Full disclosure: I cheated my way through school. From elementary to 10th grade, I prided myself on being sneaky and getting away with it. This included plans as simple as swiping answers from the hyper-smart nerd in class, hiding notes on the floor of the chemistry lab, and the more complicated and intimate classic, scribbling Spanish conjugations on strategic parts of my legs. I knew it was wrong, per se, but I rationalized that it takes dedication and cunning to cheat successfully—I was proving my intelligence in another way.
Maybe because I felt zero guilt, I assumed this would culminate into a lifetime of cheating on boyfriends, maybe even a husband or two, but happily that’s not how it works. I have, however, conditioned myself to not be shocked if whomever I’m with cheats on me. This isn’t to say everyone does or will, although some will argue that’s the truth. (Cheaters! Cheaters will say everyone cheats!) But infidelity is intrinsically connected to human nature. We’re greedy, and we want all we can get.
Cheating in “real life” is not as black and white as it was on tests back in seventh grade. It’s a world dominated by subjective gray area rather than by defined shades. An infinite spectrum of distinct situations exists. Are you married, or have you been dating two weeks? Did he bang your BFF, and did she lie to your face with no signs of cracking? Are you swingers?!
There are also levels of cheating. Enter a new phrase in our ever-growing lexicon: micro-cheating. Not to be confused with microblading, which is an increasingly popular form of permanent makeup that results in simulated eyebrow hair. Micro-cheating is “when someone cheats on a partner, but just a little bit. Like copping a feel or kissing,” according to Urban Dictionary. From a psychologist’s perspective, however, there’s naturally a little more to it.
“Micro-cheating refers to a small series of actions that don’t quite meet the criteria for cheating,” says Dr. Barbara Greenberg. It can look a lot like friendship. “The difference between friendship and micro-cheating is friendships are not usually kept secret, but when you’re talking to somebody and keeping it secret, that starts to meet the definition of micro-cheating.”
Similarly, another psychologist, Dr. Melanie Schilling weighed in: “You might be engaging in micro-cheating if you secretly connect with another person on social media, if you share private jokes, if you downplay the seriousness of your relationship to your partner or if you enter their name under a code in your phone.”
As it goes for regular old-fashioned mega-cheating, there are a myriad of reasons people micro-cheat: the need for an alternative outlet, as a plea for attentiveness, a means of warding off boredom, to name a few.
“There’s two different ways to look at it. On the one hand, a person might be engaging in what I like to call ‘safe excitement.’ Sometimes the primary relationship gets a little routine, or they may simply be testing the waters to see if other people still find them attractive,” Greenberg explains.
So, is it harmless or harmful? The answer is still unclear, not to mention subjective, but think of micro-cheating as the gateway drug to the real thing. Here are the dos and don’ts of micro-cheating, by specific situation:
1. The Friend Who Could Maybe Have Benefits
Being in a relationship shouldn’t mean you have to forgo your friendships with the opposite sex. Although, speaking personally, that’s exactly what I’ve ended up doing every time I’ve entered a “serious relationship.” It’s proven less complicated that way. But relationships aren’t about ownership (people tend to get the two confused), and you should be able to text and talk to whomever you want. The question is: What are your true feelings for the potentially so-called friend, and what are your real motives for talking to them?
Do: Keep things as open and candid as you can. It’s not cheating if you’re not actually doing something wrong. If you feel like you need to turn your phone face down when you’re sitting with your boyfriend or girlfriend over dinner, then you’re hiding something.
Don’t: Lie to yourself. If a possibly uncomfortable amount of compliments, selfies, cute emojis (peace signs are okay; red hearts, heart-eyes, anything with hearts gets weird) and actual phone calls are getting thrown around, then you might be in denial about where your feelings truly lie.
2. The Self-Contained Slip-Up
This category encompasses all minor indiscretions, from the random drunken make-out to strip club hijinks gone too far to a one-night stand that reflects poor judgment—and likely poor taste. Katie’s crotch-motorboating incident, revealed on an early season of Vanderpump Rules, comes to mind. Micro-cheating or mini-transgression, whatever it is, it’s not complex.
Do: Ask yourself the following, and be realistic: Is it indicative of an ongoing pattern? Substance-related? A passive-aggressive cry for attention? Or is it truly a self-contained occurrence with little-to-no-bearing on the relationship? Maybe you just got wasted, and it’s as simple and dumb as that. Or perhaps there are deeper issues at play. There are probably deeper issues at play.
Don’t: Let it enter actual fling territory, even short term. Things get hairy. Or use the “I’m a sex addict” excuse. It’s lame, and no one is buying it.
3. The Virtual Exploit
In our Internet-saturated age of instant communication and gratification, artificial intimacy can be just as formidable a force as the in-person stuff. Web-camming, porn, sexting, Tinder, Grindr, Facebook Messenger: It’s prevalent. While I would never consider someone looking at porn as cheating, some do, and that’s their prerogative. But there’s a difference between an online porn addiction (a separate issue entirely) and using these forms of communication as a portal to real-life cheating.
Do: You and your significant other have to set some parameters when it comes to personal technology. You don’t want anyone checking your phone like some narc mom, so as it goes in all these cases, trust comes into play. Are you going to lay off the screen and get back to reality? Actions speak louder than typed words.
Don’t: Let it get out of control. There’s a difference between having a crush on a porn star and an online relationship. Anything ongoing means it’s clear you’re dissatisfied with at least some aspects of your current relationship.
4. The Emotional Betrayal
Shit’s getting real. Many, males and females alike, will maintain it is the most hurtful and damaging form of cheating. Whether or not you’re actually falling in love with someone else, you’re likely lying to someone else, so the burn degree can be high.
Do: The sum of the relationship is greater than its parts, so what do you really want? Moreover, who do you want? If you’re engaging with someone else on an emotional level that has an element of romance or flirtation, you need to figure out if it’s because you’re miserable in your relationship or madly in love with someone else. If it’s either, it’s time to stop making excuses and yank the bloodied Band-Aid off.
Don’t: Forget monogamy, an arguably unnatural societal mode, is often too much to expect from many people, so a lack thereof doesn’t necessarily mean you are unloved, undesired or even rejected. Or forget to take time to consider what you want out of a relationship and life in general.