Are you familiar with micro-cheating?


Kerri Sackville

Is your partner cheating on you? Are you sure? 

And what about you? Are you cheating on your partner? Chances are, you can say pretty definitively if you’re not. After all, you’d know if you’d exchanged bodily fluids with another person.

But think again, because there’s a new type of cheating, and you may not even know you’re doing it. According to relationship expert Melanie Schilling, “micro cheating” is a thing, and it is dangerous.  

Micro-cheating, Schilling says, is “a series of seemingly small actions that indicate a person is emotionally or physically focused on someone outside their relationship.”

 It could be a connection on social media they don’t disclose to their partner, a private joke with an attractive colleague… or the occasional flirty text to an old friend.

The key, Schilling says, is that secrecy is involved. And by allowing it, she claims, “you are effectively saying ‘It’s okay to flirt with him/her, I’m happy to take second place and I don’t really matter.”

Schilling is one of the resident experts on Married At First Sight (though if you’re a contestant on MAFS, micro-cheating is the least of your problems). And so, presumably, Schilling is pretty cluey about human relationships. But on micro-cheating, I beg to differ.

For a start, claiming that allowing a minor flirtation means the spouse is taking “second place” in the flirtee’s life is a little absurd. The husband of a friend of mine flirts with almost every female in his life, including me. They are little, sweet, joking moments of connection, which pass when he leaves the room. But my friend’s husband is a devoted husband and father, and my friend is the centre of his life. His flirtatious nature is part of who he is, and does not at all detract from their relationship. 

Of course, other examples of ‘micro-cheating’ may become more serious, and lead down a slippery slope to full on infidelity. Affairs rarely begin with people falling onto each other’s genitals; they begin with flirtation and secrecy.

But does that mean every episode of flirtation and secrecy needs to be stamped out? Does that mean that every cheeky text, every kiss emoji, every secret, must be scrutinised and eliminated in case it leads to something more sinister?

Look, infidelity is rife, and anyone can be cheated on. But flirtation does not inexorably lead to infidelity. Many people can have a flirt and a giggle with another human being without making the huge leap to removing their clothes and having sex. My ex used to flirt openly with his old girlfriend, and I found it highly amusing. (Had she actually propositioned him, he would have fled the room. Possibly country.)

And I will flirt with anyone, because it’s fun, and makes me feel good. Flirting boosts self-esteem, reminds us that we’re sexual beings, injects a little bit of excitement into life. It can give us energy we bring into our primary relationship. And it is quite different to having sex. If I’d had sex with every person I’d ever flirted with, I’d be rivalling Madonna in my number of partners. As it stands, I’m probably closer to Betty White.

What’s more, everyone has secrets. It’s part of the human condition. We all have things tucked away in the inner recesses of our minds. Why should a married person be required to disclose everything to their partner? Why can a married person not harbour their own private inner world? 

Perhaps most importantly, you can’t micro-manage a relationship – or, at least, you can’t micro-manage it to health. You can’t prevent your partner from playfully interacting with other people. Friendships are made of little expressions of love and affection, and some of these can veer into flirtation. To nit-pick at every interaction is deeply unhelpful, and does more to cultivate mistrust and resentment than any heart emoji sent in a text. 

Ultimately, we have little control over our partner’s behaviour. Hovering over our spouse, forbidding flirtation, exposing secrets, and labelling harmless behaviour as ‘micro-cheating’ won’t make it any less prevalent. And you cannot stop your partner from cheating if they so intend.

We never know how our relationships will pan out. Perhaps we should enjoy them for as long as they last, and not spend our lives worrying about keeping them safe. 



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