anything wrong.
“They may be caught up in how light and fun it feels, how good it makes them feel, and/or how it strokes their ego,” says Rori Sassoon, a relationship expert and the CEO of the matchmaking service Platinum Poire. “They may feel that they are not physically cheating so it doesn’t have as clear of boundaries as if it was physical cheating.”
So what are some common warning signs of micro-cheating? Take a look at your partner’s social media feed. Are they liking, commenting, or tagging themselves in someone else’s posts more than yours? Also, take note of how often they look at their phones and smile or laugh.
“The micro-cheater is obsessed with checking the social media feeds of the person they desire,” says Justin Lavelle, chief communications officer for the background check platform Beenverified. “You may be able to detect this by paying attention to how much or often your partner is smiling or laughing at their phone — and if you’re not included in whatever funny thing is happening, watch out.”
“Back burner” relationships are also trouble signs. These are friendships with people of the opposite sex that, on the surface seem innocuous, but may lead to a problem. This person could be the one that partner goes to when they want to vent about the relationship and, should a problem arise, they might go there for a shoulder to lean on. “They usually feel attracted to their back burners in some way,” says Bennett. “Keeping someone on the back burner, even as a supposed ‘friend,’ can be a form of micro-cheating.”
This also holds true for people who keep friendships with their exes. While many people do this with no issue, the fact remains that rekindling contact with someone with whom they had an emotional connection could potentially stir up old feelings. “Any emotional attachment to an old relationship can do nothing but damage to your current one,” says Vikki Ziegler, a divorce attorney and author of The Pre-Marital Planner. “You have to ask yourself: If your significant other did any of the above, how would you feel?”
So, knowing that micro-cheating is a very real danger, what’s the best way to know what’s harmless and what’s not? It starts by partners establishing what’s acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to outside relationships. And, if something happens that rubs one partner the wrong way, not being afraid to speak up. “If you suspect your partner is micro-cheating, one thing you can do to help your relationship is to express what behaviors are bothering you,” says Lavelle. “Sometimes, the person micro-cheating isn’t even aware they are doing it.”
Communication and trust between partners is the key to keep micro-cheating in check. Couples can feel free to enjoy interactions with other people without the fear of those pesky micro-cheating behaviors intruding. Additionally, with that level of trust, neither partner has to worry about parsing the other one’s actions all the time.
“The best way to combat micro-cheating is to foster overall openness and trust,” says Bennett. “If you and your partner act with transparency towards each other, you’ll never find yourself in situations that can lead to micro-cheating.”
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