Is it Cheating or Micro-Cheating? Here's the Difference.

Posted by Dr. Tammy Nelson, PHD, CST, CSCT, LPC, LADC on July 24, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Dr. Tammy Nelson, PHD, CST, CSCT, LPC, LADC
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3 minute read

Micro cheating

Have you heard about micro-cheating? Here's how it's different than physical or emotional cheating.

Monogamy falls on a continuum. It goes from totally closed—meaning no sexual, sensual, or emotional connection with anyone outside of a marriage or committed partnership—to totally open, with both partners agreeing to explore sexual, sensual fully, and emotional connections outside of their relationship. But there are ways to cheat that fall somewhere in the cracks of these definitions. These avoidant techniques are outside of your explicit monogamy agreement and are called micro-cheating.

Micro-cheating happens when you consciously create small opportunities for physical or emotional or affectionate behaviors that fall outside the bonded relationship.  

Micro-cheating can happen without sex.

Micro-cheating can happen when both partners are present.

Micro-cheating can even happen with total openness, where both partners are aware of the behavior or the micro-cheating behavior with others.

What are some signs that you are micro-cheating?

  • Flirting with friends and strangers online. 

  • Sending photos or explicit texts.

  • Asking people for their phone numbers and contact information. 

  • Lying about your relationship status.

  • Touching someone sensually or seductively. 

  • Dancing in a way that implies you are sexually interested

  • Promising a future date with someone. 

  • Crossing any other physical, emotional, or sexual line you know would bother your partner if they found out.

When do you cross the line from flirting to micro-cheating, or is it the same?

Is it when you realize what you're doing or saying would be hurtful to your partner? Or when it interferes with your own relationship (i.e., you start to delete text messages just in case your partner would find them)?

If your partner were watching you over your shoulder and would feel uncomfortable, it's probably micro-cheating.

What should you do if you think your partner is micro-cheating on you? How would you bring it up in a conversation?

Without an agreement between you and your partner, you may feel these behaviors aren't worth discussing. They may ride the edge of your monogamy agreement and give you just enough thrill to create excitement while at the same time justifying your behavior as non-threatening to the relationship.

Are there any instances in which micro-cheating might help your relationship?

Can friendly flirting add fire to your relationship? Could it make you feel more confident when used wisely?

Anything that lends itself to a more open, more connected conversation about your relationship can bring you closer together. Deciding that certain things don't need to be discussed in detail (for instance, private thoughts and feelings about someone else) establishes a privacy rule. There is a difference between secrecy and privacy, and as a couple, you need to decide what works for you.  

Call this your "privacy versus secrecy rule," and come back to it whenever you feel that something needs to be discussed. 

Examples include:

  • "Should we tell each other when we masturbate or is it private?"

  • "Do we share our thoughts and fantasies, or keep them to ourselves?"

  • "Can we look at pornography alone?"

  • "Can we hug and kiss another person?"

  • "Can we dance with other people when we are apart?"   

Your partner may not care at all if you flirt with other people. Your monogamy agreement is up to the two of you.

Successful relationships are the ones in which the partners have a foundation of commitment to each other. They can negotiate their boundaries and stop any outside connection if it threatens their primary commitment.   

There is a "scale" of micro-cheating, comparing less catastrophic behaviors to others in terms of what is more harmful to your relationship. 

Some behaviors you might see as harmless, while others can be potentially relationship ending. These behaviors can include:

  • Sitting on someone else's lap.

  • Holding someone else's hand.

  • Commenting on someone's Instagram photos.  

  • IMing or texting during working hours.

  • Texting good morning or good night to someone.  

  • Changing your schedule to see a 'friend.'

All of these micro-cheating instances can be harmless and may even help a person remain differentiated and healthy. Or they could mean that you or your partner are on the road to an affair, and you both may want to reevaluate your commitment to monogamy.    

If you're struggling with micro-cheating in your relationship, we're here to help.  Check out our Imago Relationship workshops and therapy.  We have online therapy and workshops too!

Seeing a couple's therapist can help you communicate about your relationship and create a new, more explicit, and solid connection. Find a therapist familiar with micro-cheating and help you both confront these issues and change your patterns now before anything escalates into more damaging behaviors.

Discover more about Imago with our Imago Professional MembershipImago Professional Facilitators, Imago Professional Training and Imago Educational Webinars


Connect. Transform. Thrive.

Dr. Tammy Nelson, PhD - Imago Relationships North AmericaThis blog post was written by Dr. Tammy Nelson, PHD, CST, CSCT, LPC, LADC

Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., is a sex and relationship expert, an international speaker, an author, and a licensed psychotherapist with almost thirty years of experience working with individuals and couples.

She is a TEDx speaker and host of the podcast The Trouble with Sex and the author of six books, including Open Monogamy; A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement, Integrative Sex & Couples Therapy, When You’re The One Who Cheats, Ten Things You Need to Know, The New Monogamy; Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity and Getting the Sex You Want; Shed Your Inhibitions and Reach New Heights of Passion Together as well as What’s Eating You: A Workbook for Teens with Anorexia, Bulimia, and other Eating Disorders.

Tammy is the Executive Director of the Integrative Sex Therapy Institute and a Board Certified Sexologist, an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, a Licensed Professional Counselor, a Certified Imago Relationship therapist, and a Certified Sex and Couples Therapist.

She has been a featured expert in hundreds of articles, including the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and a source for Time Magazine. She can be found on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook and at


Topics: Marriage Issues, Emotional Safety, Couples Therapy, Recovering from an Affair, Cheating, Getting the Love you Want, Long Term Relationships, Micro Cheating, Flirting, Monogamy Agreement, Sexting, Cheating Spouse, Couples Workshop, Cheating Wife, Cheating Husband, Cheating Lies, Signs of Cheating, Infidelity

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