Cheating comes in many forms. It can be as big as a long-term affair with your partner’s best friend – or as small as texting back and forth with an attractive co-worker. This less obvious form is called “micro-cheating” and can include:
- Keeping an active dating profile
- Poring over an ex’s social media
- Dressing up for someone who’s 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
If you’re micro-cheating in any of these ways, you may have allowed yourself to think that it’s all really harmless. But 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 if you don’t mean for it to lead anywhere, 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.
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.” So, if a little extracurricular flirting and fantasying is okay, how much is too much? You’ll know you’re in trouble when you find yourself increasingly fantasizing about the other person and criticizing your partner, creating distance in your relationship.
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.
Dr. Susan J. O’Grady is a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area providing psychotherapy and consultation for adults, couples, and teenagers. She has advanced training in marriage counseling and sex therapy and is credentialed in mindfulness-based interventions focusing on anxiety, depression, sleep problems, and emotional balance. In addition to her clinical practice, Dr. O’Grady writes on topics related to the psychology of living well at www.drsusanogrady.com