Are you a Micro cheater?
Thanks to social media, it's all too easy to keep flirtations a secret. But when does it cross the line from harmless fun to relationship-threatening? Here, Orla Neligan examines how you could be betraying your partner one like, follow, private message or emotionally-charged emoji at a time
It's 1989 and you're standing at the water cooler in your shoulder-pads and parachute pants, scrunchie in your hair, hoping that if you linger long enough you'll bump into Gary from marketing or, at least, exchange a stolen glance. It's risky, someone might see you; the rumours might start.
Put simply, it was how we used to flirt. In the modern, digital age, it takes a lot less to ruin a relationship. Nowadays, it's social media's modern-day 'like' or emotionally-charged emoji (without parachute pants and, more worryingly, any physical interaction) that can unravel a relationship. Welcome to the world of 'micro-cheating' - subtle betrayals in the guise of online (mostly covert) interactions.
According to Dr Martin Graff, a reader of psychology at the University of South Wales who coined the term, 'micro-cheating' is a category of infidelity that spans online flirtations. Where once infidelity equalled clandestine hotel rooms and catching your significant other in bed with someone else, now people need only check their online status to indicate if their partner's attention is elsewhere.
Betrayal could be a flirty emoji, a private message to a former lover, one too many 'likes' on another person's Instagram handle or following your ex - a series of what could be considered fairly innocent actions that indicate if a person's attention is focused outside their own relationship.
Infidelity and relationships have been inexorably linked for time immemorial. But the internet has brought a new set of relationship challenges masked as subtle, seemingly innocuous, behaviour.
"The question you need to ask yourself is whether you are being secretive about your behaviour," says Teresa Bergin, relationship and sexual therapist with Mind and Body Works in Dublin, which echoes what author David Schnarch says in his book Intimacy and Desire - that we must use our ability to deceive to cheat.
Yes, it's human to need validation but also important to be honest with yourself: staying up late to text someone you met at the work Christmas party is not the same as playful banter with the mechanic. And let's face it, we all know the difference.
In the emotional realm, our behaviour is far easier to rationalise. 'He's just a friend', or, 'she's helping me with work' are a form of 'gaslighting' - dismissive defences to hide our transgressions.
In her 2015 TED Talk 'Rethinking Infidelity', cheating expert Esther Perel defines an affair: "It brings together the three key elements: a secretive relationship, which is the core structure of an affair; an emotional connection to one degree or another; and a sexual alchemy."
Affairs usually begin with flirtation and secrecy but does that mean every flirtatious text or 'cheeky' email must be scrutinised? Can't we exchange a joke with a work colleague without over-analysing it?
"Flirting is fun, most of us do it but it's dangerous when there's intent behind it," notes Bergin. "It doesn't always lead to infidelity, some people are flirtatious types who have no intention of acting on it." We're not wired as humans to find just one person, she explains. It is part of our nature to look at and engage with people we find attractive. That doesn't mean our relationship is falling apart or in difficulty.
"It's dangerous when that behaviour is ongoing and hidden, resulting in a disconnection in the primary relationship. When you're emotionally invested in another relationship, it could be a sign that you need to turn your attention to your own relationship and try introducing a bit of novelty."
As humans, we like novelty. We are constantly seeking new things: new people to engage us, new products to refresh us, new activities to invigorate us. Step forward the internet, the very embodiment of all that is novel and new, delivering it straight to a small screen and into our lives with a quick swipe and a click.
As someone who owes her success to Instagram, social media expert and creative coach Sara Tasker (me_and_orla), also understands its fickle nature.
"Social media can be a wonderful tool for connection and relationships, bringing like-minded individuals together, removing social isolation, but it's also a fickle beast. We're all able to represent our best selves online but real life relationships take work and struggle."
Because both Sara and her husband use their social media accounts for work, they have open access to each other's accounts. "That doesn't mean we go digging around but there's security in knowing we have nothing to hide," she says. Sara even admits to 'flirting' with her celebrity crush on Twitter with her husband standing over her shoulder, rolling his eyes. "The internet isn't the easiest place to accidentally fall in love but it lends itself perfectly to those seeking out extra marital attention."
When Jane* split with her long-term partner, she started using social media to connect with other men. "I was new to it and so it was a real thrill for me that you could flirt from the comfort of your own home. But once I got back with my partner, I became very paranoid. I discovered he had read all of my messages to another guy and, even though we weren't together at the time, it created a distrust that eventually killed the relationship."
Jane admits to being relieved that her new partner doesn't use social media. "If he was on his phone all the time, I would be wondering what he's up to. I have my notifications turned on so all my messages pop up on my lock screen. I feel like if I turn this option off, I'd be hiding something from him."
Dan* suspected his wife of having an affair with a male work colleague when she started mentioning his name in conversations more frequently. This led to him snooping through her phone. He said: "I would check her phone when she was in the bathroom or downstairs. I found text messages between them that weren't exactly sexually loaded, but very friendly."
Dan admits to becoming 'obsessed' with the activity and extremely anxious. When he eventually confronted her, she laughed and explained that her work colleague was gay. In this case, her failure to disclose the text messages could be termed as 'micro-cheating', but Dan's anxiety could have been avoided if he had confronted her early on.
However, Bergin warns against "tracking" your partner's activity as "dangerous territory" that is likely to incite distress, anxiety and distrust. Instead, she recommends spending that energy on communicating how you feel to your partner.
"It's about having that honest conversation about what 'cheating' means to you both, what are your boundaries and what do you both consider a breach of trust and loyalty?" she asks.
Several years ago, I attended a wedding of a friend of mine in Chicago. I had been dating my husband-to-be for several months. For various reasons, he couldn't travel with me and I chose to share my hotel room (and bill) with a good male friend. I did not give it much thought; my friend was just that, purely platonic, but my husband thought otherwise.
We all have a line for ourselves, and a line for our partners and they usually don't meet. One person's perception of a situation might not be shared with their other half and so it comes down to respect and honesty. If your partner is uncomfortable with certain behaviours, shouldn't that be respected?
If you suspect something is going on, Bergin suggests stepping back and reflecting. Ask yourself if your anxiety is leading to irrational thinking. Find out what you are comfortable and not comfortable with and communicate that with your partner.
"For me it comes down to intent," says Sara Tasker. "A conversation with an ex isn't cheating, but lying to conceal that conversation is a betrayal of trust. Falsely representing yourself as single or changing a potential love interest's name in your phone hints at intent to cheat or signalling that you are 'available'."
Of all of the potential ways to 'micro-cheat' Tasker confirms that editing partners out of online narratives is a big warning sign. Whether emotional or physical, micro-cheating is usually a sign that something is not right in your life or relationship and requires you to be honest with yourself about your intentions.
To quote Esther Perel: "When we seek the gaze of another, it isn't always our partner we are turning away from, but the person we ourselves have become."
*Names have been changed
Is your partner up to no good?
These are some of the signs to look out for:
1. They become very protective about their phone, taking it with them to the bathroom.
2. Their social media is full of attractive members of the opposite sex and they seem to be enjoying the attention.
3. They're 'following' and 'liking' their ex's posts to an excessive degree to include wink, kiss, or worse, the aubergine emoji. Gasp.
4. They mention the name of a particular woman or man more frequently and smile and laugh a lot at their phone.
5. You discover stories about adventures and outings you've been involved in on social media without your name being mentioned once.
6. They post sexy photos of themselves… in swimwear.
7. You find photos of them on dating sites. Busted.