In a committed relationship, cheating comes in many forms. It can be as big as a long-term affair with one’s best friend. It can be as small as texting a co-worker. “Micro-cheating,” as it’s called, can include:
- Keeping an active dating profile
- Poring over an ex’s social media
- Dressing up for someone, not your partner
- Sending flirty texts that your partner doesn’t know about
- Keeping a secret Facebook account to exchange hot photos with an ex
- Flirting with a co-worker
- watching porn via Skype
It’s easy to see how the lines get blurred in a world where we display our every move on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. When we expose our private selves all the time we crave something more exciting. Secrecy delivers. Those who micro-cheat may tell themselves that no one is getting hurt. But the cost of this emotional buzz is high, taking away time, attention, and energy from the relationship. Love is based on openness, trust, and intimacy. So, no matter what kind of cheating goes on, the relationship will be affected because truth is affected. Even when no sex is involved, you’re still cheating your partner of the truth.
As therapist Esther Perel says, infidelity has three elements: secrecy, emotional involvement, and sexual alchemy. Of these three, secrecy is key. Perel writes that “The affair lives in the shadow of the marriage.” Secrecy alone should be a tip-off that something is wrong. When combined with the feelings and attraction, danger lurks.
Even when no one planned it that way, micro-cheating can be the first step to an emotional or sexual affair. Kissy faces and hearts, or enjoying the reaction to your sexy outfit, can give way to fantasies about someone else. It might not feel unhealthy. In fact, these fantasy relationships can actually feel closer to our true selves (or the selves we think we should be). New love is risky and exciting, pushing our limits and making us feel alive and desirable. These powerful feelings can push us toward private meetings and infidelity.
But with micro-cheating, the fantasy isn’t based on trust and closeness. It’s easy to sweet-talk and share secrets with someone we barely know. It’s tough to have a hard, private discussion with a spouse of 10 years about bedroom problems. But it’s in just such ways that real love is made.
Even in new relationships, people need to tell the truth about themselves and have hard talks. Most people get on each other’s nerves after two weeks of being alone together! When just dating, we didn’t notice our partner’s belches and farts and annoying habits. After a long time together, we do. It’s easy to see why the new, mysterious other person is fascinating. It’s also easy to present a good-looking front when all we have to do is flirt. Micro-cheating is low-cost because it exists in fantasy. But no real person can compete with a fantasy.
Things get even worse for the relationship when the cheater tries to justify the affair by blaming the partner. Self-pity plus secrets are relationship landmines.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with some fantasy and flirting. You don’t have to tell your partner every romantic idea that crosses your mind. That would put down fun and creativity. Those things make us feel good about ourselves, and we can take that back to our partners. Perel notes: “I often say to my patients that if they could bring into their relationships even a tenth of the boldness, the playfulness, and the verve that they bring to their affairs, their home life would feel quite different.”
This is where therapy can help. Life is full of temptations; it’s far better to talk over the issues tempting you to look outside the partnership than it is to fling yourself into a full-fledged affair, which causes so much hurt that coming back from it can be impossible. Therapy can lead you away from harmful secrets and toward a more joyous, real connection with your partner.