What Is Micro-Cheating And How Do You Know If You’re Doing It?

When innocent actions become…not so innocent.

Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Editor and Staff Writer

Laura is an editor and staff writer at IFLScience. She obtained her Master's in Experimental Neuroscience from Imperial College London.

Editor and Staff Writer

couple hugging while female uses mobile phone behind male's back

He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but she just didn't seem as invested in the relationship these days. Image credit: Antonio Guillem/

When does seemingly harmless behavior cross the line and become cheating? People in relationships will have different ideas of where the boundary lies, but the more obvious types of cheating are usually pretty easy to spot – sleeping with someone else, unless previously agreed with your partner, is going to be difficult to explain away! But what about more subtle things that dance around that invisible line? Could you have been accidentally micro-cheating?

What is micro-cheating?

Speaking to HuffPost Australia in 2017, dating expert Melanie Schilling defined micro-cheating as “a series of seemingly small actions that indicate a person is emotionally or physically focused on someone outside their relationship.” 


It could be idly browsing dating apps; flirtatious messages sent to a co-worker; even leaving suggestive emojis under someone else’s Instagram posts. The big red flag comes when you feel the need to downplay these interactions to your partner.

“These are all signs that you are conducting a 'covert flirtation' and keeping it from your partner. If you feel you have something to hide, ask yourself why,” said Schilling.

The concept of micro-cheating is not new – it’s just that we now have the language to describe it more clearly. If our Paleolithic ancestors had been able to slide into another caveperson’s DMs, we’re sure that some of them would have (perhaps with a wooden club emoji in lieu of the classic eggplant?). But even when you know what it is, it can be tricky to spot.

How do you know if you’re micro-cheating?

If you’re concerned that literally any interaction with another member of the human race could count as micro-cheating under this definition, then you’re not alone. As you frantically replay in your mind all the messages you sent in the last week, the thing to focus on, as relationship expert Susan Winter told The Independent, is the intention behind them.


“Although micro-cheating may not be physical cheating, it’s certainly testing the borders of emotional cheating. Flirting is flirting. And flirting is the act of fanning a spark that can easily spread to a flame.”

Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. How would they feel if they knew you put a little bit more effort into your outfit when a certain someone is going to be at the office, or that when you’re phubbing them you’re really checking up on your ex’s profile? 

“If your gut tells you that your partner would feel uncomfortable by your actions or gestures – or you feel uncomfortable – it’s a pretty good indication that you’re micro-cheating,” said author and sex coach Gigi Engle, speaking to Healthline.

This can apply to non-monogamous relationships too – any type of emotional interaction that you’re keeping secret from other participants in the relationship could be considered micro-cheating.


Once you’re able to be honest with yourself about the fact that you’re micro-cheating, you can start to try to unpack the “why”. It could be a sign that you’re unhappy in your relationship, and that there are things you need to work on with your partner; or, if it’s unsalvageable, it may be time to end it. Either way, honesty is probably the best policy.

What if your partner is micro-cheating?

If your partner is behaving in any way that makes you uncomfortable, it’s best to confront this head-on, suggests Winter. Try to approach the conversation in a diplomatic way. Explain what you’ve seen – give examples if you can – and why it’s bothering you. Be specific about exactly what behaviors you think count as micro-cheating.

Winter had some suggestions for conversational gambits that could help. You could address the underlying intentions directly: “Is there something I need to know about your feelings for this person?” Or, try and evoke your partner’s empathy by asking, “How would you feel if I did something like this?” 

Micro-cheating is, by its very nature, subtle – they may honestly not have realized that their behavior was affecting you, so it’s worth keeping an open mind. But if your partner reacts by trying to invalidate your feelings, Engle warns that it could be time to rethink things.


“If they blow you off saying ‘it’s no big deal,’ or make you feel needy or unreasonable, that’s a form of gaslighting.”

How do you move on from micro-cheating?

If you mutually decide to work to repair any damage to a relationship that’s been caused by micro-cheating, it’s definitely worth a try, and could even make your bond with your partner stronger going forward. 

It can be easy to slip back into micro-cheating mode, so it pays to be aware when new friends and co-workers enter your or your partner’s orbit and keep an open conversation about where the boundaries should lie.

Even though it starts small, the betrayal that partners feel as a result of micro-cheating can be anything but. Honesty and communication are key if you don’t want an innocent act to become a slippery slope to behavior that’s much harder to ignore.


  • tag
  • psychology,

  • relationships,

  • couples,

  • cheating,

  • micro-cheating