Dotted along the sliding scale of relationship statuses—between satisfyingly single and consciously coupled—is a menagerie of ludicrous-sounding concepts that have become permanent fixtures in the dating lexicon: ghosting, orbiting, breadcrumbing. The dating landscape is in flux as never before—the way we’re meeting our partners and the boundaries we set with them once we’re settled (if that’s what we even want anymore) are radically different from the dating world of 20, 10 or even five years ago.We’ve come a long way from heteronormative relationships and gender structures, with concepts such as ethical non-monogamy, polyamory and relationship anarchy changing what relationships look like. Basically, as long as everyone involved is a happy, consenting adult, just about anything goes. But there’s one new concept threatening to derail all our progress: micro-cheating.In her book The State Of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Esther Perel (aka the go-to relationship psychotherapist) writes: “As a culture we’ve become sexually open to the point of overflowing, but when it comes to sexual fidelity, even the most liberal minds can remain intransigent.” While the ways we define our relationships are ever-evolving, so too is the way we define infidelity.There are the obvious culprits (physical and emotional affairs), but what micro-cheating encompasses is the behaviours that straddle the line between friendliness and unfaithfulness.Where that line is drawn is different for every couple, but the most common behaviours include: dressing differently when you know you’re going to see a certain person, lying by omission (either to your partner about who you’re hanging out with, or the object of your desire about the seriousness of your relationship) or playing fast and loose with the eggplant, love eyes and peach emojis on someone else’s selfies.
It spans from something as innocuous as having a private joke with someone to something more sinister, like keeping their number under a code name in your phone.While the term micro-cheating first appeared on Urban Dictionary as far back as 2008, being defined as: “When someone cheats on a partner, but just a little bit,” it’s Australian psychologist Melanie Schilling who’s credited with reviving the phrase and updating its definition for today’s world.”I’d noticed a concerning trend where people were giving themselves permission to indulge in secret flirtations via social media,” she says. “It’s hardly surprising that people have started to take liberties with their definition of commitment, fidelity, partnership and intimacy. It was important to label it ‘micro’ because it’s a series of seemingly small actions that indicate a person is emotionally or physically focused on someone outside of their relationship.”Micro-cheating is such an internet-y word, so easily turned into a hashtag, that it has quickly spawned much debate online, particularly on Twitter.
While one side blamed social media (Tinder, Instagram et al.) for an increase in kind-of-cheating-but-not-really incidents, the other argued the concept was merely condoning jealous and controlling behaviours. They also suggested that micro-cheating implies that to be a faithful partner, you’re not allowed to have a life.It seems the hardest part to grasp about micro-cheating is how to determine when it crosses over from friendship into something more. Does it mean that I, a straight woman, can’t send love-heart emojis to my four housemates, who all happen to be men I love dearly yet platonically? How do we know if we are the guilty party or a victim of micro-cheating? Is it a term even worth validating with concern?According to Dr Rowan Burckhardt, a psychologist and the founder of The Sydney Couples Counselling Centre, micro-cheating is a new word for age-old behaviour. In the past, it may have meant flirting with someone at a bar while your partner is out of town. But today, you could be sitting right next to your significant other who is none the wiser to your swiping, texting, DMing or Snapchatting with someone else.With technology now at the centre of our every activity, including matters of the heart, we’ve found ourselves on unnavigated sexual terrain. There are more options, but far fewer guidelines.”The way people are defining relationships now, they’ve become so fragmented and digitised that people are in this habit of looking for the next thing,” says Dan Auerbach, a psychotherapist and relationship counsellor. “People are often connecting with lots of people at the same time, trying to find their right match.”Add to this our age of self-care, YOLO and “You do you, babe”, and we’re increasingly feeling entitled to keep our options open. “Our primary duty is now to ourselves – even if it comes at the expense of those we love,” Perel writes.Despite all of this, younger generations are still mostly opting for serial monogamy, rather than non-monogamy. Added to the long list of things millennials and gen Z are killing (doorbells, the napkin industry, Woody Allen movies) is the affair.
