What the Hell Is ‘Micro-Cheating?’

The first few months of a new relationship are incredible: there’s nothing like that butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling you get when you’re waiting from the next text from her. After a little while, however, the novelty starts to wear off — so you might be tempted to start looking for that high elsewhere, even if you aren’t actually sleeping with someone else.

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If you’re exchanging flirty texts with someone who isn’t your partner, consistently liking and commenting on their posts, or leaving googly-eye emojis on their Instagram photos, you may be engaging in micro-cheating. The term describes a wide range of actions and behaviors that aren’t egregious enough to qualify as cheating but are definitely a little bit shady nonetheless.

The term has gone viral over the past few weeks, with many people freaking out over whether their partner could be doing it to them. But such behavior usually isn’t cause for alarm, according to relationship experts and therapists who spoke with Men’s Health. In fact, flirting with people other than your partner can sometimes be a good thing for your relationship — to a point.

Here’s how to know when “micro-cheating” is just harmless flirtation, and when it’s actually a problem.

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According to NYC-based Psychotherapist and Relationship Specialist Lisa Brateman, “micro-cheating” is a bit of an unfair term. When you think about it, most people in relationships dabble in some form of micro-cheating at some point, and that’s completely normal.

“Fantasizing about someone other than your partner is common for both men and women. As sexual beings, being attracted to others is a normal experience,” Brateman says. “It is a myth to believe that being in a committed relationship means you can never or should never feel attracted to someone else.” (In fact, nearly 46% of women and 42% of men have fantasized about someone other than their partner during sex, according to a 2015 British survey.)

Furthermore, it’s totally unreasonable to expect your partner not to engage in micro-cheating of some form or another, as sex researcher Justin Lehmiller put it for The Cut: the term reveals “an implied demand that our partners never pay attention to anyone but us. Ever. That kind of possessiveness represents an unhealthy and unrealistic approach to love.”

Lehmiller also notes that forming close friendships with people other than your partner is crucial to your overall mental health and well-being, and can also serve to strengthen your relationship. So in itself, there’s absolutely no reason to feel guilty about bonding with a cute co-worker over your shared love of pugs and The Walking Dead, provided that’s where your interest in them ends. Regardless of what When Harry Met Sally might have taught you, of course it’s OK for you to be friends with someone you might find attractive.

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It’s also important to note that what counts as micro-cheating varies widely from couple to couple. Texting a cute co-worker a few too many smiley emojis or deep-liking one of their Instagram posts might enrage your partner, but for other couples, that behavior might not be a problem at all. Dr. Jessica O’Reilly, a sexologist and host of the podcast Sex With Dr. Jess, says that it’s a gross generalization to label these behaviors as micro-cheating.

“Certainly, some of these behaviors can be problematic and can cause tension in a relationship, but tension itself is not evidence that your behaviour is inappropriate. Compatibility and monogamy are subjective concepts,” Dr. O’Reilly says. “What’s important is how a behavior makes you feel.”

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If your partner is talking a little bit too much about how hot her new co-worker is and how hilarious the jokes he makes in her work Slack are, it’s normal to feel a little insecure. However, says Dr. O’Reilly, “you need to deal with your insecurity in a constructive manner. Look for the source of your insecurity and address it, either on your own or with your partner.”

If you’re keeping close tabs on your partner’s texts or social media activity, you should also ask yourself why you’re doing that to begin with. Monitoring a partner’s online interactions can be a slippery slope that borders on controlling behavior, Dr. O’Reilly says, and that can be unhealthy for both of you. So instead of obsessively tracking your partner’s feed or timeline, “ask yourself why it’s important to you” in the first place, says O’Reilly.

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The same goes if you’re the one continuously typing in an ex’s name on Instagram, or sending cute memes to your colleague. “Why do you do it? [Is it] because you’re secretly hoping for an intimate connection? Or do you stay in touch because they’re an important person in your life?,” counsels O’Reilly. “Convey your underlying motivation and feelings honestly to your partner.”

When it comes down to it, there’s a huge difference between thinking about another person in an erotic way, and actually acting on those feelings. If you have a really hot fantasy about, say, having sex with your friend’s girlfriend on the kitchen table, Brateman has a suggestion: tell your partner about it. Of course, you probably don’t want to name names (that could open up a whole can of worms), but sharing the fantasy itself might lead to you actually trying it out with your partner IRL.

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“Sharing erotic fantasies can bring couples closer and bridge the gap of unspoken desires,” Brateman says. “Co-created fantasy can create mutually enjoyed intimacy. Fantasy can heighten sexuality and deepen the sexual connection.” You might find that a little so-called micro-cheating isn’t just healthy and normal — it can actually be really hot.

Above all else, being open and honest with your partner is key, says relationship expert and NYC-based psychotherapist Allison Abram. “Emotional intimacy is cultivated and maintained through openness and communication. The more open partners are with one another, the more trust can be maintained.”

The important thing is to establish boundaries right off the bat; if your partner is doing something that isn’t OK with you, be open and honest about it, and vice versa. This should be a constant dialogue between the two of you — and you might find that it brings you closer together.

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