A little flirting never hurt anyone, or so we’ve always been conditioned to believe. As long as you’re in a trusting relationship and only have love for bae, it’s perfectly harmless to stay in touch with your ex, right? It’s no big deal if you post a few heart emojis under a friend’s Instagram post, right? And there’s certainly nothing wrong with sending friendly texts every few months to your acquaintances, correct? Well, according to Australian psychologist Melanie Schilling, these relatively “innocent” actions may suggest that you’re a cheater—a micro-cheater, to be exact.
In recent months, the term “micro-cheating” has been floating around online and on social media, thanks to an interview Schilling did with HuffPost Australia. A frequent contributor on the reality TV series Married at First Sight, Schilling defined micro-cheating as “seemingly small actions that indicate a person is emotionally or physically focused on someone outside their relationship.” In short, it’s the modern-day version of having an emotional affair.
While most women would draw the line at their partner sliding into someone else’s DMs, sending friendly texts to people outside of the relationship or even liking photos is where the line gets a little blurry. To flesh out Schilling’s broad definition and make that line a little less blurred, we asked a few experts to weigh in on the cultural phenomenon of micro-cheating.
“Physical and sexual cheating are often regarded as ‘crossing the line,’ but micro-cheating is actually the line that matters most,” wrote Vince Brantley, co-owner of Maze of Love, a relationship coaching site, in an email to ESSENCE. “It [micro-cheating] facilitates the emotional connection that is genesis, justification and motivation for anything else that occurs from that point forward. It is the first step in violating the trust of another and the pathway to a place your relationship can never return from.”
Jonathan Bennett, certified counselor, relationship coach and mastermind behind the site “The Popular Man,” provided ESSENCE with three examples of micro-cheating. All, when coupled together, could potentially lead to outright cheating and, at the bare minimum, establishes a dangerous pattern of deception.
1. Putting someone on the backburner
If you’ve already got your rebound boo or back-up bae lined up, you’re guilty of micro-cheating.
“Keeping someone you find attractive on the backburner, even under the friendship label, can be a form of micro-cheating,” Bennett told ESSENCE. “If you feel attraction to another person and engage with him or her in a flirty way, you’re setting yourself up for possible trouble.”
2. Keeping tabs on your ex or crush on social media
Bennett suggested that it’s perfectly fine to have a casual interest in another person, but obsessively checking their page and commenting on their posts could send the wrong message.
Charlotte Rivers, relationship expert and writer for Best Cell Phone Spy Apps, also added that it’s a lot easier to engage in micro-cheating on social media, particularly when it comes to liking and commenting on someone else’s photos that aren’t your partner’s.
“The common flirty emojis to avoid [when texting or posting on social] include the peach, eggplant, heart and kissy face,” Rivers explained.
And Rivers is not alone in her assessment of emojis as thirst traps. President of Luma Search and professional matchmaker April Davis told ESSENCE the harm lies in the thought process behind utilizing emojis to convey your feelings. For Davis, the frequent use of emojis may suggest that you’re comfortable “looking, talking, texting and giving attention to someone else” outside of your partner.
3. Dragging bae to your acquaintances or exes
“If you have a friend you know has romantic feelings for you and you bad-mouth your partner to that person in private, it crosses a line,” Bennett said. “Vent to a therapist, friend or family member—not someone who likes you.”
Rivers echoed Bennett’s sentiment, adding that it’s not one particular act of micro-cheating that subsequently causes a relationship’s downfall.
“Multiple acts of micro-cheating over time could lead to something bigger, like feelings for another or physical cheating,” Rivers detailed. “Constantly micro-cheating may even reveal that you aren’t into being with your partner anymore.”
Here, at ESSENCE, we think it’s important to note that every relationship is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all definition to describe every occurence. The key is to always be up-front and honest with your partner and never engage in behavior that you wouldn’t do in front of them. However, if you find yourself wanting to talk and flirt with everyone else except your partner, you’ve got a lot more problems to address than just micro-cheating.