Micro-cheating. It’s a word I’ve heard a lot, over the past few days. Usually, when the internet throws a new word at me – like “arm vagina” or “dadmin” – I roll my eyes so hard that I catch a brief glimpse of the back of my brain. Micro-cheating, though, might be a little different. Micro-cheating might be a term we actually need, even if we don’t care to admit it.
What is micro-cheating, I hear you ask. Well, according to the often-cited article on Thought Catalog, 33 Ways Your Boyfriend Is Micro-Cheating (And Totally Getting Away With It), it’s a range of things. Micro-cheating includes, but is not limited to: your boyfriend texting another woman, your boyfriend liking her photos, your boyfriend buying you the same perfume so you will smell like the other woman (aside: what man has ever known the signature perfume of any woman, aside from maybe his own mother?).
For the most part, this list feels pretty juvenile and a fairly disturbing look into the mind of whoever wrote it. Each new item becomes more and more bizarre, both because of the girlfriend’s Secret Police-level monitoring of her boyfriend’s movements (who has the time?!) and the activity she deems to be “micro-cheating”. Over-mentioning another woman is micro-cheating, but never mentioning her at all is a sign he is compensating for his micro-cheating behaviour. Insinuating things are “rocky” with his existing girlfriend is micro-cheating. Having private jokes with another woman is micro-cheating. All in all, the list strikes me as a millennial version of Mike Pence’s insistence that he would never go for dinner with a member of the opposite sex out of respect for his wife. The logic of the list seems to be that any meaningful relationship with a member of the opposite sex, outside of someone related to you, is micro-cheating.
This, of course, is bullshit. But there’s an interesting theme here, which keeps popping up: almost all of the dialogue around micro-cheating – both in this list and elsewhere on the internet – revolves around technology. The liking of photos, the sending of text messages, the tagging, the DMing, the swiping, the following – all the tiny transactions of energy that we use to indicate how we feel about people that take on a new level of meaning when put in the context of a monogamous relationship. If your partner likes a person’s photo on Instagram, is that micro-cheating? Probably not, no. But what if they’re basically naked in the photos… is that micro-cheating? What if they like all of their photos? What if they screengrab them and put them in a special folder? What if you’re doing the exact same thing, but it’s someone you sort of know through work? Are you cheating?
No one has physically done anything. But are you sort of, kind of cheating?
If your partner likes a person’s photo on Instagram, is that micro-cheating? Probably not, no. But what if they’re basically naked in the photos… is that micro-cheating?
The language of infidelity has evolved a lot over the years. The word “affair” first appeared in 1300, from the French “afere”. It meant “what one had to do”. Which completely makes sense, if you consider that people usually married to consolidate wealth and had affairs to feel romantically satisfied. We later came up with “cheating”, which added a sort of nefarious element to the whole business – it wasn’t what you had to do, it’s what you chose to do and did even though you hurt other people in the process. “Emotional affair” was developed in the 1990s, coinciding perfectly with the When Harry Met Sally “Can men and women ever be friends?” argument that feels so dated now. So, it makes complete sense that, as we now have myriad ways to interact with one another, we would also have new, subtle and not-always-easy-to-quantify ways of cheating on one another.
“It’s never been easier to cheat and never been harder to keep it a secret,” says Esther Perel, couples therapist and author of the book The State Of Affairs. She couldn’t be more right. Now, every like, every message and every tag leaves a trail that your partner – in a world of shared iPads and synced devices – is increasingly likely to discover.
“Infidelity is the only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible: once for doing it, once for thinking about it,” quips Perel. This, it seems, is where micro-cheating begins – it’s the part of your brain that gets a kick of serotonin when the barista flirts with you, and the lowdown guilt when returning to the same cafe, hoping they will serve you again. You might not want to actually do anything, but the kick of validation is there and the slight remorse that follows it.
I don’t think anyone would get angry at their partner for occasionally engaging in some lingering eye contact on the train. It’s only when the digital paper trail is introduced that our reaction – that anxious knot in your stomach when you begin to suspect that your partner fancies someone else, however mildly – exceeds the actual danger level of the interaction. But, as with everything, there’s a scale: if one is liking a photo, and 10 is DMing other people, asking for nudes, then micro undoubtedly starts to become macro after around five.
However shady the world of micro-cheating is, one thing seems certain: we’re no longer living in a world where infidelity occurs only in the physical world. This is only the beginning – things are about to get a lot, lot more complicated.