According to data from the General Social Survey (GSS), conducted by NORC at the University Of Chicago, 20 per cent of people over 55 have had an affair, while just 14 per cent of people aged 18 to 55 have. (This could be because fewer young people are getting married, or simply because the older generations have had more time for extramarital exploration. Only time will tell if the fidelity trend will hold up.)And it seems that it’s women changing the relationship landscape. Extramarital affairs may be on the decline, but those who do cheat are increasingly women—at least among millennials. The GSS indicates that more women than men under the age of 30 are having affairs.The tech-inclined nature of micro-cheating doesn’t mean it’s confined to our screens. Take Anjelica (long-term relationship) and Jeremy (single). They met at work last year and instantly hit it off, but instead of adding each other on Facebook or following each other on Instagram as most are wont to do, Anjelica found herself trying to keep their friendship offline.”Even though my partner wasn’t jealous or possessive, I didn’t want to do anything that would give him or Jeremy the wrong idea,” she says, “so I made sure we were in-person-only friends.”The twist in the story of Anjelica and Jeremy is that the behaviour she initially thought was helping her avoid micro-cheating was actually micro-cheating.”In hindsight, I can see that even the fact I felt I had to be careful not to give either of them the impression that I was into Jeremy was a red flag – who goes to such lengths to actively avoid adding someone they consider a good friend on Facebook?” Anjelica says. “There was clearly something going on at a subconscious level that I was pushing aside, while at the same time giving it so much attention.”
Anjelica and Jeremy are a textbook case for what worries experts and couples about micro-cheating: that it’s a gateway to full-on macro-cheating. They also prove the very problem with micro-cheating is that it is subtle by nature.”What one person defines as micro-cheating and what the other person’s definition is can be really different,” says relationship counsellor and sex therapist Alinda Small. “The essence of micro-cheating is the secrecy,” adds Schilling. “That’s the key difference between a platonic friendship and betrayal.”Dr Martin Graff, senior lecturer in psychology at the University Of South Wales, conducted a study into the concept, with people judging scenarios as cheating or non-cheating behaviours. Graff found that his subjects highlighted two particular behaviours as suspect: a higher level of emotional disclosure between their partner and the other person, and the time of day or night the interactions occurred.”We found that communication later in the night was being judged as more unfaithful,” he says. “It’s more surreptitious
or covert, perhaps.”
It’s interesting to note that the concept of micro-cheating has emerged in an era of such apparent open-mindedness when it comes to sexuality and relationships. Are we really that cool with everything if a single emoji can bring it all crashing down?”One of the things I admire about younger generations is their fluidity with regard to roles, norms and expectations,” says Schilling. “The downside is the potential impact on the integrity of their relationships. They’re more likely to tolerate ambiguity in their relationships, as they do in other areas of their lives, but this doesn’t mean it’s in their best interest.””Being more open-minded is more socially acceptable and almost the thing to do,” says Rachel Voysey, The Relationship Room’s principal psychologist.”I think it’s great in theory, but a lot of couples who do that end up in tears on my couch. Yes, I think people are more accepting and they’re more fluid with their sexuality, but people still have that system of attachment. It’s difficult not to have issues around jealousy and feelings of abandonment—even just from an evolutionary, primal place. When it comes to being attached to someone, it’s hard to share that person with someone else.”Auerbach agrees: “Playing it cool is just that: playing.”Getting upset that your partner commented on someone’s Insta post with the fire emoji may sound silly, but the emotional impact can be very real. However, the rise of micro-cheating doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed, reassures Burckhardt.”We probably all—consciously or unconsciously, even when we’re in a happy relationship—smile a bit more and talk a bit longer to someone we find attractive, and we probably all dress a bit nicer depending on the occasion,” he says. “The tendency to flirt is a very natural human behaviour and cheating is a very strong word.”