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Is Online Infidelity Just Micro-Cheating? Research Might Have The Answer To This

online infidelity micro cheating

Online infidelity is fast becoming one of the major reasons behind the breakdown of romantic relationships. But the question is, is online infidelity just micro-cheating, or is it much more serious than that?

How do we feel about someone who leaves their wedding ring at home when they go out? What do we think when our partner pays some extra attention to someone else?

You probably could not say that these behaviors in themselves are cheating, but we certainly would be less than pleased by them. Such behaviors have lately been termed “micro-cheating,” possibly because they suggest that a person might have the intention to cheat, given the chance. 

The age of online communication and social media allows people the opportunity to interact far more easily.

Related: Surviving Online Infidelity: Are Cyber Affairs Any Less Harmful?

Behaviors that might fall within the definition of micro-cheating include:

  • Obsessively checking someone else’s (not your partner’s) social media posts.
  • Disclosing information to or confiding in someone other than your partner when you’ve had a bad day.
  • Saving someone’s name as something different in your contacts to avoid detection by a partner.
  • Using romantically charged emojis in a communication with someone outside your relationship.

Yet when we think about it, whether these actions are just playful flirtation or not suggest that a person is romantically interested in someone outside of their relationship is a complex issue, and may depend on a variety of factors.

Our research in this area attempted to clarify to some extent a definition of micro-cheating, which we referred to as online infidelity. In one study, our participants were given scenarios describing an online interaction between two people who were not in a relationship. Participants were asked to judge them on the basis of whether they considered them to be cheating behaviors.

Two salient factors which we manipulated were the time of day of the interaction, and the degree of disclosure of information between the parties (low disclosure being factual, and high disclosure being more emotionally charged).

Not surprisingly, interactions late at night were judged as more unfaithful than those taking place in the day. We speculated that this may be due to the secretive nature of nighttime interactions. Similarly, interactions describing greater disclosure levels between people were judged higher in terms of unfaithful behavior (Graff, under review).

Are There Gender Differences In Perceptions?

We also asked how jealous, angry, hurt, or disgusted our respondents would be as a result of a partner interacting online with a person outside of the relationship. The consistent finding was that females were more emotionally affected by these behaviors than males, suggesting that online infidelity — or what has been termed micro-cheating — is experienced more strongly by females.

Our research does suggest that it is not the behavior as such which is important, but rather the context and intention with which it takes place.

Related: 5 Things You Should Know And Do For Surviving Internet Infidelity

Social Media Privacy

Using a more specific scenario, Nicole Muscanell and colleagues asked their participants to consider a scenario that described a relationship that they had or would like to have, in which they found a photograph of their partner with a member of the opposite sex on Facebook (Muscanell, Guadagno, Rice and Murphy, 2013). Participants were then asked to consider the scenario further — situations in which they discovered that their partner’s Facebook photos were set either to private and viewable by just friends or viewable to all users.

Observed jealousy ratings were highest in the scenario in which the photos were set to private, which would seem to convey a need for secrecy. Further, this study found that, overall, females gave higher jealousy ratings compared to males.

Is Checking On Your Partner OK?

One possible reason why micro-cheating and what we do during online communication gives rise to jealousy is quite obviously that we see these behaviors as the possible start of something more than just harmless flirtation. Given this reasoning, should we keep a check on our partners, and does obsessive checking improve things?

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Martin Graff Ph.D.

Dr. Martin Graff is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of South Wales. He has also been a visiting scholar at the State University of New York, Cortland, USA, and Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. His main research interests are in the psychology of romantic relationships, online dating, and social media, and he has delivered lectures on Online Dating and Romantic Attraction, in the UK, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Dr. Graff has currently published over fifty scientific articles, selected publications here.View Author posts