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How Partners Can Cheat Without Cheating

Is it possible to cheat without actually cheating?

Key points

  • Some define "cheating" as the breaking of trust from keeping meaningful secrets from your primary partner.
  • Micro-cheating refers to seemingly small behaviors that straddle the line between faithfulness and cheating.
  • Cheating, micro or otherwise, is less about the behavior and more about lies and the keeping of secrets.
Source: giggsy25/Shutterstock

In my book Out of the Doghouse, I define cheating (infidelity) as “the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.”

It is important to notice that this definition does not mention specific sexual or romantic acts. Having affairs, using porn, frequenting strip clubs, downloading hookup apps, and other sexual and romantic behaviors are not listed because this definition focuses on what ultimately matters most to a betrayed partner—the loss of relationship trust.

For betrayed partners, it’s not any specific sexual or romantic act that causes the deepest and longest-lasting pain to them and to your relationship. Rather, it’s the lying, the secrets, and the manipulation. The loss of trust is, for betrayed partners, both emotionally and psychologically devastating.

But what about “micro-cheating”?

An article in TIME Magazine defines micro-cheating as “a set of behaviors that flirts with the line between faithfulness and unfaithfulness.” Cosmopolitan defines it as “small things you do that could have whispers of infidelity—without actually being physically unfaithful.”

Behaviors that many people would consider micro-cheating include:

  • Flirting
  • Dressing differently if/when you know you will see a particular person
  • Texting with an attractive person who is not your primary partner
  • Chatting on webcam or social media with an attractive person who is not your primary partner
  • Socializing with an attractive coworker
  • Liking and positively commenting on a person’s Instagram or other social media pics
  • Having a hookup app profile (even though you never actually hook up)

So, is there a meaningful difference between cheating and micro-cheating? Based on my definition of infidelity—the breaking of trust that occurs when you keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner—the difference, if there is one, lies not in the specifics of your behavior, but in how deeply the lies and secrets about that behavior impact your partner. For example, your partner might not care that you have lunch once in a while with your attractive coworker as long as you are open, honest, and up-front about it. If you go to lunch with that coworker and keep it secret, however, your partner might feel hurt, left out, and betrayed.

This is true even if you have no sexual or romantic interest whatsoever in your coworker.

Cheating, micro or otherwise, is less about the behavior and more about lies and the keeping of secrets and how those lies and secrets impact your partner.

All of this is subjective, of course, depending on the couple and the relationship boundaries they’ve agreed upon. This means that some behaviors might feel like full-blown infidelity for one couple, micro-cheating for another, and not cheating at all for another. For example, some couples might feel that using porn while away on a business trip counts as full-blown infidelity, another couple might view it as micro-cheating, and yet another couple might not think it is problematic at all. The same could be said for flirting, texting, webcams, etc.

I do think it’s important to point out here that much of what most people consider micro-cheating is relatively normal behavior both in and out of a relationship. If you see someone that you find attractive and that person smiles at you, you’re probably going to return that with your own best smile, regardless of your relationship status. Being in a relationship does not mean we stop responding in natural ways to attention from people other than our primary partner. And the fact that we respond in kind when someone blatantly (or subtly) flirts with us is not a reflection of the strength and quality of our primary relationship.

That said, if an individual intentionally and actively engages in micro-cheating on a regular basis, that might elevate the behavior to the level of full-blown cheating. The fact that any one instance would not be deeply upsetting to the betrayed partner does not stop a series of micro-cheating behaviors from adding up and heightening the impact.

At the end of the day, how a couple defines and reacts to both cheating and micro-cheating depends on the couple. If there is disagreement about what does and does not constitute cheating and/or micro-cheating in a relationship, the best way to resolve this conflict and ultimately strengthen the relationship is to engage in open and honest communication. This can occur with or without the assistance of a therapist. Either way, such communication is the key to healthy intimacy. The more open and honest a couple is, the more intimacy and connection they will have.

Facebook image: giggsy25/Shutterstock

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