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Can Your Relationship Survive a Little Micro-Cheating?

New research shows that fantasizing might not be that bad for your relationship.

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The concept of micro-cheating has begun to emerge in social media as an updated form of what used to be called flirting. In micro-cheating, you send signals to someone outside of your relationship that you are available as a potential sexual partner. However, because this is “micro,” you don’t actually intend to act on that desire. When micro-cheating is accompanied by fantasies, the question becomes whether you move that much closer to the line between harmless flirtation and action that could destroy your most important relationship.

Some might argue that micro-cheating, even with fantasies, can be beneficial to your main relationship. After all, no one is actually hurt by your mental shenanigans, and if it enriches your enjoyment of sex with your partner, there should be no deleterious consequences. Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology’s (Herzliya, Israel) Gurit Birnbaum and colleagues (2019) believe that, over time, it’s normal for partners in an intimate relationship to let their minds stray to “extra-dyadic” targets. In their words, such fantasies allow partners to seek “novelty and variety without threatening the relationship” (p. 461). The fantasies become problematic, however, when people start to compare the lustful images to their actual partners and find that their partners begin to appear less and less desirable than their imagined liaisons.

As the Israeli team notes, sexual fantasies about other people can be seen as compensating for relationship difficulties with one’s own partner. In this compensatory view, the alternate reality you create in your fantasies can help to regulate stress. Making up for “relationship burnout,” your fantasies therefore can help you remain loyal in reality to your partner, because all you’ve done is engage in harmless escapism. In therapy, relationship experts might even go so far as to train their clients to learn how to fantasize for this very reason. The question that remains unanswered from previous research is whether fantasies about other relationship partners can actually damage your primary relationship by increasing your levels of desire toward that person, because “sexual fantasies may lead to action with real-life consequences” (p. 462).

Birnbaum and her colleagues began their investigation, then, by contrasting the view that sexual fantasies about individuals outside the relationship would increase sexual satisfaction with the alternate view that these fantasies can lead to trouble. Across four studies varying from experimental methods to daily experience reporting, the Israeli researchers contrasted sexual and non-sexual fantasizing between romantic and extra-dyadic partners. The first investigation, using Israeli college students, involved exposing participants to one of two fantasy-inducing conditions in which they followed instructions to engage in sexual fantasies about their partner versus about an individual outside the relationship. The outcome variable in this first study included ratings of how much sexual desire participants felt toward their own partners. The findings suggested that dyadic fantasizing was beneficial to one’s own relationship partner, but so was (to a lesser extent) extra-dyadic fantasizing.

The second study included the non-sexual fantasizing condition in which partners imagined themselves engaging both in sexual and non-sexual activities with their partners or someone else. These findings, based on a laboratory manipulation, showed that sexual fantasizing about their own partners led participants to feel more drawn toward their partner than did the extra-dyadic fantasizing. However, the extra-dyadic fantasizing had no negative effects. Even so, the authors believed that because this manipulation was conducted in the lab, and with fantasies that may or may not have been novel, they were not ready to draw a conclusion about the pros or cons of sexual fantasies.

The subsequent two studies extended the method from the lab to everyday life. Participants in the first of these daily life studies kept records of their sexual fantasies as well as their accompanying relationship-enhancing behaviors (both sexual and non-sexual) over a 21-day period. All participants were in heterosexual cohabiting relationships, averaged 25-26 years of age, and were in a steady, monogamous relationship for at least 6 months. Both members of the 48 couples reported having sexual fantasies on about one-third of the days, but two-thirds of fantasies were reported by only one member of the couple. As in the previous lab studies, the daily experience ratings showed that partners who fantasized about sex with their partners engaged in more relationship-enhancing than relationship-damaging behaviors. However, fantasizing about extra-dyadic partners had neither positive nor negative effects.

The final study expanded the previous daily experiencing sampling over a 6-week period in which partners in relationships averaging 2 years also reported on the perceptions of their relationships on a daily basis. The researchers used a complex analytic method that allowed them to track the impact of fantasizing about the partner on relationship perceptions, which, in turn, were tested as predictors of relationship-promoting behaviors. Birnbaum et al. concluded from this last study that the reason sexual fantasies work is because they "become translated into reality in the form of sexual and non-sexual behaviors that help maintain satisfying intimate relationships over time” (p. 473).

Clearly, then, in these relatively young and relatively newly formed couples, sexual fantasies about each other proved to be relationship-enhancing. However, returning to the first sets of findings, it appeared that even in couples who were still arguably in their “honeymoon” phase, thinking about another partner, or micro-cheating, didn’t have a negative (or positive) impact. That final study didn’t test whether fantasies about other people had an impact on relationship quality, so the question remains unresolved about how micro-cheating plays out in everyday life.

When all is said and done, it's best to keep your sexual fantasizing (especially early in your relationship) focused on your partner. However, given the limitations in the Birnbaum et al. study, and the early findings showing no harm of extra-dyadic fantasies, it seems that you're on safe ground with the occasional daydreaming you might engage in about other people in your life. The other unknown is whether you even know those "extra-dyadic" people. If these fantasies involve co-workers, neighbors, or friends, micro-cheating could potentially slip into macro-cheating. However, if you're fantasizing about celebrities you will never actually meet, the odds of dreams becoming reality are close to zero.

To sum up, if you want to benefit your relationship, fantasizing about your partner can promote positive relationship perceptions that end up translating into stronger bonds. However, there’s no evidence from this study to suggest that if your fantasies end up roaming into the micro-cheating territory, you and your partner will suffer any negative consequences. If fantasizing helps you feel more comfortable with your sexuality, and you keep those fantasies to the hypothetical realm, your relationship may even become that much more fulfilling over time.

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Birnbaum, G. E., Kanat-Maymon, Y., Mizrahi, M., Recanati, M., & Orr, R. (2019). What fantasies can do to your relationship: The effects of sexual fantasies on couple interactions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45(3), 461–476. doi:10.1177/0146167218789611

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