Micro-Cheating: Is This the New Puritanism?

Don't let someone else define your relationship boundaries

When I first set up a profile on Tinder, I was still married. We were in the process of breaking up, but when my husband found the app open on my iPad, I went crimson with shame. Never in married life had I cheated, sent suggestive texts to other men or stalked high school boyfriends on Facebook. Hell, we didn’t even have cell phones or Facebook for most of my married life.

As I think back on that moment now, I realize that ours, like most traditional monogamous relationships, was implicitly ruled by assumptions of what it meant to be in a relationship. That sex and eroticism was something that didn’t drift outside the confines of our couple bubble. Not once did we ever discuss my jealousies when he went kayaking with other women, or his concerns (if he had any) with the young doctors I worked with in hospital. What I felt, when he discovered my Tinder account, was that I had broken some sort of unspoken promise. But might we have become closer, and had a more sensual love life, if we’d been able to talk about what turned us on, no matter what or with whom those fantasies involved?

Now there’s a new relationship buzzword that has me both concerned and excited; ‘Micro-Cheating’. I’m excited because anytime we have an opportunity to talk about what scares us in a relationship is a time for potential growth even in the face of fear and misunderstanding. What concerns me is there’s no clear definition of micro-cheating. Some are trying to define it in a way that shames us into thinking curiosity is a form of infidelity. According to an article in The Guardian, micro-cheating is doing things like following an ex on social media, ‘deep liking’ a post (which means you looked at a person’s photo history and ‘liked’ something more than a week old. Apparently, that’s akin to stalking!). Using an emoji in a text that even so much as winks. Anything with hearts is strictly reserved for your main squeeze.

Lord, help us. Is this what happens when Millennials start making the rules? Is this the New Puritanism borne of #MeToo gone awry? One of the earliest blog posts about micro-cheating came out of the Huffpost in Australia where dating expert Melanie Schilling says, “Micro-cheating is a series of seemingly small actions that indicate a person is emotionally or physically focused on someone outside their relationship.”

This definition I can work with; to a point. If a person we are emotionally and/or sexually attracted to takes up more time and energy than what we give to the relationship we have with our partner, that can become an issue. But let’s agree, at some point over the years of long-term love, we will very likely become attracted to someone else. We might become besotted, obsessed or flirty. Our mouths may go dry at the sight of a forbidden crush. Some would say this is micro-cheating and you should feel bad. I call bullshit. This is normal. What we do with it is what counts.

I have a friend who’s been married and monogamous for nearly 30 years. It’s not that she’s never had crushes on other men. In fact, she’s had attractions so intense that her heart rate would skyrocket whenever she saw her crush. She told her husband how she was feeling, and they processed it together. People open up to you when they trust you not to react poorly. If you can’t be honest with your partner about how you feel, how supportive is this relationship? When her husband listened to her without getting angry or demanding, it allowed them to trust each other more deeply and, eventually, her feelings for the other guy waned (as they usually do, once you realize that fantasy feels good because it is just fantasy).

What narrow and capricious definitions of micro-cheating do, according to sex researcher Justin Lehmiller, is reveal “an implied demand that our partners never pay attention to anyone but us. Ever. That kind of possessiveness represents an unhealthy and unrealistic approach to love.” I agree.

What I like about Mr Lehmiller’s criticism of micro-cheating is that he’s pointing out that we should not let fear of how our partners respond to normal, human attractions derail the commitment we have to them. Nor should we feel entitled to judge a partner’s attraction to someone else. If you’re hiding things from a partner because you’re ashamed by your feelings, that can create other barriers to communication and erode your overall level of trustworthiness. I challenge anyone to come up with an example of when expressions of possessiveness and demands for certain behavior ever enhanced the quality of their relationship. Jealousy may be difficult to overcome, but we sure as hell should learn how to communicate our fears without flipping our lids.

So, consider this ‘Micro-Cheating’ with a grain of salt, disdain, even. Set your own rules as a couple for what does and doesn’t constitute a threat to your relationship. And allow each other to be vulnerable by talking about crushes and fantasies. It could well spice up your reality.

Love, Karin

Have a question or comment? Write to me: relationships@ermagazine.org

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