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Is your partner micro-cheating? Let’s face it, whose isn’t?

So your partner shows a fleeting interest in other men or women? Congratulations… you’ve probably picked well.

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‘Micro-cheating is an unhelpful idea.’ Illustration: Michele Marconi/Guardian

Are you guilty of “micro-cheating”? I’d forgive you for having no clue, because I’ve now read about two dozen articles on this latest pop-psychology buzzphrase, which went viral last month, and I’m more confused than when I started. It refers, as far as I can tell, to seemingly innocuous behaviours that actually count as infidelity. But the examples given by dating experts range from wishing someone happy birthday on Facebook, which plainly isn’t a problem, to taking off your wedding ring before chatting someone up in a bar, which plainly is. (Does your partner talk about their ex too much? That’s micro-cheating. But what’s “too much”? No one will say.) Confusing matters further, micro-cheating apparently also includes things that are obviously signs that your partner is having an affair of the conventional variety. If he spends ages staring goggle-eyed at pictures of another woman on his phone, while you look grumpy on the other side of the bed, there are only two possibilities: either you’re posing for stock photos for magazine articles on relationship problems, or you’ve got a relationship problem.

Micro-cheating is an unhelpful idea, as the psychologist Justin Lehmiller noted on The Cut website, because it implies that feeling the tiniest attraction to anyone else is a red flag – a notion so at odds with normal human functioning that it sets a standard no relationship could ever meet. Beyond that, like the idea of the “emotional affair” before it, it seems destined to worry or reassure precisely the wrong people. If you’re needy and insecure, you’ll suspect your partner is micro-cheating when they aren’t – possibly even driving them away, creating the very breach you feared. Conversely, if you’re trying to avoid confronting the truth that your relationship is in trouble, you’ll take false comfort if your partner’s actions happen not to tick any boxes on the micro-cheating list.

The fundamental point is that what constitutes a “relationship problem”, surely, is defined entirely by the expectations of the people in it. So if you’re genuinely fine with your other half sleeping around, you don’t have a problem (although you should be alert to the risk that you’re deceiving yourself). Meanwhile, if you’re horrified by their wishing people happy birthday on Facebook, you do have a problem (though it’s probably one rooted in your anxiety). What some dating expert thinks is at best irrelevant and at worst hugely misleading.

One of the great insights of psychoanalysis is that relationships are never just a matter of whether two personalities match. We project our fantasies on to the other, then react with shock when it turns out they’re a real, flawed person – then, often as not, we leave to project the fantasy on to someone else. The problem with real-world relationships is that the truly good ones have bad parts and the truly bad ones have good parts. Deep down, you probably know which yours is. That’s not to say certain kinds of experts – therapists, mainly – can’t help you see what you already subconsciously know. But it’s a good bet that, without the aid of made-up concepts like “micro-cheating”, you do know.

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