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Is Online Infidelity Just Micro-Cheating?

Are we becoming obsessed with online snooping?

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How do we feel about someone who leaves their wedding ring at home when they go out? What do we think when our partner pays some extra attention to someone else?

You probably could not say that these behaviors in themselves are cheating, but we certainly would be less than pleased by them. Such behaviors have lately been termed "micro-cheating," possibly because they suggest that a person might have the intention to cheat, given the chance.

The age of online communication and social media allows people the opportunity to interact far more easily. Behaviors which might fall within the definition of micro-cheating include:

  • Obsessively checking someone else’s (not your partner’s) social media posts.
  • Disclosing information to or confiding in someone other than your partner when you’ve had a bad day.
  • Saving someone’s name as something different in your contacts to avoid detection by a partner.
  • Using romantically charged emojis in a communication with someone outside your relationship.

Yet when we think about it, whether these actions are just playful flirtation or not suggest that a person is romantically interested in someone outside of their relationship is a complex issue, and may depend on a variety of factors.

Our research in this area attempted to clarify to some extent a definition of micro-cheating, which we referred to as online infidelity. In one study, our participants were given scenarios describing an online interaction between two people who were not in a relationship. Participants were asked to judge them on the basis of whether they considered them to be cheating behaviors. Two salient factors which we manipulated were the time of day of the interaction, and the degree of disclosure of information between the parties (low disclosure being factual, and high disclosure being more emotionally charged).

Not surprisingly, interactions late at night were judged as more unfaithful than those taking place in the day. We speculated that this may be due to the secretive nature of nighttime interactions. Similarly, interactions describing greater disclosure levels between people were judged higher in terms of unfaithful behavior (Graff, under review).

Are there gender differences in perceptions?

We also asked how jealous, angry, hurt, or disgusted our respondents would be as a result of a partner interacting online with a person outside of the relationship. The consistent finding was that females were more emotionally affected by these behaviors than males, suggesting that online infidelity — or what has been termed micro-cheating — is experienced more strongly by females. Our research does suggest that it is not the behavior as such which is important, but rather the context and intention with which it takes place.

Social media privacy

Using a more specific scenario, Nicole Muscanell and colleagues asked their participants to consider a scenario which described a relationship that they had or would like to have, in which they found a photograph of their partner with a member of the opposite sex on Facebook (Muscanell, Guadagno, Rice and Murphy, 2013). Participants were then asked to consider the scenario further — situations in which they discovered that their partner’s Facebook photos were set either to private and viewable by just friends or viewable to all users. Observed jealousy ratings were highest in the scenario in which the photos were set to private, which would seem to convey a need for secrecy. Further, this study found that, overall, females gave higher jealousy ratings compared to males.

Is checking on your partner OK?

One possible reason why micro-cheating and what we do during online communication gives rise to jealousy is quite obviously that we see these behaviors as the possible start of something more than just harmless flirtation. Given this reasoning, should we keep a check on our partners, and does obsessive checking improve things? A survey carried out in 2013 questioned 2,400 UK respondents who had either been unfaithful themselves or had found out that their partner had been unfaithful. The survey found that a staggering 41 percent reported that the infidelity came to light through evidence revealed via a phone (Waterlow, 2013), strongly suggesting that partner surveillance may be justified.

Does partner monitoring improve relationships?

Whether needless partner monitoring actually sustains relationships is another matter. Kelly Derby, David Knox, and Beth Easterling gave a 42-item questionnaire to 268 students, with the aim of investigating the degree to which they monitored partners — how often they did it, their reason for doing it, and what happened as a result. They found that two-thirds of respondents confessed to ‘‘snooping’’ through their partner’s text messages and logging onto their social networking sites.

Reported reasons were curiosity and suspicion, with females reporting more monitoring than males. Incidentally, monitoring behavior was reported as taking place most often when a partner was safely in the shower. They warn that monitoring a partner’s behavior should be done with caution, as they noted that 28 percent of relationships worsened as a result of partner monitoring, while only 18 percent improved as a result (Derby K, Knox D, & Easterling, 2012).

What difference might relationship length make?

By the time people are happily married, it would seem plausible that the effort involved in constantly monitoring a partner’s behavior might have ceased. Yet Ellen Helsper and Monica Whitty present evidence suggesting that partner monitoring continues into married life (Helsper & Whitty, 2010). The researchers collected data from more than 2,000 married people, who were asked whether they had monitored their partner’s activities by doing any of the following:

  • Reading their emails.
  • Reading their text messages.
  • Checking their browser history.
  • Reading their instant message logs.
  • Using monitoring software.
  • Pretending to be another person.

They found that in almost a third of couples, one or both had looked at their partner's emails or text messages without the partner knowing, and in one in five couples, one or both partners had checked their partner’s browsing history.

Overall, then, it can be said that micro-cheating, at least via online communication, is not defined in terms of an action but rather the motive for that action. In other words, liking an ex-partner's post on social media is not micro-cheating if a person’s intention is simply just to like the post. However, social media and online communication has made such communication more ambiguous. Sadly, this may motivate us to compulsively check out our partner’s online activity. Yet, as pointed out in the study by Derby et al. (2012), this doesn’t make things any better.


Derby, K., Knox, D., & Easterling, B. (2012). ‘Snooping in romantic relationships.’ College Student Journal, 46, 333–343.

Graff, M., G. (under review). ‘The salience of rival attractiveness in online infidelity.’ Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Helsper, E. J. & Whitty, M. T. (2010). ‘Netiquette within married couples: Agreement about acceptable online behaviour and surveillance between partners.’ Computers in Human Behaviour, 26, 916-926.

Muscanell, L., Guadagno, R. E., Rice, L. & Murphy, S. (2013). ‘Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Green? An Analysis of Facebook Use and Romantic Jealousy.’ Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, 16 (4), 237-242.

Waterlow, L. (2013). ‘Dial I for infidelity: Checking partner’s mobile phone is most common way affairs are exposed.’… (accessed Jan 17, 2018).

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